“Adversity doesn’t build character. It reveals it.”
There was a moment as the Super Bowl 50 halftime show concluded and the players returned to the field when I felt peace fall over me. I realized in that moment there were 30 minutes remaining. Not just 30 minutes left in the game. Not just 30 minutes left in the season. But 30 minutes left on the roller-coaster ride of a lifetime. So, I took a deep breath and reminded myself to enjoy the journey. I was determined for that final 30 minutes to relish every snap, every pass, every hand-off, and even every sack and three and out because these were the last of them…at least I think they are. 😉 But, let’s back up because if we’re going to enjoy the journey, we have to know how we got to that moment of peace.
Rewind with me to six months ago and the start of the 2015 NFL season. It was to be Peyton’s 18th season in the league, and from the start, I didn’t feel comfortable. There was a new head coach with a new system that involved Peyton’s 39 year old body being more mobile than any other time in that 18 year career. I wanted nothing to do with a QB roll out involving anyone wearing a #18 Broncos jersey. Those days were over. Those days were for the 22 year old drafted in 1998. That player didn’t exist anymore, if it ever did, and for any coaching staff to expect him to was plain crazy talk. People told me they’d find a way. He’d get used to it. All I imagined was seeing a shell of the player I once knew hobbled and limping off the field from more hits than his body could handle. It wasn’t a lack of faith in Peyton. It was a lack of faith in the execution of the new system, and truthfully, the bulk of my concern lay with the rag-tag team at offensive line after an off-season of selling and trading off guards and tackles right and left. Those five men hadn’t worked together for any length of time, and I wasn’t completely sold on their ability to prevent that 39 year old body from breaking into a million pieces.
Despite my concerns, the NFL decided to go ahead with the season anyway, so the Broncos took the field. It was far from pretty what I saw from a once prolific offense that could strike fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators around the league. And then something strange started to happen. This other set of eleven men trudged out on the field, dug their cleats deep into the ground, and stared down every offense that stood on the other side of the line of scrimmage like they were the only people between them and an all you can eat steak dinner buffet. Sports analysts told me this group of men was called a defense. I was baffled. I had heard of such things, but seeing a defense on the same team as a Peyton Manning-led offense was like seeing Big Foot. After 22 years, I had convinced myself that we couldn’t have nice things like defenses, and yet, here they were in the eleven o’clock hour. Better late than never, gentlemen.
And so it was that the new offensive system would score just enough points to be on the right side of the scoreboard, while the defense would battle through every play, rack up quarterback sacks like the people on those hoarders shows, and get that last stop at the end of the game to seal a victory that would have me shaking my head wondering how in the world we had rolled into week nine of the season undefeated. That week and the next would serve as the turning point of the season as the offense could no longer hold up their end of the bargain, and the unimaginable happened. Peyton took a seat.
That day broke my heart. In some ways, I’ve blocked it out of my memory because that was the unwanted image I had in my head from the beginning of the season, and despite the efforts of all 53 men on the active roster, it was now coming to fruition. In the days and weeks to come, we would learn the new, more mobile system had caused a partial tear in Peyton’s plantar fascia; an injury I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy and one he had been dealing with since training camp. For the next six games, I watched backup quarterback, Brock Osweiler, start in a place Peyton had every season since 1994 except one. It was in that six games when my love for the game was tested; the love Peyton himself had taught me. I knew two things for sure: there was no way on God’s green earth we were winning the Super Bowl, and I would never get to see Peyton Manning play football, again.
Funny thing though, the football gods have a sense of humor and enjoy proving me wrong. The Broncos managed a 4-2 record in those six games and stay in playoff contention even if all phases of the game were playing with a bit of lackluster. One week, they would look unbeatable, and the very next week they’d look like they were just going through the motions. They were missing their fire, and in some cases, they seemed to forget that football games were a full 60 minutes. In others, they needed a few more than 60 minutes and showed me heart and determination. I wasn’t quite sure how the defense had maintained their league leading ranking, but they had, and they limped right into the final game of the season where Peyton took on a role he hadn’t had since he was a freshman in college: backup quarterback. I was convinced Coach Kubiak was simply letting Peyton dress for the game but had no intention of sending him into it. I still watched because even the mere sight of seeing Peyton in a football uniform makes me smile. Then it happened. Things weren’t going well from the start all the way into the middle of the third quarter, and in order to prevent losing not only the division but the #1 seed in the playoffs, Coach Kubiak was forced to pull out all the stops including inserting Peyton into the lineup. I think we know what happened next. Sports Illustrated said he “rode in on a bad foot and led the guys with the white horses on their helmets to a win”…and a 5th straight AFC West Division title, a 3rd #1 playoff seed in 4 years, and a wild card weekend BYE, so we waited.
I’m not gonna lie. When it comes to the playoffs, I’m always hopeful of the easiest route, but truth be told, the harder road pays off in the end. The opponents the Broncos faced in the playoffs seemed like destiny. During the six games Peyton missed, two of those opponents were the Steelers and the Patriots, so when it worked out that those were the two teams the Broncos would face in the playoffs, I thought, “well that makes sense.” It didn’t make things any easier. The Steelers match up was difficult to watch because it was tense the entire time with the Steelers being one really great play away from taking the game despite missing a few players due to injury. Winning that game, though, meant having to play the Patriots…again. I hate playing that team with the heat of a thousand suns, but it has more to do with the media narrative than it does with the actual game. And, so it was, that I had to sit through an entire week of every sports reporter, former player, and tom, dick, or harry explain why the Broncos didn’t have a prayer against the Patriots in the AFC Championship game and that this would likely be Peyton Manning’s final game of his career. By the end of the week, it sounded as if the team shouldn’t even bother dressing out for the game. I was livid. I don’t care who you are or how many sports journalism degrees you have or number of years playing professionally in your record, those are 53 men who are NFL professional football players who worked their tails off all season long, against all odds, to earn the #1 seed in the AFC, and they shouldn’t even bother stepping on the field?! How about we go ahead and play the game anyway?
That narrative had me worked up so much that I was sick as a dog before the game started, and I couldn’t bring myself to watch it live. I recorded it and watched it after I knew what the outcome was and after I had bawled my eyes out watching the trophy presentation. I counted at least eight heart attacks I would’ve had had I watched it live, so at least there was some validity to my decision not to watch. What I saw beyond that was a team just as livid as I was by the media’s rhetoric the previous week. I saw a defense that didn’t care a single second that the Patriots were undefeated in games when Tom Brady had his full slate of receivers and backs healthy and in the game. I saw an offense that found ways to score points little by little. I saw a team that said, ” don’t count us out just, yet. What you expect of us isn’t always the same as what we expect of ourselves.” And when those final seconds ticked off the clock, the Broncos had found one more stop, one more play, one more something to send them to Super Bowl 50.
As a side note, and something no one ever wants to hear because they like the “Peyton can’t beat the Patriots” storyline more so than the truth, Peyton Manning quarterbacked teams in the NFL actually have a 3-2 playoff record vs. the Patriots. There is a lot of historical talk out there about Peyton being horrible against the Patriots and even more to the point him being horrible against them in the playoffs. But consider this truthiness before you fall back on what people want you to think. The first time during Peyton’s career that they met in the playoffs was in the 2003 season AFC championship game, which the Patriots won by 10 points and went on to win the Super Bowl. They met the next year but in the divisional round with the Patriots winning and eventually winning the Super Bowl, again. However, that would be the last time the Patriots would beat a Peyton Manning-led team in the playoffs. In fact, the next two times the Patriots won the Super Bowl, they didn’t even have to play a Peyton Manning quarterbacked team; however, three of the 4 times Peyton has been to the Super Bowl, it required beating the Patriots in the AFC championship game. For all the stories about how Peyton is a great regular season quarterback and not great in the playoffs, while I concede his 14-13 playoff record isn’t great, his teams are actually better in the playoffs against his one, media created arch-nemesis than in the regular season. Ok…back to our regularly scheduled programming.
Two weeks. That’s what the NFL schedules between the conference championships and the Super Bowl to sit and stew and think about the final 60 minutes of play of the NFL season. For my psyche, it’s about 13 days too long. For the media, it was a field day of opportunities to do exactly what they’d done in the week leading up to the AFC Championship Game: trash the Broncos and heap praise upon the Panthers. By the middle of the second week, I was out of fingernails to bite, was nauseous all the time, and wanted to cry every five minutes. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought I was pregnant, but 22 years of loving the game because I was watching it through Peyton’s eyes had come to what I believe is its fruitful conclusion, and I was scared. Not of him getting hurt. Not of him losing the game. But of what that moment would feel like when I had to watch him walk off the field for quite possibly the last time. I didn’t want to know that feeling though I’ve always known eventually I’d have to, but just like the regular season, despite my concerns, the NFL decided to go ahead and play the Super Bowl anyway.
Though it didn’t calm my nerves or stop me from yelling at the TV, from the opening kick, it was clear to me at least that the Broncos were settled. There were no nerves to shake off, no surprises they weren’t ready for, no set back they couldn’t handle. This was a team that had spent those two weeks understanding their opponent, honing their already fully developed skills, and building confidence from the adversity they’d faced all season long. I saw a defense that was so stifling, that even I couldn’t catch my breath before the next play was run. I’m not old enough to have seen or remember the Steel Curtain or the Orange Crush or really even the 85 Bears, but of the great defenses in NFL history that I have seen and remember, this is by far the best one I know. They turned the tables. It was no longer the Panthers offense trying to read the Broncos defense. The Broncos were reading the Panthers like a book. And, while some might believe a defensive game is boring, look, again. The skill and determination involved in what the Broncos defense accomplished for those 60 minutes, or 120 minutes when you count the AFC championship, is something so outstanding and remarkable that it deserves admiration and appreciation.
By the time we got to halftime, I was stunned. Still nervous. Still scared. But blissfully stunned. And then the peace came. I looked across the room at my TV and realized this is where I was going to be, where I was going to be sitting, when the final seconds ticked off the clock and the roller-coaster ride came to a screeching halt. I took a deep breath, and I smiled. In the middle of this intense football game, I found the calm, and suddenly I thought, win or lose, I want to remember every single second of these last 30 minutes. Someday someone might ask me what it was like to see Peyton Manning pass the ball to Emmanuel Sanders or CJ Anderson work his horse right into the endzone one more time or a much maligned offensive line finally find their footing or the Broncos defense play lights out against the best offense in the league or a kicker and a punter and a kick returner prove that special teams players are people, too. And I wanted to be able to tell them exactly what it was like. To tell their stories. To share their memories. That’s when I saw it.
When I’m watching a game, I can’t always see the strategy in the midst of all the stress and worry, but when I finally allowed myself to breathe and take the game no matter what, I was able to see just exactly what was going on here. For the entirety of his career, Peyton has finished a drive and gone to the sidelines to review printouts of photos from each play they ran. He’s looking for what the defense is showing him, so he knows what to do the next time he sees that formation. He’s looking for what went wrong and what went right, so he can adjust. I kept saying throughout the game that he needed to see something…that surely he had seen something by now. Why so many three and outs?! And then I took that breath.
For all the negative connotation surrounding the title of “game manager,” there is something incredibly cunning about it. It means he can beat a team with his brain, and playing 18 years in the NFL provides a lot of data to sort through and use during games. Being a game manager also allowed him to play 18 years in the NFL. In those final 30 minutes I saw the entirety of Peyton’s career: the young gunslinger who could toss the ball 60 yards down field perfectly, the veteran who could beat a blitz with his eyes closed, and the journeyman who was the smartest person on the field. He had figured out the Panthers weren’t giving him much. There were a few holes here and there, but he would have to settle for field goals when he could get them and depend on the defense that had gotten them there.
The three and outs, which appeared as negative drives, were actually eating clock four plays at a time. It was, in my opinion, genius. He could’ve forced throws potentially causing more turnovers, but he knew that choice wouldn’t be the best way to help the team. It dawned on me in that moment, that those six games he didn’t play were the best thing that could’ve happened to him. It forced him to evaluate his role, not on the team, but at this point in his career. If a player wants to play for any length of time, he has to adjust as time goes by to the game and to his body. Playing the game at 29 is different than playing it at 39 because abilities have to transform to be successful at each stage. That time away gave him an opportunity to get his mind and body on the right track, to find the way he could contribute to the success of this team at this moment.
I could not have been prouder as I watched Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware pour the Gatorade down Coach Kubiak’s back and Peyton find his way over to the fourth coach he’d taken to a Super Bowl while the final seconds disappeared off the clock. It had taken all 53 of them, a defensive coordinator who was unemployed just last year, and a melding of the minds between a coach and a quarterback with two very different yet successful ways of doing things. This team had proven me wrong in the best possible way, and they are welcome to do so any time they want.
Nine years ago, another team proved me wrong, and the world champion smile appeared for the first time. That game required Peyton to be an offensive juggernaut in the pouring rain. Nine years later, in a very different way in a very different game, the world champion smile appeared, again. There is a bit of symmetry if it is the end of this wild ride to win a Super Bowl half way through a storied career and then to win one to close it all out.
Take those boots off the shelf
Wipe that dust off yourself
Even if you’ve been through hell
The stories have been out there for a couple years now…the process through which Peyton Manning returned to the playing field from the ugly to the triumphant. They’re all there. The most striking ones to me have always been that he couldn’t sit himself up in bed after the final surgery and that he watched himself in a mirror throw footballs to re-learn how to pass the ball. There are millions of stories about athletes rehabbing their way back to play the sport they love. In fact, there are plenty on the Denver Broncos roster alone. Peyton’s story is just one of them.
As I watched him walk the sidelines in a polo shirt and khaki pants in Indianapolis during the 2011 season, I wondered if this was the final image we’d ever have of him as a player. As we learned everything he’d gone through to try to get back on the field just for that season, I wondered if this was the last image we’d ever have of HIM. Was this going to be what sidelined him for life not just for career? It was scary. Anytime you mess with the neck, it’s scary, and I don’t mind telling you there was a part of me who wanted to say “just stop. You have a beautiful wife and two amazing children. Live for them. You’ve done enough.” But saying that to Peyton Manning would be like telling the sun not to rise.
And so it began…his long road back to the top of his game…not just the game of football…but to HIS game of football…the way he plays it. I love football in all its forms, but if you told me I could only watch one person play football for the rest of my life, I’d ask for a reel of Peyton’s games because I just LOVE the way HE plays football…even in the bad games. As he was rehabbing and fighting with his nerve damage everyday, I was hoping and praying he’d just be able to play the game, again. I wanted to see him run out of that tunnel, buckle that chin strap, take that snap, pass that ball. That’s what I hoped for, dreamed of, wanted. He wanted more.
He wanted to be a part of a team, again. He wanted to walk up to the line of scrimmage, cast his vision on the defense, smile to himself, call the perfect play, and eat that opponent alive. That’s what a competitor does when faced with the challenge of a lifetime. You stand up and say, “You’re not gonna beat me today.” So that’s how he found himself in front of a mirror watching himself throw a football because he knew what he was doing wasn’t right, and he needed to see it for himself in order to fix it.
Since his return, I’ve been afraid the last image I would have of him on the football field would be of him lying there unconscious, his fate unknown. I tried to remind myself that the only thing I wanted after all the surgeries and all the rehab was to see him play football. The fear gets a little less each step of the way like the half-life of a chemical element, and now I worry about him getting hurt on the average play just like any other player on the field not because of anything in his medical history. At the same time, these last two seasons have brought me more joy than I ever imagined, and while watching him play is an amazing thrill, learning about his new team has been the icing on the best cake you’ve ever tasted. Foxy, Champ, DT, Woodyard, Julius, Pot Roast, Manny, Unrein, Knowshon, Bruton, Welker, Prater, Zane…just to name a few…these guys go into battle with Peyton every week. They each have their own goals and dreams…their own legacies to build, but they each play for the Denver Broncos, and that means something to me…something that came as a great surprise to me this deep into my NFL fandom. This team…this franchise…this is what it’s meant to be…this is what it’s supposed to feel like. And I, for one, am grateful to the Broncos for letting me be a fan of it all on their journey to the Super Bowl.
Now don’t get me wrong. I WANT that Super Bowl tomorrow. You put a chance at winning the holy grail of the NFL in front of me and I suddenly turn into one of Pavlov’s dogs…one of the more rabid of the litter, in fact. Still, there have been a lot of articles in recent weeks about Peyton’s legacy and about how winning or losing this game is what his entire career hinges on as if to say his body of work over the entirety of the last 16 seasons has meant nothing. They’re frustrating to read for someone like me who’s been a fan of his for 20 years. But wanting that Lombardi Trophy and believing its the only thing that matters when defining a successful career are two completely different things. In the history of sports, no trophy or championship has made a player or a coach a better player or coach than they were before the game. They are each the same person with the same talent and competitiveness. They just happen to have some hardware on the shelf. But in this day and age of over-analyzing, we pay people to tell you that Peyton Manning is a failure or hasn’t accomplished anything if the Broncos don’t win tomorrow night.
Don’t believe that. Instead, consider this. His legacy, to me, is only further cemented every single time he runs out of that tunnel because this is a man who could’ve been one surgery away from not being able to walk, again, much less be able to produce the single greatest statistical season for a quarterback in NFL history. But proving anything to anyone was never why Peyton worked so hard to get back to the game. Proving he wasn’t done. Proving he was up to the challenge and could exceed expectations. Proving he gets to decide when he’s done. All of that is and was for the man in the mirror. He’s got one more thing to prove to that man, and he gets to do that tomorrow night in Super Bowl XLVIII.