The cruelest part of sports — and the one we try so hard to willfully ignore — is that they are a metaphor for our own mortality.
Not so much in the Housman-esque sense; rather, that life is fleeting because careers — mini-lives — are, too. And the superhumans of us, the revered athletes whose mini-lives are not supposed to ever end because they are fictional characters on the screen, make that fleeting often far more bitter than sweet.
In Peyton Manning, one of the greatest ever to play the most important position in sports, we are witnessing a trek to an end that went from crawl to suddenly accelerated hobble near the end of last season to an inflatable Raptor gif in Week 1. And damn if it isn’t a mirror shoved in front of ourselves, magnifying another crow’s foot on our collective fan face.
I grew up a Chicago Bears fan, too young to remember anything about the hallowed 1985 team (which is a blessing in disguise, I’ve learned). The 1990s, my years of both biological and fan pubescence, provided no star players at Soldier Field. Erik Kramer was briefly above average at quarterback. Brian Cox was an angry face and loud voice who was good for column inches and not much else. Overall, that decade of Bears football was remarkably unremarkable ... as were most of the next decade and this current one.
In those circumstances, a Plan B will manifest in the adolescent fan craving identification with a winner, a star. Peyton Manning came into my life when I was 16. The war in the press over Manning vs. Ryan Leaf in and after the 1998 draft had me living vicariously in an interesting world that my favorite team wasn’t providing. The story of that controversy and its resolution is now canon, and Manning soon became the father figure that filled the void of so many foster-quarterbacks the Bears put in charge of my heart only to have them step on it repeatedly. (I am very aware that all this contributes to my current quarterback issues and warped attachment to Jay Cutler.)
Manning didn’t exactly look the part like a Leaf or a Marino or an Elway, which ingratiated him to me even more. His fivehead with the magenta helmet sore and perpetual Manningface — along with his prodigious talent, despite a lack of mobility — lent themselves to the early formation of my special appreciation for successful athletes who sort of look like they have no business being out there.
Soon came the barrage of touchdowns and gorging on passing yards as the Indianapolis Colts became a most impressive offensive machine to watch. My first fantasy league with my South Side buddies, founded in 2003 with six-point QB touchdowns, had a rule where you could keep any two players from the previous season with no restrictions. Manning captained my squad for the rest of the decade, giving me an emotional investment in the NFL that the Bears continuously failed to provide (save for the irony of the 2006 season, when they lost in the Super Bowl to Manning).
I even stashed him on my bench in 2011 when he missed the entire season to injury (O.K., fine, our draft was four days before the Colts announced he wouldn’t play that year, I lost a gamble, and I kept him anyway to spite my friends) ... only to foolishly let him go prior to the 2012 fantasy draft. That was rectified the following year when I stealthily dealt Arian Foster for him on draft day. My team — nay, I — was whole once again.
Yet, I wish Manning had hung ‘em up following last season. That would have been more of a band-aid pull that what threatens to be a week-by-week full-body waxing the rest of this season. A 2014 that began with what seemed to be a remarkable 38-year-old — and his performance did still yield a Pro Bowl selection — devolved by December into that abrupt recognition by any observer that this was not merely the winter of a career, but a thermometer dropping below freezing. His final five games of 2014 contained more interceptions than TD passes.
Peyton Manning is not supposed to be pedestrian.
He tried his darnedest to not let it show these past few years, somehow managing to play football at the highest level after three spinal surgeries within a year and a half, but comic books all conclude with the demise of the superhero at some point. If only that metaphoric death was months ago, so that I might put him out of my mind and lie to myself that this mortal coil is infinite and that Andrew Luck will provide. Or be able to kid myself that all this doubt in the old man will ignite something akin to Tom Brady last year after the reports of his death were greatly, er, inflated. Perhaps the unkindest cut of all is that Manning cannot escape the Brady juxtaposition, even in looming football death; the 38-year-old Patriots star is still very much playing at a level of superman.
Instead, I expect I am about to watch a legend rage against the dying of the light, a quixotic endeavor beyond reason and health to prove something to himself that I don’t, and shouldn’t, understand, and can’t say I want to. I don’t want to witness the pigeons that leave his feelingless fingers, or see the more-clenched lips and extra inches added to his furrowed brow. I don’t want to experience the deviation from one of sports’ greatest commercial pitchmen, all dad jeans and self-deprecation, to ornery lawn monitor scolding the room and himself in postgame interviews, a la this past Sunday after zero Denver Broncos offensive touchdowns but a pick-six for the Baltimore Ravens.
“If you need a catchy headline for your little article or whatever it is you might be doing, we’re trying to get better every single week,” said Manning, describing his meager 175 yards passing on 40 attempts, his analysis dripping with condescension. “What’s another cliché I can think of? We’re chipping away.”
To an old horse in denial of a race that has passed him, sarcasm masks the mirror we’re both afraid to look into. Following mention of his popping up on this week’s injury report, Manning tried to laugh over the truth. Per The Denver Post’s Mark Kiszla:
“I think the media should do an injury report. ... I’d like to create it myself,” said Manning, launching a comedy bit he had obviously rehearsed. “Think about it …”
What followed was hilarious. Manning listed KUSA-9 reporter Mike Klis as suffering from carpal tunnel “from all the texting of his sources.” The quarterback then diagnosed popular radio host Darren McKee as dealing with “laryngitis from ripping me” and an unidentified rash.
A 39-year-old Muhammad Ali fought his last fight two months before I was born, but I’ve heard my dad and uncles discuss how painful it was to watch the end of an athlete they so admired — one who characteristically joked and denied his way into a few fights too many after it was evident there was no more super to the man. I don’t want to talk to my two nephews — too young as of now to digest sports — with that same sigh-tinged admiration about Peyton Manning.
I do worry that the certain ego we share that obstinately blinds us from looking in that figurative mirror (I kept him again this season in that fantasy league) will leave both a husk of greatness and a sour taste in future remembrances, but the biggest fear is my own: the reacceptance that the mini-lives of the superhumans are not permanently “to be continued.”