Daring under duress
One summer, maybe 20 years ago, I was vacationing with my family, and on one particular lazy afternoon I was sitting around outside the cottage we were renting, watching some ants. They were engaged in the project of dragging the body of a beetle back to their nest or wherever they lived.
It was like a military precision operation. Some dragged it until they got tired, then they gave way and others took over, while still others scouted the terrain ahead. This would certainly be a fine feast for their colony. It was beautifully organized.
I don't know what devil possessed me to do it, but all of a sudden I lifted the beetle from their midst. They went nuts, poor little things, running about in disarray, bumping into each other, tracking, backtracking, wandering off in confusion. I felt bad about it and restored the beetle to its rightful place, but it took them about two minutes before they settled down and resumed their duties.
Many of them never got over it and suffered lingering psychiatric problems. Some were profoundly affected by the experience, claiming they had personally seen the Hand of God. They became deeply religious. As for me, I recalled the whole scene Sunday night when I watched the Colts lose to the Chargers.
The Colts went into the San Diego game with only 17 offensive players in uniform. Two went down during the game. Two key receivers,
They fell behind, 23-0. I thought the result would be like one of those New England Patriot adding machine things, except that
It was an amazing example of battlefield command, of somehow mustering a shattered army. But that's what Peyton is so good at, fighting the odds. I've seen him take some ferocious beatings, while running his show. For some reason teams that are hesitant to blitz other quarterbacks seem to feel it's the best strategy against him. I saw the Ravens, two years in a row, throw all sorts of exotic pressure packages at him, but he hung in -- it seemed as if almost every pass he threw was off his back foot -- and by the third quarter he had worn them out.
Some of the greatest games I've seen him have were under the most severe duress, and maybe his numbers weren't the best those times, but the memories he left were the most lingering. And looking back on the great quarterback performances that come to mind, the ones that are most indelibly etched are the ones that involved the most severe conditions.
A quarterback who stands tall in the pocket, facing a minimal rush, throwing to an all star cast of receivers is a pretty picture, but there's nothing about it that reaches me on an emotional level. But the guy who somehow manages to pull one out when the weather is bad and his offense is banged up and the other team is smelling blood -- well, that's what it's all about, I feel.
Well, Montana finished it -- just barely -- but it was close. The Eagles sacked him eight times and sent him to the sidelines twice. But what they paid for in unsound coverage produced 38 points and 428 yards and five TDs for Montana -- and a 10-point 49ers victory. Watching that game was like watching a morality play, good against evil, with both sides taking some serious hits.
A lot of the greatest performances I've watched didn't involve winning at all, and those yahoos who put some resonance into their voices and proclaim, "Without the victory, it doesn't mean a thing," don't really understand that a certain nobility can also accompany hopeless causes.
The finest game I ever saw
Once I ran into
Dallas would go on to be the Super Bowl champ that year. It was one of the greatest Cowboys teams in history,
So I told Tarkenton that was the best game I ever saw him play, and he nodded and said, "You know something? It's my favorite, too."
Well, I don't think that someday Peyton Manning, if he's sitting around with some old sportswriter, will classify that six interception night as one of his best. I wouldn't, either. It belongs in a different category, a different type of greatness, the ability to organize any group he ever finds himself on the field with into a striking force that at least can bring a tough game a heartbeat away from victory.
I'm sure it was one he'd like to forget. But for people such as me, with long memories, it was very special.