Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for 2013's Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 16. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.
Peyton Manning ended his 2012 season last January when his heavily-favored Denver Broncos were stunned in the AFC playoffs by Baltimore. It was Manning's interception, on a throw across his body that was a bad idea, that led to the double-overtime Denver loss.
And as I write this, Manning is flying home from New England. His Broncos blew a 24-point lead in Foxboro on a Sunday night and lost to the Patriots 34-31. That made his personal scoreboard with Tom Brady 10-4 in Brady's favor. Manning didn't blow the game, but he didn't win it either, and he had his chances.
Well, that's a resounding nomination for Sportsman of the Year.
I mean, Chad Henne wasn't available?
I love this award. Since I began subscribing (age 12, 1969, "Namath Weeps"), I always looked forward to the annual Sportsman issue, because it advanced the ideals of sport. A great athlete or coach could be a good person too. Some better than others at the athletics, or at the person part, or both. But there had to be something inherently good about the winner, and I liked that. So over the years, if the managing editor at the time asked me for a nomination from pro football, I would give it thought and advance only the causes of those I thought were worthy.
That brings us to 2013, and Manning. He is 37. He is still regaining strength in his neck and right arm after four neck surgeries over two years to correct problems that caused him to miss the 2011 season and get cut by Indianapolis. His strength sapped, and not knowing if he would ever regain enough power in his arm to be the great quarterback he once was, Manning signed with Denver and had a very good 2012 season. He very nearly won the MVP. Then he lost the game to Baltimore. Interesting thing happened after the game, clearly one of the most crushing losses of his life. He waited for 15 or 20 minutes with his wife and young son Marshall in the empty Baltimore locker room for Ray Lewis to finish his media obligations. Manning just thought it was the right thing, after the last game he would ever play against the retiring Lewis, to pay his respects.
Time went on. Manning dedicated himself to having a better 2013, to getting stronger, to working tirelessly in the offseason with his two new starting receivers, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas. In the summer I saw him for a half hour at Broncos camp one day, and told him I was pretty much plumb out of questions for him since I'd asked him so many over the years. In the end, I did ask him one: "What will you be doing in 15 years?" He said it was a good question. He said he wouldn't answer it. "A lot of times you're in the locker room, and you hear guys talking about some investment or some appearance they're gonna make, and how much money they're gonna get from it, and I'm looking at them, thinking, 'That's the guy who dropped two balls in practice today,' or, 'That's the guy who missed that block Sunday.' The point is, this is what I do now, and I think I owe everything I've got to the Broncos to try to win this season.''
The next time I saw Manning was in the season-opener. He came out on fire, throwing seven touchdown passes, tying the NFL record, against the world champion Ravens. After his seventh, very comfortably ahead with four minutes to play, Manning went to the sidelines, accepted some congratulations, and went straight for the offensive coordinator, Adam Gase, so they could look at the pictures of the plays and discuss Manning's decisions on that series. And on it went this season, so that here we are, the Broncos tied for the best record in the AFC, and Manning ahead in every significant category of passing, threatening to break the all-time records for touchdown passes in a year and for passing yards. He's still a bit limited; he has no idea when the nerves controlling the strength in his throwing arm will completely regenerate, or if they ever will, and so on windy nights like the one in Foxboro, he's not going to be throwing BBs and he'll be a bit mortal. But it has been good enough so far to threaten some of the most hallowed records in the game's history.
He's 37, he's had his mid-football-life crisis and survived it well; he has a charitable side that stretches into the four states he has called home at various stages of his life (Louisiana, Tennessee, Indiana, Colorado); and, despite his arm being maybe 85 percent of what it once was, he just might have the best year he has ever had.
Manning has persevered. He has put another franchise on his shoulders, and he's winning, and he's still the best at what he does at a time when whole and healthier and rich athletes are getting on with their lives. He thinks he owes everything he's got as a professional to helping the Broncos win. It's idealistic, it's old-fashioned, it's admirable. And that package gets my 2013 Sportsman vote.