DELRAY BEACH, FLORIDA, March 8, 2016 — “I revere football.” With those three words, Peyton Manning fought back tears while bringing the toughest of leatherheads to tears of their own. Nine more words capped off his final remarkable comeback. “God bless all of you, and God bless football.”
Number 18 ended 18 years of NFL football with the grace, style, precision and heart that defined his career. Rarely does a man enter a professional sport with the demand of greatness thrust upon him. Born into football royalty, Archie Manning’s son was expected to succeed. He did beyond our wildest expectations on and off the field.
Before fawning over everything Peyton Manning is and was, first avoid the halo effect to remember what he is not.
He is not the greatest player in NFL history. That is Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown.
He is not the greatest quarterback in NFL history, although winning a second Super Bowl at least allows the conversation to take place.
He is not the greatest quarterback on either team he played for. The greatest Denver Broncos player of all time is Peyton’s boss, team president John Elway. The greatest Colts player of all time in Baltimore or Indianapolis is a man Peyton idolized, Johnny Unitas. Peyton choked back tears when recalling how Unitas told him to stick with football. He nearly broke down when saying that he hoped Unitas was proud of him.
One day 18 years from now a first ballot Hall of Fame quarterback will fight back tears and hope that Peyton Manning is proud of him.
Manning was not the toughest quarterback. That goes to Brett Favre, who played in 321 straight games.
Manning was certainly not the most mobile quarterback. He may have been the least mobile quarterback to ever become a superstar.
What Manning was, is and may always be is the greatest field general in the history of quarterbacks. He lined up in the shotgun and analyzed everything, barking out fake and real signals before his trusty center Jeff Saturday ever snapped him the ball. He analyzed defenses and dissected them like a surgeon. What he lacked in arm strength he made up for in precision, accuracy, and football intelligence approaching MENSA levels. In a micromanaged era where quarterbacks need permission what to eat and when to use the restroom, Manning called his own plays. His greatest comeback in the 2006 AFC Title Game saw him fall behind 21-3 to the New England Patriots. With Bill Bellichick and Tom Brady preparing for another title, Manning called his own plays in leading a stirring comeback for the ages. A key moment in the 38-34 Colts win came when Manning waved the punt team off the field and demanded to go for it on fourth down. Try and find one other time in NFL history where the coach called for a punt and the quarterback demanded and won the right to go for it. Naturally, Manning converted the play for a key first down to keep the game and season alive.
What Manning also was and remains is the greatest ambassador that professional football has ever seen. He was a true company man. When sports reporters talked about killing the Pro Bowl, Manning stepped up and showed why it was good for the league to pass on traditions. When a coach, general manager or owner overruled Manning, he toed the line to the media. He was always on board with decisions even when he was really not. He never put himself above the game or became a distraction.
Manning maintained a squeaky clean image throughout his career. A pair of recent allegations against him were so laughable that no serious sports reporter would advance the stories. Manning was accused of doping by Al Jazeera and of sexual misconduct by a Black Lives Matter activist with a history of hostility toward white Southerners. Manning did confess to dropping his trousers and mooning a teammate when he was 19 years old. The one place locker room behavior can exist is in a locker room. Manning may have drank beer before he turned 21, but there is no word on whether he ever had overdue library books.
To understand Manning’s exemplary conduct on and off the field requires grasping those three words. “I revere football.” Manning made it clear that he was not the most preparation obsessed quarterback because he wanted to master the game. He honored the game. He respected it. He worshipped it. He revered it.
While some players made everything about themselves, Manning understood that the game was so much bigger than one man. Manning mentioned the honor in his second season of finally arriving. He was good enough to have his game broadcast by legends Pat Summerall and John Madden.
Manning owns many of the important statistics. He is tied for most wins with Favre. He is in sole possession of the record for touchdown passes with 539. Yet the self-deprecating Manning also mentioned that he owns the record for most interceptions by a rookie.
Those were not crocodile tears Manning was so close to shedding in his final press conference. That was a man being told after 25 years that it was time for him to leave the job that has consumed his entire adult life. Not yet 40, Manning has to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. He is financially secure for the rest of his life, but nothing will replace being on the field.
John Elway now has a championship as an executive, but he won it living vicariously through Manning. John Madden had to reinvent himself twice, transitioning from being a coach to an announcer and finally a video game legend. Manning would do anything to play one more professional football game. Those emotions came from a man knowing he never will. He can have any job he wants except for the one he just retired from. He could be President of the United States, or at least of a football team. He will not be the quarterback.
He will have to settle for being the game’s greatest field general and its best ambassador.
Like Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali, Manning will have to accept being as revered outside of the game as he was playing it.
After all, football fans should revere him. Every day of his football life, he left it on the field for the most honorable reason alive. Peyton Manning reveres football.
Leatherheads everywhere should paraphrase him. God bless Peyton Manning, and God bless football.