“And like that, he was gone…”
Fourteen years in fifteen minutes: that was the math facing Colts owner Jim Irsay and now-departed QB Peyton Manning as they stood behind a lonely dais Wednesday. How do you possibly pay tribute to such a long and stellar career, and the exemplary author of it, in so brief a period? Before those looking on could even consider the question, the man of the hour had been thanked and in turn gave thanks profusely, then – like the setting sun – was suddenly gone from view. What did we witness in those 15 minutes, in those 14 years? If you ever watched Peyton, you will know the two were virtually identical.
He entered the league under immense scrutiny and massive expectations, yet for me, the first hint that Peyton Manning would thrive in the cauldron that is the NFL occurred during the 1997 Heisman Trophy presentation. When Michigan DB Charles Woodson was announced as the winner (deservedly so), Peyton was clearly devastated, his reddened face betraying him. However in the few seconds between the announcement and the obligatory congratulations from the other Heisman finalists, he managed to gather himself and warmly embrace Woodson, displaying the style and grace that would be his permanent signature.
We’ve heard all about Peyton’s Hall of Fame résumé in the days and weeks leading up to yesterday’s announcement – the 3-13 rookie campaign, followed by a 13-3 sophomore season; the 11 playoff appearances and 4 MVPs – but what has always impressed me most is how he’s gone about his business. You never saw a fiercer, better-prepared or more driven competitor, yet you also never saw a better leader, more supportive teammate or finer ambassador for the game than Number 18.
One of the knocks on Peyton coming out of the University of Tennessee was “he can’t win the big one,” and the Volunteers’ national championship the following season did little to refute that assertion (fairly or otherwise). The Colts’ often unsightly playoff losses early in the Manning regime further added fuel to this fire, however in workmanlike fashion, he simply kept his head down and continued to refine his mental resolve and crunch-time performance. As his legend grew, Peyton’s ever-expanding regular season highlight reel gave rise to deeper playoff runs: most famously, the Colts stumbled against the Patriots in ’04 and ’05 before eventually vanquishing their nemesis en route to the ’07 Super Bowl title.
The miraculous thing is, after each of those games – whether they ended in victory or defeat – Peyton’s face betrayed neither impostor. As he did during the Heisman presentation so many years before, he always offered congratulations as graciously as he accepted them: the mark of a true gentleman. Peyton’s unyielding play, and the regal manner with which he comports himself and treats others, have earned him the universal respect and reverence of not only the quarterback fraternity, but the entire NFL (and judging by the unprecedented interest in yesterday’s press conference, the viewing public to boot).
Those 14 years culminated in Wednesday’s announcement, the scope of which hardly seemed befitting of someone who’d given so much of himself to the game, his team and his city – and asked so little in return. Before Peyton spoke, Irsay was clearly taken by the moment, explaining how he grew right along with his QB: from a young owner to a silver-haired Lombardi winner. Then it was the dearly departing’s turn to address his adoring masses, and you felt wistful that The Day had descended so swiftly. In true Peyton fashion, he stood tall and saluted those great and small, which made us feel – ever more viscerally – that we had been a part of his remarkable journey in Indianapolis.
So where does The Great Man go from here? The answer to that was left to another day, for when it was said and done, there were no more audibles to call, no more checks or pre-snap reads to make. There was only one final, scripted play for Peyton Manning to run: a victorious kneel-down.