Update: February 4th, 2016
I wrote this the week after Peyton Manning went 4-20 with 4 INTs against the Chiefs. It was the worst game of his career. It was the Broncos second loss. He didn't play the next six games due to some combination of being hurt and being benched. At that point, there was a reasonable chance I would never see Peyton Manning play another game.
That said, I had hope. I had hope that Osweiler would falter, that they would drop a few games, that the offense would grow listless, and that Peyton would be waiting in the wings. It worked out about as perfectly as I could have hoped. Not only did Peyton Manning ride to the rescue in Week 17 against the Chargers - a game he, admittedly, mainly just handed off in, but because of some other combination of Belichick's arrogance and Patriots' injuries, the Broncos had those losses with Osweiler, had that listless offense, but somehow still got the #1 seed.
I got to see Peyton Manning play two more playoff games, and not only play two more, but have his teams get wins over both the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger, finally paying ol' Big Ben back for teh 2005 Divisional Game (yes, this is just the 2nd time they've met in the playoffs) and then see Manning get what will be a lasting lead in the head-to-head playoff matchups against Tom Brady and the Patriots. I got to see it all, and I got to see it from the perverse angle of rooting for the side that came into these battles with the staunch defense and not the high-powered offense.
Peyton has dropped many hints the past 10 days that this will be his last game. First was his comments to Brady and Belichick after the game, the 'this might be my last rodeo' line was not said for no reason. It probably will be. Manning also has seemed at peace during the run-up to the Super Bowl, a stark contrast to the serious, dour manner he showed in both the run-up to Super Bowl XLIV and XLVII, where he kept a serious face plastered on for 14 days.
This will likely be it. I can have some dreams of him going to Houston or LA and having one last run, but it will be just one last run, and one that will likely resemble Favre in 2010.
Obviously, I am happy that Peyton Manning's last game wasn't a 4-20 performance with four picks, a game where he perversely set the record for career yards. But I also had to relive the emotions of the lead-up to his last game again. I had to live it. Last time it was over before I knew it. This time there was 14 days to worry about it.
I have so many ideas in my mind of what I can write about my connection to Peyton Manning's career once it is finished. This can basically become a Peyton Manning blog for half a year once he's gone. Hell I already started that in 2012 following his release from Indianapolis. But that's really the biggest sign of the lasting impression he's made in my life, that I can write and talk and reminisce about his career and more pointedly how I've viewed, lived and thought about it.
Peyton Manning's last game is coming up. There are many career retrospective's being written, but there really shouldn't be. The NFL has had greats retire before and will always have more and more. I will always just appreciate that Peyton got this encore from Week 17 onwards to the Super Bowl. In historical terms, this is the biggest player to step away from the game since definitely Brett Favre, if not Jerry Rice. Both those players left in ignominy. Favre had a miserable second year in Minnesota, and saw his legendary iron-man streak end. Rice retired after suiting up in Seahawk blue. Manning at least got a great final performance. Then agin, as the below shows, we were really close to that final song never happening.
Peyton Manning had his worst game of his career, then reportedly tore his plantar fasciia. He may sit, maybe for the rest of the season. That may be a better option actually than taking the field the way he did yesterday. The 'Peyton Manning' period of my life is basically over.
Rafael Nadal is #6 in the world, but he's also a guy who didn't reach a major semifinal, a guy who now has devolved into where getting tough 3-set wins and losing to top players is so normal people hail it as signs of progress. This from a guy who just last summer, after winning a 9th French Open, stood just three Slams behind Federer (and a full eight ahead of Novak, now just four). While he still is just #6, and is only a year older than Djokovic and Murray, it seems like his slam-winning part of his career, is also over.
These two players have probably been #1 and #2 in my book for a good ten years now. I’ve followed each of them closely, Manning since 2003, and Nadal since he burst onto the scene in 2005, winning the French Open just a week after turning 19. These players are basically losing rapidly to father time (somehow, Nadal’s future seems eminently, and relatively, brighter than Manning’s). This period, this era, of my sports fan’s life is over. It was great. I got so many incredible moments and memories, from the Colts 2006 Super Bowl run, or their 2009 season (up until the onside kick), to Nadal’s triumphs in Wimbledon in ’08, Australian Open in ’09, and his two wins over Djokovic in New York. It had it’s fair share of downs as well, from the numerous injuries that Nadal had to suffer, recover and play through, to Manning’s incredible lack of luck in the playoffs throughout his careers.
Both players are also notorious for who they are not. Manning is not Tom Brady, and while I will go to my deathbed truly believing Manning was the better QB, the tide has really turned for that being anything close to a majority opinion – something that basically was a 50/50 discussion just 12 months ago. For Nadal, he wasn’t Federer, but that argument was always more interesting, where he had Federer’s number head-to-head. Now, I have to worry more about Novak passing Nadal historically than Nadal trumping his main rival. Now that both career’s look to be squarely over, I have to not only accept their place, but do the harder, but ultimately more important – I need to move on.
I’ve written many times about my life as a football fan focusing on Manning, and as always with him joined at the hip in history will be Brady. Two years ago, right after AFC Championship Game, a game Manning played brilliantly in, a game Manning won, a game that seemed to tip the scales to the ‘Manning > Brady’ side more than it had ever been, I wrote that I long for the day when both Manning and Brady have retired, when there is no more to gain or lose, when each Sunday is not a referendum on Manning’s career and how it compares to Brady’s. Well, that day is coming very soon. I said back then I can’t wait for it… and I need to make good on that feeling.
But what can I really do. I’ve spent so much time, energy and man-hours in my life watching, debating, thinking and living these two players’ careers. I can’t move on too easily, partly because doing so in some ways invalidates all the time I spent (some would say ‘wasted’) on them. But also because I don’t want to let go that quickly. In recent years, I enjoyed the off-season of the NFL more, a time when I could dream Manning’s team would go 14-2 and roll to a Super Bowl. I’ve wanted nothing more to see that one player win another Super Bowl. Not even for me to enjoy, but for him. I have to accept that hoping for that is useless and it is time to move on.
I will be a sports fan long after Peyton Manning does ultimately retire, same with Rafael Nadal. It remains to be seen if I will follow either sport with the same passion – I likely will with football but I’m not as sure with Tennis. But one of the ‘come to Jesus’ moments of a sports fan is when that first cycle of players, and with it teams, debates, arguments and moments, dies. For almost as long as I have been a sports fan, these two players, and so many more, have been a part of it. The first challenge of my sports fandom is that next wave.
And to be honest, the next wave doesn’t look so bad. At my core I still have two NFL team’s that I pull for (with Manning in Denver, it was about him and him alone); the Raiders, who despite a recent two-game losing streak, have a bright future – and will likely take over from the Broncos as kings of the AFC West as early as next year, and the Colts, who still employ Andrew Luck. But I can also set my sights away from football. Back over to baseball, where my team is exiting a period of prolonged dormancy with a star of the future in Carlos Correa, a man who offers all the promise that Peyton Manning offered to Indianapolis.
It is hard to say these things and not seemed fair-weathered, that I’ll turn my back on the NFL the second Peyton Manning hangs it up, and move right over to the sport where my favorite team has a bright outlook; but it is more about where should I spend my time that I, some would say pathologically, have to devote to sports. Why waste it on the NFL when I can waste it on baseball, a sport I used to love as much before the Astros turned into the MLB equivalent of Blackberry in their organizational philosophy?
There are stars of the future playing today. It definitely changes the equation when those stars first become your age, and then progressively younger than you (Connor MacDavid was born in freaking 1997), and that change does make it harder to embrace. It brings into question darker areas like ‘what am I doing with my life when Player X has accomplished more at 22 than I ever will?’. It will take time for me to fully embrace this new era of favorite players and favorite teams and new sports memories that will last my 20’s and 30’s.
It then becomes a nice combination that the first time your favorite players leave the building for the last time, is about the age when you probably should do so, to some degree, as well. As Manning, and Nadal, and before them Oswalt and Brodeur, hang it up and move on to better things, I should as well. I’m at the age where my career and starting a family and all that stuff becomes more important – the unfamiliar faces littering the playing field is just another sign.
But it never will escape totally. There is no ‘off’ switch in being a sports fan. I just have to hope there is a way to transport the energy that was expended in rooting for Peyton Manning and Rafael Nadal, and the associated heartbreak and elation, lop some of it off to get to a more sane level, and move it all over the Carlos Correa and the Astros, and stars of the late 2010s and 2020s.
Coming to terms with the end of an era is always difficult, but for me it has recently brought up the questions of ‘was it worth it?’, and it is going to take more than it should for those answers to be ‘Yes’ for both Peyton Manning and Rafael Nadal. Undoubtedly, they’ve given me some of my greatest memories as a sports fan. They’ve also produced some of the worst. They’ve also produced me to expend hours of time debating their relative places in history with so many different people – most of whom were online and I’d never meet in real life. I enjoyed that to some degree, but the vapid nature of analyzing QBs, something that has, comically, become worse over time has made me and other Manning supporters expend more than was necessary.
In that sense, I look forward to a world of rooting for Derek Carr and Amari Cooper. For rooting for Khalil Mack. I’ll have to pick up a tennis player (or drop the sport), but there’s a future there as well. But it all leads back to the uncertainty. With Peyton Manning, through the heartbreaking postseason losses, came the hope of ‘there’s always next year.’ That 14-2 season where he rides off with his 2nd ring was always just a few months away. That was a comforting, and sadly incorrect, thought, but comfort was needed at the worst times. That comfort is gone. What lies ahead, with Derek Carr, and Carlos Correa, is definitely exciting (even the Devils are somehow playing well in a year that they probably should be tanking in), but has a ways to go to be comforting.
Back in January, when Peyton looked lost in a playoff loss to the Colts, a game in which he played badly as he dealt with what we later learned were serious injuries to his thighs, there was rampant speculation that he would retire. I wanted him to come back. ‘He was hurt,’ was my line, dreaming that a healthy Peyton Manning, despite his age, would go back to the player he was at the start of 2014, when he was the best QB in the NFL through 9 weeks. I thought one last miracle 14-2 season and Super Bowl run; that a healthy, motivated Manning, coupled with a great defense, would do the trick. Now that he returned ever worse, and again injured, I realize it wasn’t hope but comfort. I wasn’t ready yet for an NFL without Peyton Manning. I don’t know if I will be in 2016 either. All I know is I really hope come September, 2016, when Peyton Manning is chilling at home in Louisiana, and there are 32 starting QBs, none of which are him, Carlos Correa should be hitting .320 for the first place Astros. I just hope that that is all it takes.
.... You are my only hope Carlos Correa