I haven’t been a Peyton Manning fan for a long time. I have no qualms admitting that. It’s hard to actively like Peyton Manning when he’s not on your team, mostly because, well, he’s good, and you don’t want to see another team win, so your level of appreciation is somewhat low. It’s like your brain is telling you: “Hey, good player” and your heart is saying: “Who cares? He plays for the wrong team!” and you always, always listen to your heart.
Now, there’s a difference between Peyton Manning and other good players and other teams. I didn’t like him, no, but I didn’t hate him either. If anything, Peyton happened to fall in the very grey spectrum of players that I could appreciate and just not love.
Why? I wondered this lot, especially when he first came to Denver and my feelings switched from lukewarm admiration to full-out love. My conclusion is this: It’s just as hard to hate Peyton Manning as it is to love him when he doesn’t belong to you. Fact is, Peyton Manning, despite the recent resurfaced claims of misconduct when he was younger, is not the type to make off-the field headlines. He’s the type to show up, keep his head low, work hard and win football games, maybe break some records while he’s at it. You’ll never have to worry about Peyton Manning getting a DIU or being arrested for assaulting his wife. That’s not who Peyton Manning is.
The story of my love affair with Peyton begins, obviously, four years ago. I’ve been a Denver fan since before it was cool to be a Broncos fan, back before they’d won their first Super Bowl, when the headlines talked about Elway’s legacy and how he could never be remembered as one of the great’s because he didn’t own a ring. In the subsequent years I learned the hard way, after two Super Bowls and revolving door at QB, that getting attached wasn’t always the best idea. My loyalty was, after all, to the team first and foremost.
And then came Peyton.
Maybe it was because there was nothing to prove – he was already Peyton Manning when he came to the Broncos. Perhaps it was because he’d been kicked out of Indianapolis in such a cruel way. Or, perhaps, it was because I was just ready to see my team become relevant again, but for all I desperately did not want the Broncos to sign him, when they did, it was love at first press conference.
He stood there, on that day, four years ago, much like he stood a few days ago, when he announced his retirement, with a straight face and a clean suit. He talked about his work ethic, about his commitment to excellence and the organization. He thanked the fans, and promised to put in the work. In short, he said the same things that every quarterback in the history of the game had ever said, but on that day, I believed him. I put my trust in him.
Four years later, I don’t feel like he let me down. Not when we broke all kinds of offensive records and still failed in the Super Bowl, not when we crashed and burned against his former team, and certainly not when he got injured and had to miss time this year. The team that Peyton had carried for so long finally carried him this year, and though that speaks to the strength of this team, it also speaks to the character of the man that made his teammates want to win this one for him.
This week, Peyton called a press conference and announced his retirement from the game. It wasn’t a surprise – we all expected him to go out on top, especially after a season played with injuries. It was still emotional for longtime Broncos fans, for Peyton fans, and for fans of the game in general to see one of the all-time greats stand there, reminisce, and finally, bid farewell.
One of the phrases people use when talking about great players is: “There will never be another so and so….” I don’t believe in that saying. Talented people are everywhere, and at some point, a QB may come to Denver that will make me, if not forget Peyton, appreciate him just as much. Trust me, I know. I didn’t believe I could love anyone as much as John Elway years ago, and yet, here I am, singing Peyton’s praises.
But, even if another quarterback just as talented comes to take his place, Peyton’s mark in Denver will forever remain what it is. There were people more talented, Peyton said, but no one was ever as well-prepared. And thanks to him, that’s the way the Broncos now approach this game. That’s the legacy Peyton leaves. The game might never get another Peyton, but even if it does, and he’s playing on the other side, the Broncos will be prepared.
How can they not? They learned from the best.