In January of 1976, the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Dallas Cowboys 21-17 to win Superbowl X. That season, the Colts played in Baltimore, and the Broncos finished under .500. A few weeks later, on a warm March Wednesday in New Orleans, a 12-pound baby boy was born named Peyton.
Two surgeries and almost 39 years later, Peyton Manning is not an old man, but he is for football. Of course, you wouldn’t know from his numbers. He may not be the most mobile quarterback in the league, but he can still throw. Oh, he can still throw.
At 38, Peyton broke the all-time touchdown record. He completed over 66% of passes for 4,727 yards and 39 touchdowns. Still, Peyton took a beating. He hobbled up and down the field with a torn right quadriceps for the last month of the season. Nevertheless, he didn’t miss a game. Peyton made it clear that nothing could stop him from playing football, not even his own body.
The signs point to a return for Number 18 next September. Peyton will be 39. Most football stars are halfway through their first book and regulars on Sportscenter by their mid-thirties. Many are beginning to doubt that Manning can continue to outrun Father Time and perform at the top of the league. He won’t be the first to play for 17 plus seasons, but those who have experienced mixed results.
The most recent example, as far as quarterbacks go, is Brett Favre. Favre retired at the age of 41, as a grandfather. After his messy departure from Green Bay, Favre donned a different shade of green and moved to East Rutherford, New Jersey to join for the New York Jets at 39-years-old. His play was not the same. He threw as many picks as he did touchdowns, 22, along with a significant drop in passing yards. But the next year the quadragenarian moved back up north and bounced back with the Minnesota Vikings, putting on one of the best performances of his career in his 19th season. Unfortunately, 20 seasons proved too much for the three-time MVP, and Favre hung up his cleats for good after a concussion ended a disappointing season of 11 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.
Another recent example is Hall of Famer Warren Moon. The nine-time All-Pro quarterback found success at 39, throwing for over 4,200 yards with 33 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. But that was as much as his body could take. Moon’s final years were characterized by injuries and poor performances. He played his last game at 44-years-old, as a back-up.
Neither Favre nor Moon received a fitting exit for their successful careers. Two lines from A.E. Housman’s 1896 poem “To an Athlete Dying Young” come to mind when reflecting on Favre and Moon’s final seasons:
“Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.”
Favre and Moon are not the only NFL stars to leave on disappointing terms, but the distinguished accomplishments of their earlier years make the exits that much more difficult to swallow.
Of course, Manning does not intend to play through his early forties. If Peyton returns for the 2015-2016 season, it will almost surely be his last. Even so, Manning is undoubtedly wary of the injuries and decline that threaten his 17th season and the exit from football he deserves. That being said, it’s hard to picture the name of Manning dying before the man.
Manning has repeatedly stated he would only return if his body was capable to perform at the level we’ve come to expect from the five-time MVP, and for the past few years, he stayed true to his words. If he returns, it will be for one reason alone: to win. Broncos General Manager John Elway and new Head Coach Gary Kubiak are speaking Manning’s language, enticing him with the prospect of one more championship run.
Not to take anything away from Favre or Moon, but there’s always been something different about Peyton. This is a man who wants to win more than anything else in the world. He doesn’t spend hours in the film room with his eye on a playoff berth, or a division title. For the past 17 years, he’s only had one thing on his mind, only one goal. He won’t return just to get to play again. He’ll return to win again.
And so to return to Housman’s poem, Manning knows full well of the “fields where glory does not stay,” and he does not intend to wait until that glory is gone. If Number 18 takes the field in early fall, it will not be a shadow of a former star. He will spend every waking moment of the summer preparing, mentally and physically, just as he has every year of his career. He may limp. He may hobble. He’ll crawl if he needs to. But he’ll find a way to win. He will leave with his laurels, or he won’t come back at all
Photo: Jeffrey Beall/Flickr