A meditation on Manning

I am trying to explain to myself why I pull for Peyton Manning as I do.

Manning attended Tennessee, donning that vile pumpkin-vomit orange, and had begun carving up my South Carolina Gamecocks – along with the rest of the SEC – when I graduated in 1995. So it’s not like I’d followed his career terribly closely before the Indianapolis Colts made him the first pick (remember when that was up for debate?) of the 1998 draft.

I grew up a Washington Redskins fan, and while I have vague memories of the seasons the New Orleans Saints and their paper bag-hatted fans suffered through in the early 1980s, I can conjure up no real feeling for Manning patriarch Archie, who toiled for 12 NFL seasons in the Ain’t That Easy. (In fact, my first memory of a New Orleans quarterback is of hearing Bobby Hebert open his mouth and produce a string of wondrous syllables that somewhat approximated the English language.)

I wasn’t a huge Colts fan, and I certainly had no attachment to Indianapolis. Like every football fan of a certain age, I suppose I felt a lingering sympathy for a fan base haunted by memories of Mayflower moving vans, but that in no way affected my life the way Marcus Allen devastated it on a snowy January day in 1984.

I began to become fond of No. 18 a few seasons into his pro career. A sportswriting colleague and Tennessee native had given me a reporter’s notebook (college-ruled, back in the day when such things existed) with Manning on the cover as a sort of your-school-sucks gag gift. We began to refer to Manning’s capital-T helmeted visage as “Peytie-Pie,” based on said colleague’s inside information that the sobriquet, used by Manning’s mother, Olivia, had been contained in an early email address and leaked, resulting in much ridicule.

One of my best friends, a few computers over in the features department but no slouch in sports knowledge, picked up the nickname with enthusiasm. On the occasions we found ourselves perched on bar stools in our work dresses trying to see the TVs around the testosterone, we discussed how Manning’s obvious nerdiness was far more attractive than the pretty boy vibe Tom Brady and his ilk were starting to project.

When the Colts won the Super Bowl in 2006, I threw a party in my new house, the first I’d ever owned. It filled with the smell of chili and the laughter of friends. I tastefully decorated the walls with taped-up copies of the Sports Illustrated cover featuring the words “Yes He Can” scrawled across Manning’s face. (Shockingly, the Colts still won.)

 A lot has changed since 1998. Like fantasy football, the rest of the world is now in on the Manning dork dance, and it, for the most part, is ruined. We’ve gone from “Cut that meat!” and the occasional, hilarious Saturday Night Live appearance to a media saturation capped by a partnership with the Douchebag of Pepperoni, and now HGH headlines that make the sports and marketing worlds wince in unison.

I do not like change, yet that bitch won’t leave me alone. But even as new fears rise up through the murk of my subconscious, Manning STILL has a red spot spreading like a rash across his ample forehead. (As a possessor of a fivehead myself, I may have uncovered a connection.) Does his helmet not fit? Can it not have been made to fit in all these years? Does he prefer it that way? Does he not notice? Does he not care? Is it a badge of honor, a mark of solidarity with all girls who’ve been considered cute, not gorgeous, their whole lives? Does it take hours to fade, like my nose after I cry?

Manning’s legendary work ethic, his timeless and by-now-expected excellence, his slight lisp, his wounded-cow bellowing and seizure-like gesturing on every damn play … these things have remained the same for 17 years. In that time, I’ve lived in three states, had four different jobs, made and lost friends, gotten married, learned to look after a stepdaughter, and been more people than I can count. That evolution, I know now, will never stop.  

But when Manning trots – slower now – onto the field, time does, if only for a few hours.