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Dissecting a Would Be Cyborg: My Thoughts on Peyton Manning

September 22, 2011

Same face. Different quarterback. It's strange what memories a single uniform can conjure.
I don't have strong ties to the University of Tennessee.

My memaw who grew up in Belbuckle claimed I had a great uncle who played there, his nickname having to do with the alligator wiggle of his hips going through the line. Personally, I never met the man, and if there's a grainy team photo out there with him in it, I wouldn't be able to pinpoint his pale cheekbones anymore than I might be able to pick out President Rutherford B. Hayes in a line up of nineteenth century Presidents who used the White House for a Gilded Age beard off and nothing more. But I did recognize Tyler Bray's face on Saturday, dazed in the sun, and twisted in defeat, as if the Florida Gators had poured him a shot of bad whiskey. I recognized that face, slumped jaw and saddened eyes; I'd seen it at least four times before, the viewing of it as familiar to me as my memaw's stories about uncles I never knew.

Peyton Manning used to make that face. The Gators used to chew him up, spit him out, and steal his Heisman. Even as a Georgia fan, it was always a sad state to watch the early weeks of the college football season unfold. The Vols would come in highly ranked; Peyton's All-American status a sure thing, like a well-loved incumbent; and then certainty would go soft as a paper cup with the spit of a Steve Spurrier punchline, leaving Peyton to stare helplessly from the sideline as the Fun 'N Gun offense shredded the Tennessee defense into scraps of orange confetti.

Because Peyton Manning played his last college game almost fourteen years ago, it's easy to forget that he went into the NFL, even as the number one draft pick, with the burdens of disappointment, the weight of unfulfilled promise, and the strain of futility. But he did. And sometimes, I wonder if the lust over Ryan Leaf's potential was born not out of his own arm strength but out of the weakness we feared existed in the hidden circuitry of Manning's, that the consensus number one pick somehow wasn't the safest bet, that roguish mystique was somehow superior to mechanical precision, that we sided with the man at the desk rather than the computer. And, who could blame us? Tall tales, folk stories, and legends all teach us that machines and progress are plotting our demise--we were never trained to root for Peyton Manning, but we also couldn't help but acknowledge that his style was a result of meticulous perfection.

Ignore the ESPY skits, the SNL spots, and the chants of "Cut that meat!" and it's easy to imagine Peyton Manning views the world in shades of contrasting greens, like Neo in the Matrix. Defensive backs and linebackers reduced to numbers on a vertical line, Peyton Manning audibles because he's plugged into the system and knows the future, and the future for Peyton Manning was almost never in doubt, until it was.

His failures against the Florida Gators were so far in his rearview mirror that they must have felt like acne scars, having dismissed the one question--can he win the big one?--that gave the slightest hint of fallibility to his career with a win against the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl, and while his Colts failed to beat the Chargers the next couple of years, it didn't matter in the grand scheme of things because Philip Rivers couldn't beat the Steelers or the Patriots. Manning won two more MVPs, surpassing Brett Favre's record of three, and it seemed that with Favre's retirement it was only a matter of time before all of his other records started to fall at the act of Peyton Manning flapping his arms behind center like a wind-up bird in flight.

When I was growing up, I never expected that Favre, one of my boyhood heroes, would wind up with the gold standard of statistical resumes in the NFL, owning pretty much every passing record of note, but as soon as he did, I believed that Peyton Manning would catch him in just about every single category. I was as sure of it as I was in Tiger Woods catching Jack Nicklaus in Major wins, but, now, I'm not so sure. It's also painful, at least in Manning's case, to think why that uncertainty exists, and it also requires fans to reexamine what one of the greatest quarterbacks ever has meant to each of us symbolically, because the neck injury that has robbed Manning the start of his football season is also reshaping his legacy, and, therefore, his life.

It would be easy to pigeonhole Peyton Manning, to believe that all his greatness is the result of having programmed his brain to react formulaically to pressure, through hours of watching game tape, and while his sense of humor humanizes him, there is a mechanism to telling jokes: The delivery of a punchline does come down to timing, just like hitting a receiver on a crossing route or a buttonhook does.

My classrooms are full of students mimicking the humor of real comedians, and the internet is full of writers, like myself, who have studied where to place a pop culture reference, a metaphor, and a sarcastic barb; so even if you feel humor can't be learned, you have to at least acknowledge that it can be mimicked. And what also bears acknowledging is the admission that as fans we only see a very limited side of the athletes we cheer: And throwing a ball and delivering a one-liner do not a human make. 

No, the human side of Peyton Manning has almost always read like the stuff of royal lineage: He is the son of an SEC and NFL quarterback, born not just to play football but to play great football. He was born to be a king, and guys like Favre were born to be placeholders. The exactitude of Manning's game demands that we cheer Peyton Manning on with our brains, to pull for him is to root on logic, and allows one to feel wholly objective, unlike with Brett Favre, whose style of play makes John Madden turn into a gushing grandpa. And grandparents are never objective when it comes to their grandchildren. But the main difference between the two quarterbacks is that Peytong Manning carries himself like a man who should be king; there is a distance to him that is not felt with Favre; and because of that distance, Peyton Manning never makes us as uncomfortable as the embarrassingly human, and fatally flawed, number four, which is why the sight of Manning's desperation to regain his health is so unlike anything, while in the public eye, that we've ever seen from him.

Every comic book hero has a point of origin in their tale that explains how their identity was shaped, how they received their powers, and what their ultimate weakness might be. In short, every hero has a moment in their life that sets forth a chain of events, but the thing about chains is that every link can be viewed as either a cause or an effect. Superman's story does not end with him being jettisoned through space, never encountering another being. No, eventually, he lands on earth in a bright flare of meteoric light, causing a farmer and his wife to rush out into the cornfields to take him in, and in their love, he finds a reason to cherish the planet earth. And it's in thinking about how one is wired and how that's different than how one is molded that leads to the conundrum that is Peyton Manning: Is he a king or an underdog? Artificial intelligence or flesh and blood? Superman or one of us?

We don't ask these questions of Brett Favre or Tom Brady. We know Favre is more like us than we're comfortable admitting, and Brady is anything other than the Everyman, no matter how late he was drafted. But Peyton Manning is different.

He is one of the few athletes who has hands down been recognized as one of the best ever and has also managed to come off as the ultimate underdog against his rivals: Florida and New England. His throwing motion is as precise as a guillotine, but it's his running motion that is indelibly atrocious. He's funnier than most of his teammates, but he's also the most serious. He's won a Super Bowl and four MVPs, but, somehow, if he never plays again, it won't feel like a finished career--it'll feel like college did, all full of unfinished business, with an aftertaste of disappointment. So, while Tyler Bray looked dreary and downcast on the UT sidelines this past Saturday, there's no question who the saddest Tennessee quarterback was--it was the relentless cyborg, Peyton Manning, haunting the globe for a cure to the wires that keep him human. 


Langston said...

It's incredibly depressing to think about Peyton not being able to do what he was built for but maybe not. Because we all know he will do whatever it takes to get back on the field. And the reports on stem cell surgeries only confirm this fact.

September 22, 2011 at 10:23 PM
Russ said...

I believe the chant was "Cut that meat". Although its depressing to hear these extreme measures his is taking to get back, you have to love the competitive drive. I hope the Colts stay in it long enough to make Manning's choice justified.

September 23, 2011 at 9:57 AM
Teach said...

Thanks, Russ, correction made.

September 23, 2011 at 4:23 PM

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