JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Three years ago, with his neck ailing and his football career in jeopardy, Peyton Manning found himself in an unfamiliar place.
“I was at peace,” Manning said. “If that was going to be the end of it because of a neck injury, I really, believe it or not, had a peace about it.”
Sometimes, you have to descend to ascend.
Manning had been a quarterbacking machine for most of his life, locked inside his ambition, a prisoner to the high maintenance of greatness. For a player who has achieved so much, a Hall of Famer seemingly out of the womb, the demand always increases for Manning, and he fueled much of it with his insatiable pursuit of perfection.
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He is the quintessential quarterback in both his play and his burden. No one has ever worn the position better. No one has been praised more for his team’s success. And no one has been criticized more for his postseason shortcomings.
But in 2011, when a neck injury that required four surgeries in a two-year span forced him out of the game, Manning had to face something about himself: He’s just a normal dude.
And once he realized his mortality, he turned into an even greater superhero.
Manning has a scar that looks like a zipper on his neck. He can’t throw with great velocity anymore, and his passes wobble more than ever. After his injury, the Indianapolis Colts let him go in favor of drafting Andrew Luck, and Manning, a creature of habit, was forced to find a new home with the Denver Broncos.
Yet he still had the greatest individual regular season ever for a quarterback: 5,477 passing yards and 55 touchdowns, both records, while commanding the highest-scoring offense in NFL history. And he can balance accomplishment and perspective now.
Manning’s older brother, Cooper, was forced to retire from football because of a neck issue that could be problematic for all the Manning boys.
“In some ways, when I had my neck problems, I thought maybe I had been on borrowed time this entire time,” Peyton Manning said. “I was fortunate to have 20 years of health to play football.”
From age 15 to 35, Manning never missed a game because of injury. During his year away from football and the grueling process to return to strength, Manning found the proper place for the game. It’s his passion. It’s his job. But it’s not his life. He’s still a perfectionist, but he’s not obsessed with perfection.
On Tuesday night of this Manning Legacy Bowl week, the quarterback played uncle. For the first time, he met his 8-month-old niece, Lucy, the daughter of his two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback brother, Eli. He beamed while talking about a rare opportunity for family time during Super Bowl preparations.
“I am not a robot,” Manning says when asked how he’s changed. “Maybe, at one time, I was as a younger player. I might have been. I’ve changed my preparation routine in these later years. There are a lot of things that have changed for me since that injury. Enjoying the new team and having kids has a lot to do with that.
“There was a time when I would come home from practice, and I would stay up until 1, 1:30 in the morning because I had to watch all four of their exhibition games that night. I thought that if I didn’t watch all four of those games, the world might come to an end the next day. I felt like I had to do it. I didn’t need to sleep as much, and I was a younger player. My preparation has changed. I come home, and I love spending time with the kids and putting them to bed. I don’t stay up as late. I need to get my rest more. Maybe I was a robot early on. Now, maybe I am a little more human.”
He acts human, but on the field, he still performs like something created to destroy defenses everywhere. He still scrambles at the line of scrimmage, calling audibles and barking orders like a mad man. Only Manning could turn his constant yelling of “Omaha!” into an international fascination.
How did a fused neck make Manning even better? His mind, not his body, has always been his most potent weapon. That mind is more agile than ever.
“Sometimes, he even changes the defensive plays if he wants,” Denver linebacker Danny Trevathan joked.
Manning is having too much fun to retire. If you once thought the game was wearing him down, that no longer seems to be the case. He doesn’t get as visibly frustrated as he used to during games. He’s more in the moment than he has ever been.
But even if this isn’t the end for Manning, Sunday represents a seminal game in his career. It’s a historic matchup of the league’s best offense and its best defense. The Seahawks, who specialize in tormenting quarterbacks and their passing games, provide the greatest challenge of Manning’s career.
“Seattle, this is the best secondary he’s going to face,” Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman said.
If Manning flops on this stage, the criticism will surface again. He’ll be reminded that he has won just one Super Bowl. Some will consider his record-setting regular season nothing more than proof than he’s the best quarterback ever — until he gets to the postseason.
If Manning excels, he’ll earn more Greatest-of-All-Time votes.
But don’t bother Manning with that legacy talk this week. He has a niece to hug. And a life, a full life, to enjoy.
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Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @JerryBrewer