When I was a child, I used to envy star athletes. They would retire young – having already accrued a lifetime of fame, wealth and accomplishment – and life would now be an open road on which they could do whatever they wished, being rich enough to do it and young enough to enjoy it.
But what if the open road were a vast wasteland? Who knows if athletes see delicious anticipation and opportunity or dread in retirement?
We can only imagine what’s going through Peyton Manning’s mind as he prepares to call it a day after 18 years of throwing a football with commanding accuracy. The five-time NFL MVP and two-time Super Bowl Champ – most recently just weeks ago as his Denver Broncos triumphed over the Carolina Panthers – was to many the ultimate quarterback, the classic pocket passer who could read a field like a gridiron Alexander the Great. (Indeed, he is one of the inspirations for the confident, humorous Tam Tarquin in my upcoming novel, “The Penalty for Holding.”)
In a larger cultural context, Manning, who studied theater in school, has also struck gold as an oblivious everyman in pitches for everything from Nationwide to Visa to Papa John’s Pizza.
“Hooked it just a little bit,” he singsongs to the Nationwide theme in a new commercial as an errant golf shot apparently hits a car and its alarm goes off in the distance.
To see Peyton Manning on “Saturday Night Live” was to understand part of what made him a great football player. Like Louis Pasteur, Manning understood that “Chance favors the prepared mind.” You got the sense that Manning had memorized not only his lines but everyone else’s.
He leaves under a cloud, however, with allegations of taking HGH, human growth hormone, and a resurfaced sexual harassment suit that stems from his days at the University of Tennessee. Not that this matters much in the NFL where Manning has practically been a choirboy amid alleged and convicted felons.
What does matter in the NFL – in any sport– is performance and youth, not necessarily in that order. Staring into his 40s with all kinds of neck and spinal injuries behind him, Manning was not going to be a Bronco next season.
The NFL is a workplace – a glamorous workplace but a workplace nonetheless. And the rule of thumb in any workplace is that sooner or later the boss will be looking to get rid of you. It happened to Joe Montana, who ultimately gave way on the San Francisco 49ers roster to his understudy, Steve Young. And it happened to Manning when the Indianapolis Colts released him for the newer model, Andrew Luck.
No one is indispensible. And no career lasts forever, even one as illustrious as Manning’s.
Let’s let Tom Brady – Manning’s mighty opposite on the New England Patriots – have the last word, shall we?
“You changed the game forever,” he posted in a Facebook tribute.
Or maybe he’s just staring into a not-so-distant mirror.