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03.08.12

Peyton Manning’s Classy Exit From the Indianapolis Colts

One of football’s greatest quarterbacks managed to leave his team in dignity. Buzz Bissinger on whether the aging quarterback should play again after his release from the Colts.

I listen to sports talk radio where I live, in Philadelphia. To avoid truthiness I listen addictively, which of all the words I have written over the past year, may well be the ones most worthy of condemnation.

I am listening right now. I am listening to the host speculate about the future landing strip of quarterback Peyton Manning, who announced at a press conference Wednesday that he has been severed from the Indianapolis Colts after 14 seasons. The host is hoping and praying that he comes to the Philadelphia Eagles because the host is correct in his assumption that Michael Vick has become an expensive stiff, too small to see over defenders, too injury-prone, too hateful of the pocket.

My guess is that every sports talk radio host in every city where there is a National Football League team, except the New York Giants, where Peyton’s little brother Eli plays, is hoping the same thing. Much of life seems to hinge on hyperventilation or hyperventilated speculation these days—politics, the economy, the housing market, the next child Angelina will adopt whether Brad likes it or not, and of course sports.

I understand the urgent prayer of the talk show host I am listening to that Peyton Manning come to Philly, though whether he can still or even should play is still a serious question, because of a neck injury that has already required three surgeries. He is 35 and missed all of last season, but given that the rest of his career has been a canvas of magnificence, he is perhaps still worth the risk.

But I wish the speculation would temporarily pause. While it’s natural, it undercuts the quiet beauty of what happened Tuesday, not only the greatest quarterback of the past half-century announcing his goodbye to a team and city he so clearly loved, but articulating it with dignity and lack of recrimination and a voice fighting so hard to fend off tears.

It was a small moment in sports, no match for the hyperventilation over Jeremy Lin and claims of a bounty system for injuring opponents by the New Orleans Saints and now the Peyton Manning sweepstakes. The way in which Manning spoke, and the heart with which he did speak, will probably be forgotten by the time this column lands on the website. What will continue is the endless and silly sportswriterly sport of where Manning will end up, because no one knows with any surety where Manning will end up. It is just more grist for the hyperventilation/speculation mill, another opportunity for supposed experts to prove their expertise by acting like they are experts.

That’s the way it works today, un-information as information. That’s the way it has always worked, to a certain degree, but in the swell of according-to-sources scoops that turn out to be non-scoops, the truly precious moments of sports all too often get cast aside.

Wednesday was one of them. I find myself rarely moved by much of anything in sports, where the motivations of greed and commercialism and duplicity and trying to gain an angle by cheating are always lurking.

I was so powerfully moved by Peyton Manning. I was moved by that voice fighting so hard to choke back tears.

But I was so powerfully moved by Peyton Manning. I was moved by that voice fighting so hard to choke back tears. I was moved when he said, “Times change, circumstances change, and that’s the reality of playing in the NFL.” I was moved when he said, “I’ll always be a Colt. I always will be. That’ll never change.” I was moved when he talked about all the members of the Colts organization he would miss, even the equipment guys. I was not simply moved, but impressed, when he acknowledged the difficult decision owner Jim Irsay faced in whether to keep him with the Colts by paying him the $28 million bonus he would have been entitled to, or releasing him to make way for Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, the No. 1 pick in the draft in April.

Six weeks ago, Manning and Irsay were taking little snipes at each other. Manning said in an interview with Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star that everyone in the organization was “walking around on eggshells” because of all the change and tumult and coaches that were liked by players getting their release papers. Irsay in turn called Manning “a politician.”

Given Manning’s career with the Colts—54,828 throwing yards, 399 touchdown passes, a Super Bowl win in 2006, a four-time MVP, a record of true philanthropy as opposed to athletic faux-philanthropy in which generosity is considered a public relations problem—Irsay should have kept quiet. I have been to Indianapolis: were it not for the presence of Manning, the city should be in Canada.

But if Manning held a grudge, there was no evidence of it. And I don’t believe he held one. He did understand the stakes involved. This is the reality of the NFL. Irsay for his part was dignified as well, a hard thing for a family whose previous patriarch dumped Baltimore for Indianapolis in the middle of the night in 1984, filling up 12 moving vans and sneaking out of town before the sun came up. Jim Irsay announced at the press conference that the number Manning wore, 18, would be immediately retired. It was a small gesture, but it was a gesture, and he too fought back tears when he spoke.

I hope Manning does come back, his presence so terribly needed in a league mired in mediocrity and non-personality, except for wide receiver punks. I love the way he acts as a mad maestro before the snap, gesticulating with sharp and brilliant strokes to outfox a defense that is trying to outfox him. Along with brother Eli and father Archie, the Mannings are the sports equivalent of the Kennedy clan, an aggregate of 35 seasons played, 60.4 miles thrown for, 709 touchdown passes. But I also hope Peyton Manning has the sense not to return if his neck is not fully healed. Unlike Brett Favre, I think that Manning has too much wisdom to cling to a game out of desperation when the game no longer wants him.

But all of that is for later. Until this morning at least, when I turn on sports talk radio and listen to the continued saga of the Peyton Manning Merry Go-Round, who’s in, who’s out, I really don’t care where he goes or what he does.

I just want to luxuriate in a sliver of sports that was important and poignant and, in its own way, poetic. I just want to think about a man coming to grips with the end of something so powerful, because it was something so powerful, with such uncommon grace.