In his 16-year career, Peyton Manning has never suffered a concussion. Tom Brady has only ever suffered one, according to his father.
So it’s not surprising that the media has mainly focused on the football field and trophy case as we prepare for Sunday’s AFC Championship Game duel between Manning’s Denver Broncos and Brady’s New England Patriots. There’s plenty to discuss between Manning’s record-breaking season (55 touchdown passes, 5,477 yards) and Brady’s unflinching year (his top five receivers from 2012 were either injured, in jail, or on another team); Manning’s four MVP awards (two more than Tom) and Brady’s three Super Bowl rings (two more than Peyton); Manning’s cold weather struggles and Brady’s cold-as-ice reputation; the men’s head-to-head record (10-4 Brady) and their refusal to publicly admit to the rivalry.
In a year in which the conversation has centered as much on concussions as read-option offenses, this might be a welcome respite from the increasingly unsettling and pervasive understanding that America’s real pastime seems to be ruining ex-players’ lives, if not killing them.
These days, we’re constantly trying to reconcile the duality of fandom, Jiminy Cricket sitting on one shoulder while Terry Tate Office Linebacker tries to tackle him from the other. As Grantland’s Brian Phillips wrote in a brilliant piece on “un-innocence” in sports: “Fully aware that we couldn’t love sports with an entirely clear conscience, and fully aware that we still loved sports, we somehow decided that those awarenesses just… didn’t need to be resolved. They were like two bubbles that would pop if they touched each other, only they didn’t touch each other, because we figured out a way to keep them apart.”
Manning-Brady XV, as the contest is being called, seems to be the perfect chance to float away inside that happy sports bubble. We can celebrate pinpoint passing and preternatural feel for the game, debate history and legacy, laugh about “Omaha” and literally cheesy commercials, and enjoy watching two master craftsmen go about their work.
Just ask receiver Wes Welker, who spent six seasons catching passes from Brady before joining the Broncos last offseason. “They’re both spectacular,” Welker said over the summer. “It’s like comparing Picasso and Michelangelo.”
But as beautiful as we expect this game to be—and as important as we know it is—we just can’t forget the serious stuff. Maybe we can for an hour or three on Sunday, but not now, not yet.
The two quarterbacks are obviously products of talent and dedication and hard work, but they’re also products of luck and 21st century medical science. Despite the one concussion combined, their careers have been irrevocably influenced by injury. You can’t really talk about the two of them without thinking about that.
For the first 13 years of his career, 227 consecutive games, Manning was invincible. He never missed a start and seemed to get hit about as often as Muhammad Ali did. Still, it’s impossible to completely avoid collisions playing professional football, and by 2010 Manning was coping with severe neck pain. First there was the pinched nerve and then the herniated disc, which led Manning to undergo four surgeries, including a major spinal fusion procedure. (Read this if you want to spend the rest of your life cautiously rubbing your neck.)
Manning sat out the entire 2011 season, and there were doubts as to whether he’d ever step on the field again. The Indianapolis Colts, the team that drafted him first overall in 1998, released him during that offseason. When he signed with Denver in March 2012, he admitted he had to “relearn” how to throw and said his first attempt “nose-dived after about five yards.” Now it’s clear that he relearned pretty good.
Brady, meanwhile, got his first opportunity to play due to someone else’s injury. He was a backup, firmly planted behind strong-armed Pro Bowler Drew Bledsoe until the second week of 2001, when Bledsoe received a brutal hit from New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis that practically exploded his chest. While Bledsoe recuperated from internal bleeding, Brady took the reins of the Patriots offense and never relinquished them, promptly reeling off his own consecutive-games streak of 128. (Fun fact: Brady’s first career start was against, you guessed it, Manning, and the Patriots dominated 44-13.)
In 2007, Brady lead New England to a perfect 16-0 regular season record only to suffer an agonizing Super Bowl loss to Peyton’s little brother Eli and the New York Giants. The next year, Brady attempted a mere 11 passes before tearing his ACL and missing the rest of the season, essentially sidelining the Patriots’ title aspirations. Fortunately, Brady would also return to peak form, earning the Most Valuable Player award in 2010.
But what if Manning’s neck hadn’t recovered? What if he had tried to come back, only to play a couple middling seasons and then grudgingly retire or, worse, become a backup? What if Bledsoe had stepped out of bounds a yard earlier? What if it had taken Brady several more years to get a crack at a starting role?
There’s no real use dealing in hypotheticals, but thinking about the injury history of Manning and Brady is a reminder of just how fickle football can be. When you hear them talk about how much they love playing football and how grateful they are for their long careers, you realize just how rare that is.
On Sunday, when we settle into our EZ Chairs and become mesmerized by an exhilarating game, we might find ourselves watching Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and forgetting that they’re not immortal, that they’re not football automatons.
But then we’ll notice Welker, the shifty slot receiver who suffered two concussions this season and missed the final three games before the playoffs. We’ll notice his cartoonish helmet, designed to better protect his fragile brain. We may initially laugh, just like we did last week, before checking ourselves and asking, “Wait, if he has to wear that monstrosity, should he really be playing?”
Who knows what Welker’s head will feel like in ten or 20 years? Who knows whether Manning will wake up daily with a burning neck, or whether Brady will be walking with a limp?
When we tune in for Manning-Brady XV, let’s talk audibles and out routes, history and legacy and destiny. Let’s try to escape, however briefly, into that happy sports bubble. But even with Manning and Brady, we can’t live there forever.