"Like Mike, if I could be like Mike." If you are under the age of thirty then this lyrical theme and memorable melody is completely foreign to you. I'll throw you a bone. "I. Am. Malcolm X." Familiar? End of Spike Lee's epic movie about the iconic civil rights acitvist? Again, if you are under thirty I understand. If you are under thirty, then the social media age has taught you to follow as opposed to lead, to trail behind as opposed to emulate. Well, I'm thirty-four and I live to be the best at what I do and who I am. I. AM. PEYTON MANNING.
There is something about the competitive nature of sports that resides with comfort in our DNA. Life is competitive. In grade school you compete to be accepted by your peers. In high school, you compete for prom king. In college, you compete to establish your niche and prepare for the world of employment. We compete for promotions. We compete for attention. We compete for acceptance. We compete trying to survive day to day. We compete to maintain whatever lifestyle we have. Competition is an intrinsic subtext to life. The difference between those of us who are die-hard fans of sports and those who look at us as hopeless and ridiculous is that our competitive drive is a little higher and stronger. Thus, we live vicariously through sports. We call out from work dispirited and even despondent after a devastating loss by one of our teams or favorites. Drinks are on the house when our team wins as the elation trumphs any fiduciary matters. We hate the neighbor in such defeats. We love our enemies after victory. Our teams lose a game. We lose in life. Somehow the interception thrown for a pick-six to cost us the game sends us to our knees in agony because life affords us memories and, unfortunately, the memories that bully their way to the forefront of our minds are those of disappointment and pain. Consequently, the game-losing interception is a stimulant for all of the times we almost did it or we almost had the job or almost had the girl.
Even more, our sports heroes reflect so many things about us. In other words, we often choose them because we see parallels between us and them in our mannerisms, personality, and even skillsets (if we also play sports). In fact, living vicariously through them, for us, sets in motion that their essence and being can invade our spirit. For me, this was evident as a young boy when Magic Johnson was my hero. I not only patterned my basketball game after Magic's but eventually Magic became so much a part of me that I developed a little bit of his personality (the smile, the happy-go-lucky flare). More importantly, Magic was a winner. He was a collegiate champion and NBA champion. On a lesser level, in the leagues I played in, I was a driving force behind teams that were winners. My youth teams won championships and loss very little games. I was an All-Star and the crowning achievement was when the basketball community began calling me "Magic" (a nickname some back home still call me to this day).
GO TO CLOSE UP
Peyton Manning is a winner as well in a more complex and esoteric way. Along with Tim Duncan he is my modern day sports hero. Manning had a record setting 2013-14 campaign with 55 regular season touchdown passes and 5,477 passing yards, eclipsing Tom Brady's TD mark in 2007 and Drew Brees's yardage record in 2011. Both of these records were almost indelibly attached to Dan Marino. Manning now has 491 career TD passes, which is second all time to Brett Favre's 508. He has a whopping 64,964 passing yards, also second to Favre's 71,738 yards. In spite of his detractors and his eight first-playoff-game exits--after normally dominant regular season performances by he and his teams--he does have a Super Bowl win, something his most similar predecessor Dan Marino does not have.
Yet, the critics will say that he falls behind the greatness of quarterbacks like Joe Montana and Tom Brady who have multiple Super Bowl wins. The critics will point to his nine wins and eleven losses in the playoffs entering the 2014 playoff run. The critics will say he fails to display the sheer football supremacy he has showcased so often in the regular season. Legendary sportswriter and ESPN First Take's Skip Bayless has respectfully crowned him "the greatest regular season QB ever." Many pundits have actually come around to at least share this belief. Yet, this title still implies failure because it limits and confines his performances and greatness to a specific plane that does not represent totality. For much of the sports world at-large, Manning is not the greatest of all time because he has failed to live up to their expectations. Yet, the list of great players without championships in all sports is as long and wide as the Nile River.
GO TO EXTREME CLOSE UP
For a guy who not only cherishes the football brilliance of Manning but also the self-effacing, reserved, smart, surprisingly humorous, unassuming person that he is, I also realize the inherent "stains" in his career. I have sensed and felt the quiet but restrained pain he feels when trotting off of the field after those eight crushing playoff losses and one Super Bowl loss. Too often this has resonated within my own soul only to spring forth with nights reflecting on the giant hump that has implanted itself in the middle of my own journey. Sports, like life, is a playground for failure. For die-hard sports fans, that failure isn't eased by the reality that it isn't us playing or earning the millions. We are playing. Why? Because we compete everyday in life. Life, then, is essentially a sport. Repeated failure in life has, sadly, led to many giving up on life.
The real brilliance of Peyton Manning is that he doesn't give up. He comes back fighting. Not only does he come back fighting but he comes back equally strong or stronger. Look at his nnumbers in 2012. After losing to the Ravens in the divisional round of the playoffs under nearly impossible circumstances, he returned in 2013 even more vigilant and determined. His record-setting numbers support this.
I believe that numbers don't lie. Actually, sometimes they tell a painful truth. That truth is often the very failure that hovers over us like an umbrella. Take my St. Louis Cardinals who lost the NLCS after being ahead three games to one with a chance to make a repeat appearance in the World Series in the latter part of 2012. Then, a couple of months later, shortly after the arrival of 2013, Manning and the Broncos saw their seven point lead with thirty seconds remaining in the game obliterated leading to an overtime loss in the divisional round of the playoffs. Fast forward to the NBA Finals where my Spurs let a five point lead with twenty-eight seconds to go and a championship trophy awaiting them slip through their fingers only to lose the game in overtime and eventually the series. Concluding the year of heartbreak was my Cardinals losing in game 7 of the world series. The numbers convey that I should be boasting and reveling in at least two championship rings with the real possibility of two more. However, the absolute value is four losses and that number doesn't lie. That number flashes when the lights are off and those life memories of my own disappointments show up. Suddenly, those career opportunities or life circumstances that have evaded me are illuminated. Though his mind may often exbibit computer-like functionality, Peyton Manning is a human being who can't escape the numbers and what they both mean and don't mean. He like us and we like he grow weary of solving the equations when the numbers don't add up.
GO BACK TO CLOSE UP
Sure, the numbers don't lie and the reality is that they will never add up. For someone like Peyton Manning, the numbers are meant to show us his indefatigability, his fortitude, his pure will, drive and determination. The numbers are meant to show that --as with his 8 early playoff exits--that you never give up. The late, great Jim Valvano taught us that. Never. Give. Up. Those four heartbreaking losses for me mean that I come back and root just as hard for my Cardinals, Spurs and Broncos. In my own life, it means that I, as Barry White once said in his song Get Up, " get up and stay up" no matter how many times I'm rejected, defeated or turned away.
END WITH THE CLOSE UP
I.AM. PEYTON MANNING and so are all of us "sporties" who get up and go at life even harder, whether it's our careers, our relationships, our duties, etc. It's time that we really embrace what Peyton Manning is much the way we have done with Michael Jordan. Yes, Michael won 6 championship rings, including two three-peats and seemed unbeatable at the height of his career. Michael is also in a sport in which he doesn't have to depend on the variables that MANNING has to, namely defense, special teams etc. since football is "specialized" in a way that basketball is not. Still, Jordan offers a different kind of winner in which the numbers are in his favor or the analogy: when life is working on all cylinders for us. Conversely, in Manning we have another kind of winner who wins because he refuses to be beaten down even when the numbers seem to be paradoxical (record setting numbers up against playoff losses and exits) or when life is not working on all cylinders for us. If you are this type of winner, then both you and I operate very much in the mold of Peyton Manning. 2014 has arrived and I believe it's his year. I sense another championship ring that should surely catapult him firmly into the discussion for the best quarterback of all time. Neither Montana nor Brady will be able to say they won a championship with two separate teams. Let's not forget Manning's four MVP's and likely a fifth for the 2013-14 season. Yes, 2014 is Peyton Manning's year and mine....and yours if you can see it through my lens.