Peyton's Countdown to Canton
Well, Peyton Manning made it official.
On March 7, 2016, he announced he was stepping away from the playing field. A playing field that has been a stage for pro football’s leading man. And typical of the guy who performed so brilliantly for the masses for 18 seasons, he did it with style, dignity, a consciousness of appreciation, and a true reverence for the game’s history.
Coincidently and appropriately, his announcement came on a day when Marvin Harrison and Tony Dungy were visiting the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a part of their Enshrinement Ceremony planning. Talk about surreal. Two individuals, so much a part of Manning’s success and he of theirs, were at the Hall of Fame when the countdown to Canton clock began ticking for the legendary quarterback. Even before the retirement announcement Marvin and Tony had shared stories about the future Hall of Famer.
I was sitting in my office in between meetings with Marvin, Tony and Kevin Greene who was also here, when Peyton’s televised press conference began. As I sat watching his exceptionally eloquent speech with a couple of staff members I half-jokingly suggested he should save his notes and reuse them as his acceptance speech in Canton years from now. It was that good. He offered retrospective appreciation for his teammates, coaches, family, friends, and opponents alike, and left us feeling what we probably already knew, he truly loves the game. And without a doubt, he appreciates all it has provided and taught him. He embraced the values of the game and acknowledged he'd use them the rest of his life.
More than once he had to pause, fight back tears and regain his composure. But for me, the most poignant moment was when he mentioned meeting the legendary Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas and how number 19 offered some brief but sage advice. “Stay at it,” he told Manning. “I’m pulling for you.” Simple and to the point. But that was Johnny U. Obviously those few heartfelt words meant an awful lot to a young man who already had plenty of sports role models, a list that surely began with his father, Archie. But this was Johnny Unitas. Even then, Peyton had such a profound appreciation for those players who came before him. So, when he got choked up talking about Johnny U, I wasn’t surprised.
“I hope that ‘Ol number 19 is up there with his flat top and maybe his black high-tops on,” he managed to say in between gulps of emotional hesitancy. “And,” he struggled to continue, “I hope he knows that I have stayed at it and maybe he’s even a little proud of me.” It was that unique sense of respect that real champions seem to share and understand so well.
It was also at that point I realized that some of Manning’s younger fans may not really know much about Johnny Unitas. Some probably Googled “Johnny Unitas” to learn something about this guy that moved Peyton to near tears. But we grey-hairs who had the privilege of seeing both play, we’ve been pointing out for years the sometimes eerie similarities between the two Colts legends. The poise in the pocket, the slouched posture, the cool take charge composure of a professional doing his job, the “coach” on the field that pushed others to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. That’s what these guys had in common. And very importantly, both understood the game was only over when the clock finally expired; not a second earlier. And that, for Peyton was on March 7, 2016. Congratulations Peyton.
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