Peyton Manning’s storybook ending to the NFL not all it seems
Tawdry allegations and crass commercialisation made this a strange farewell
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning speaks during his retirement announcement. He left many in the room in tears. Photograph: David Zalubowski/AP Photo
In the four weeks that elapsed between Peyton Manning winning the Super Bowl and announcing his retirement from the NFL last Monday, an inordinate amount of media coverage focused less on his future plans and more on a tawdry incident from his past.
As a star quarterback at the University of Tennessee 20 years ago, did he merely moon a fellow player as a female trainer was treating him for a foot injury, or did he actually shove his genitals directly into the woman’s face? The type of question to which there is really no good answer.
“I did not do what has been alleged, and I am not interested in re-litigating something that happened when I was 19 years old,” said Manning when the issue was briefly raised at his valedictory press conference. “Kind of like my daddy used to say when I was in trouble, ‘I can’t say it any plainer than that.’ This is a joyous day. It’s a special day. Like Forrest Gump said, ‘That’s all I have to say about that.’”
The problem is Forrest Gump was not a beloved national icon running from a disturbing episode in which the victim has twice received settlements in court, one from the college and another from the Manning family (as part of a defamation suit in which among other thing it was alleged “she was a foul mouthed character who liked black guys”).
As denouements to epic careers go, this has been one of the strangest in the American sporting canon. Dropped by the Broncos early in the season due to poor form, Manning returned to lead his team to an unlikely Super Bowl triumph over the Carolina Panthers then behaved rather bizarrely during the on-field celebrations.
One of the first persons he hugged and kissed was John Schnatter, founder of the Papa John’s pizza chain. Aside from fronting commercials for the company, Manning owns 21 of their franchises in Colorado, stores that have apparently boomed since marijuana was legalised in that state.
If the sight of him embracing a business partner before any family members – imagine Rory Mcllroy yukking it up with Nike’s Phil Knight on the 18th at Augusta – wasn’t jarring enough, he then repeatedly mentioned his desire to drink some Budweisers in post-game interviews. That seemed innocent enough until it turned out he owns two of the brewery’s distributors in Louisiana.
Incidences of terribly crass commercialism aside, the Super Bowl still seemed like a storybook ending to an 18-year career stint behind the line of scrimmage during which he redefined aspects of the game
“He set the standard for how to play the quarterback position,” said New England’s Tom Brady, his great rival, who confessed that he has folders of notes about Manning’s plays. “I realised the level of commitment you must have to be great, watching him do it. I know the time I put in, so I knew the time he had to have put in. It’s not nine to five. It’s a lifelong commitment. Football is a sport, it’s an art, it’s a religion. It’s all-encompassing. He mastered it.”
Amid the veritable industry of hagiographies launched by his retirement, nobody dwelled too much this week on the rather controversial viewpoint that the Broncos, with their magnificent defence, lifted the Vince Lombardi Trophy in spite of and not because of Manning. That no other club was interested in snapping up the NFL’s most visible pitchman for the coming season neatly summed up how much his talent had been diminished by age and injury in recent seasons.
“God bless all of you and God bless football,” declared Manning in a farewell address that reduced some in the room to tears.
He won’t be gone long. With his “gee whizz, aw shucks” demeanour somehow impervious to the aforementioned scandals, he will be the subject of a bidding war between television networks. There is also speculation that somebody with a personal fortune around $150m and such canny business sense could easily put together a consortium to purchase an NFL team of his own. The Tennessee Titans would be a logical choice. Tennessee is, of course, where, ahem, it all began.