Peyton Manning refused to leave Invesco Field after his post season loss to the Baltimore Ravens. It must have broken his heart to watch Justin Tucker drive a 47-yard field goal through the uprights, sending the Ravens to an American Football Conference Championship that Manning thought he reserved for himself. He must have clenched his jaw while watching Ray Lewis perform a pompous victory dance in front of the Broncos’ home crowd.
Most of all, it must have been painful for him to know that he, once again, fell short of his own aspirations. He left questions of his greatness unanswered, and he had squandered a season that seemed so promising. But, despite the sadness, Manning was not too eager to go home. In fact, he waited four hours in the barren hallways of Invesco Field just for a chance to congratulate his opponent, Ray Lewis, in person. Because that is the type of guy he is.
Critics are sympathetic in the moment but unsentimental in the long run. At the end of the regular season, when Manning had just led the Broncos to their 12th-straight victory and home field advantage throughout the play-offs, critics hailed him as the savior of the Broncos’ franchise. They were in awe of his story: recovering from four neck surgeries in one year to lead a new team to the precipice of professional football. Just a couple of weeks later, following the Denver postseason loss, Manning became the Broncos’ scapegoat. The inspirational stories of his medical recovery were replaced, overnight, with statistics of his game-ending interceptions and his abysmal postseason record of 9-11.
They scowl at Manning’s failures. To them he is unproven. To them his NFL record of four MVP trophies are whispers, incapable of breaking the silence left by a solitary Super Bowl trophy. To them, Manning’s legacy remains unwritten, and his window of opportunity is closing quickly.
These critics maintain that Manning’s legacy will forever be hinged on his ability to overcome his postseason woes and win another Super Bowl. But, perhaps, they are being shortsighted. Perhaps it is necessary to look beyond the accolades and the record books to truly quantify Manning’s success. Perhaps, despite any wins or losses, he has already solidified his legacy.
Manning has the rare gift of injecting grace into the world’s most violent sport. The man walked up to the line of scrimmage and changed the play over a thousand times, but he never let fame change him. With his southern gentility and 1950s haircut Manning has been classy all the way. There have been no records of misdemeanors, no murder controversies and no children out of wedlock. Quite the opposite actually. While in Indianapolis, Ind., Manning paid for the construction and foundation of a children’s hospital. And after being kicked out of Indianapolis, Manning was quoted saying “I truly enjoyed being your quarterback.” He treated the position as an honor, as if he were elected, as if people everywhere were depending on him. He was right.
Manning knows that people everywhere count on him. It’s why he practices with soaking wet footballs, on the off chance that it might rain on game day. It’s why he started 208 straight games when he gets paid regardless of how much time he spends on the field.
Manning is special; he has an uncanny ability to control disorder — to turn chaos into clockwork. His 12 Pro Bowls, four MVPs, Super Bowl victory and All-Decade honors will speak to his greatness but Manning’s class will always differentiate him. He had it in the huddle, he had it in the pocket and he will have it until the very end.
A version of this article is appeared in the Wednesday, Jan. 30 print edition. Nishaad Ruparel is a staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.