I heard that there might be an act of civil disobedience on Peyton Manning’s behalf, so I went to see for myself. It was a glorious Saturday afternoon in Indianapolis, and there had been chatter on Facebook about a protest, something called Occupy For No. 18, but it turned out no one had secured a permit and they didn’t know what might happen if they just showed up at Monument Circle or in front of Lucas Oil Stadium — a flash mob in football jerseys — and the whole Occupy Peyton movement fizzled out before it began. “We had about 15 of those Occupy protesters out here in front of the statehouse a few months back,” said the president of the city’s chamber of commerce, when I shared this story. He chortled a little. “That didn’t last long.”
And so instead I circled the stadium all alone, a colossal photograph of Peyton Manning looming three stories above my head. In the picture, his legs are splayed and his nose is scrunched and his mouth is rumpled into that wholly unintimidating Manning sneer, and surely he is on the verge of shouting the names of mammalian subspecies and prominent American universities and exotic foodstuffs and terms of the phonetic alphabet, some of which are hot routes and some of which are bluffs and some of which are an indecipherable hybrid of the two. Were it any other quarterback, this picture might seem an odd choice to drape on the side of a building — there is nary an actual football in sight — but this is the iconic image of Peyton Manning’s career. He is the greatest passer of his generation, and he appears most at ease when engaged in obfuscation.
The chamber of commerce president’s name was Kevin Brinegar, and on a Friday afternoon we sat in his office, which has an expansive view of the stadium and of the street where a zip line had been set up during Super Bowl week in Indianapolis. In the ensuing dead period between the Super Bowl and the NFL combine, the back-and-forth between Manning and Colts owner Jim Irsay — over whether Manning will rehab his injured neck with the Colts next season, or whether he will sign with another franchise, or whether he will retire from football altogether — had continued to escalate. Both parties are insisting that there is no animosity even as both parties continue to jockey for high ground when it comes to public opinion. At one point, Irsay referred to Manning as a “politician,” and then he made a sly political maneuver of his own, declaring that the choice of whether to re-sign with the Colts was up to the quarterback himself. The Colts, he said, were willing to “make it work,” and if “making it work” meant forgoing the $28 million option bonus due on March 8 and restructuring the contract of a passer recovering from spinal fusion surgery (and then drafting Andrew Luck with the no. 1 pick), then that worked for him.
You would expect that the impending loss of the most important athlete in city history would arouse community-wide angst, and there is some of that — the most prominent sports columnist in town, Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star, wrote of being interrogated about Manning by a Starbucks barista — but amid the frenzied quest for information, there is an underlying sense of pragmatism, and it is hard to imagine that some of this doesn’t have to do with Peyton Manning himself. People don’t want to lose him, but they are not about to test the boundaries of the First Amendment on his behalf. People would like Peyton Manning to stay, if he feels so inclined, but in Andrew Luck they see a younger and healthier iteration of the same quarterback, and they wonder if the tradeoff is an inevitable fact of life in the NFL. They are attached to Manning the Symbol, but they are not so attached to Manning the Person that they are willing to approach this situation with blind loyalism. This is business, after all, and in the end they feel that the Colts’ business is really none of their business.
“That this [Manning-Irsay] discussion has been so public has been a big disappointment for me and a lot of people,” Brinegar told me. “There’s a much more classy way to handle this. The Colts have been handled in such a classy way during this era. You don’t see Colts players getting fined for excessive celebration. The junk, the nonsense, it’s just not tolerated here.1 There’s a lot of deviation from the pattern we’ve seen. They’re connecting through the media rather than through each other.”
As far as American metropolises go, Indianapolis is relatively young, and its identity, at least as a sports town, is relatively fresh. In the early 1970s, people would roam downtown streets picking off pigeons with shotguns; for entertainment, there was “the 500-mile speedway race, and then 364 days of miniature golf, and then the 500-mile speedway race again,” Indianapolis native Kurt Vonnegut once wrote.
In 1967, along came the Pacers — an ABA franchise that played its home games in a barn on the state fairground; a franchise known as the “Indiana” Pacers so as to draw a fan base statewide, for there was little confidence that they could make a go of it as just an Indianapolis team. Allegiances among Indiana natives have long been fractured; in the north there were Bears fans, and in the south there were Reds fans, and in the west there were Cardinals fans. Eventually, the Pacers moved to Market Square Arena downtown, and Irsay’s father, Bob, loaded those Mayflower moving vans in Baltimore under cover of darkness, and both franchises floundered their way through the 1980s.
“The big question in Indianapolis,” said Dale Ogden, a curator at the Indiana state museum, “was always, ‘Are we really a major league city?’”
Indiana is still a state defined by basketball, Super Bowl be damned, and the dominant sporting persona of the late 20th century in this state was one Robert Montgomery Knight, a college basketball coach whose personal transgressions were forgiven because his Indiana University program appeared to embrace an overarching morality. As long as his kids graduated, as long as they weren’t implicated in bar brawls, as long as they were winning championships, Knight could get away with hurling chairs and berating reporters and threatening officials.
The transcendent hero for the Pacers in the 1990s was Reggie Miller, who unleashed a steady barrage of verbal diarrhea on the court but was an exemplary citizen off the court. It was Miller who stood up to the bullies in New York — “Hicks versus Knicks,” they called it around here, taking pride in their lack of sophistication, as they once did when Larry Bird burst onto the national scene out of French Lick — and it was through Miller that Indianapolis began to shape its identity as something more than the capital of a fractious Midwestern state. Those Pacers teams, even though they never won a championship, were the first major step for civic pride through sports, for the notion that maybe Indianapolis was a major league city, and that it could stand up to New York City, skeptics be damned.
The second step came in 1998, when the Colts used the first pick in the NFL draft to choose Peyton Manning — prolific and steady and maybe a little bit boring — over a volatile boom-or-bust talent from Washington State.
“Scouts, executives and coaches, most of them speaking anonymously, popped off about Manning’s alleged liabilities; unspectacular arm strength, limited mobility, a lesser upside than (Ryan) Leaf. It became fashionable to depict Manning as the safe pick, with Leaf cast as the potential mother lode.” —Michael Silver, Sports Illustrated, November 22, 1999
“There is something about Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning that gets people worked up.” —Sean Gregory, Time, January 26, 2007
The Colts went 3-13 in Manning’s first season, and then went 13-3 the next year. From 2002 to 2010, they never won fewer than 10 games. Even if his career ends now, it is hard to imagine him not being regarded as one of the five greatest quarterbacks in NFL history: He made 11 Pro Bowls, was named the Associated Press league MVP four times, and was named the Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2005 and the Super Bowl MVP in 2006. If not for his neck injury, he might have broken Brett Favre’s record for consecutive games played; if not for Tom Brady, he might have won three Super Bowls himself. And this is where it gets hairy, because Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will forever be intertwined, and like Magic and Bird, Manning and Brady stand at opposite poles of the American spectrum. No quarterback in modern history has so embodied the notion of athlete as matinee idol quite like Tom Brady. And Peyton Manning? “He’s always come across as kind of a doofus,” said David Hoppe, a contributing editor at NUVO, an Indianapolis alternative weekly.
This perception has shaped his image from the beginning. When Manning was fresh out of college, Sports Illustrated wrote about his propensity to turn his underwear inside-out so he could wear it two days in a row. He once called his sister-in-law to ask her how to heat soup, and once called his wife to ask how to open a can of soup. “He’s always going to be the guy who steps in dog poop, and every time he eats a sandwich or a hamburger, he’ll end up with ketchup down his leg, mustard on his ear,” said one of his childhood friends.
For most of his career, it was almost de rigueur to belittle Manning, to presume that someone so gawky and cerebral and nerdy could not possibly be a great quarterback. At various points, he has been compared unfavorably to Leaf, Brady, Drew Brees, Andrew Luck, and (now) his own brother. That crinkly Manning face, the sense of privilege and predestination that has attended Manning and his family since childhood — Peyton Manning was so transcendently great at the mental aspects of playing quarterback that we took his physical gifts for granted. Even after winning a Super Bowl, he did not measure up to the iconography of his position, and for this reason, we’ve probably looked for loopholes far more than we should have.
Peyton Manning: Great quarterback, but …
“I grew up a Colts fan, and John Unitas had this killer charisma — he had the aura of a dominant quarterback,” said Hoppe. “He was the authority. Peyton Manning — I would not call him a charismatic guy. Likable, decent … but you put him on the field, and this incredible artist emerges. He’s like Walter Mitty.”
In the wake of the Pacers-Pistons brawl in 2004, at a moment when the team’s own fan base began to refer to the Pacers as “The Thugs,” Manning and the Colts emerged as an antidote. Was there a racial element to a conservative Midwestern city embracing a white quarterback at a time of communal angst over the actions of a few mostly African American athletes? “Our roots are Southern, and really, really, really white,” said Dale Ogden, the curator at the Indiana State Museum. “And you’ve got this 6-foot-4 white guy with a Southern drawl as the hero? Well, duh.”
And so it was only natural that Manning become one of the most important symbols in the city’s history. His behavior has always been exemplary. There is a children’s hospital named after him on the outskirts of town, and his foundation for disadvantaged youth has made an impact in the community; in the early years, he was known to personally gift equipment to local high school football programs. There is an argument to be made that Manning altered the perception of Indianapolis as much as anyone living there today. Now, there is no more doubt as to whether this is a major league city; minor league cities don’t host Super Bowls.
“There is no Super Bowl held here without Peyton,” Ogden said. “There is no Lucas Oil Stadium without Peyton. Without Peyton, the Colts would probably be in L.A. right now.”
And yet, Ogden tells me, no one imagines that Peyton Manning will choose to stay in Indianapolis because of his personal connection with the city. No one thinks, Peyton Manning will stay because he would like his children to grow up here. His roots remain in the south, in New Orleans, where he grew up, and Tennessee, where he attended college. Hoppe has lived in Indianapolis for 22 years, and he’s never seen Peyton Manning in the flesh outside of a football stadium. Manning doesn’t make himself seen; when he was young and single, he used to eat his meals in the Wendy’s parking lot in order to avoid the attention. “There’s a hell of a lot about him I don’t know,” Hoppe said, and as with everything else in Manning’s career, this is part of the design.
Without doing a Google search, I couldn’t tell you anything about Peyton Manning’s wife, outside of her first name. I don’t know offhand how many children he has, and I certainly don’t know the names of his children, and I don’t know where he spends the offseason (nor did anyone I asked in Indianapolis). And yet for several years, Manning was not only the most prominent member of the most public football family in America, but the most ubiquitous athlete/pitchman in the country. His identity, outside of football, is shaped entirely by advertising, and this only reinforced his image as the goofball we imagined him to be.
Manning has permitted himself to be portrayed as the doofus, in part because he has better comedic timing than a lot of actual comedians. Those Manning commercials are legitimately funny; his Saturday Night Live appearance, including this United Way spoof, was better than virtually any other SNL of the past decade that didn’t involve Justin Timberlake or Alec Baldwin. Other athletes have resorted to comedy to soften their image, but few are willing to become the butt of the joke, as Manning did time and again, in service of credit-card companies and cellular-phone providers and whoever else might cut him a paycheck for reciting a few lines in that gawky drawl of his. He was not particularly selective; he was so ubiquitous that it gave his critics another reason to find him lacking.
Sometimes the comedy came back to haunt him, as when Patriots fans chanted “CUT THAT MEAT” during the final minutes of a 2004 playoff win over the Colts. It seemed like fair game: If Manning was going to make jokes about himself, why shouldn’t we make jokes about him? The commercials humanized him (and made him even more fabulously wealthy), but do we really want our quarterbacks to be human? Don’t we want them to be larger than life? Do we want to imagine them cheering on the neighborhood insurance adjuster? Aren’t they supposed to be the straight men? Isn’t that why Mars Blackmon came to exist?
“You can make a career out of being a happy-go-lucky guy,” said Larry DeGaris, an associate professor of sports marketing at the University of Indianapolis. “The problem is, once you cross that line it’s very difficult for people to take you seriously again. Are you going to be serious or be a gimmick? Personally, I would have counseled Peyton Manning to go the living-legend route. Comedy is less profound, less meaningful. How can you take the guy seriously?”
“People can say all they want about Peyton Manning … Peyton Manning had people in the NFL that were not high on him at all. I had people tell me that if his name was Peyton Jones, he would be a third-round pick, that Ryan Leaf was better … There was no consensus on Manning. There is a consensus on Andrew Luck.” —Mel Kiper Jr., 2011
With each day that passes, and with each public statement from Jim Irsay, the city comes closer to letting go. If Manning does depart, his reputation in Indianapolis will be both sterling and devoid of deep sentiment: Manning has been a model citizen, and a model quarterback, and he has stretched the boundaries of what quarterbacking can be, and he has built the Colts from nothing into something. And yet there is a sense, even in Indianapolis, that he somehow failed to live up to expectations. Peyton Manning: Great quarterback, but …
“What’s he really like? I don’t know,” said DeGaris.
“He could have been the king of this town, if he wanted to be,” said David Hoppe.
“There should have been more Super Bowls,” said Dale Ogden.
“Ultimately, you have to remember that this is a business,” said Kevin Brinegar. “I mean, I run a business advocacy organization here. No good businessperson is going to pay another $28 million to someone if they truly cannot play anymore.”
There is some truth to Irsay’s characterization of Manning as a politician: He grew up under a spotlight, and Indianapolis, being what it is, permitted him his space. There is a mutual respect, and perhaps even a love, between athlete and city — there are now hundreds of children named Peyton frolicking on small-town playgrounds across Indiana — but it is more fraternal than passionate.
He’s the epitome of us, Colts fans have been saying for nearly a decade, but if Irsay chooses not to pay him his $28 million and Manning bolts for Nashville or some other NFL city, says Ogden, “then he’s not the epitome of who we are anymore.” Then he is just a symbol of who they once were.