Webster’s defines a rivalry as “competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field.” That means Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have a rivalry. A phenomenal one, actually. And yet, it doesn’t feel like one.
For instance, the greatest all-around rivalry of my lifetime was the one between rappers Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. They nailed every staple on a rivalry checklist, including:
— Two former friends turned mortal enemies. (CHECK)
— Two fundamentally different people who grew up in different ways, had different life experiences and just seemed different in every way. (CHECK)
— Two of the greatest in their field, not just at the time, but ever. (CHECK)
— Two unique skill sets that lent themselves to separate “Which skill should you value more?” and “Who had the better career?” arguments that can keep going for the rest of eternity. (CHECK)
— A few seminal moments that directly affected the rivalry. (CHECK)
— Twists and turns throughout the rivalry, with both people grabbing the upper hand. (CHECK)
— A rivalry so heated that it killed them both. (CHECK)
Throw in “Who Shot Ya?” and “Hit ‘Em Up,” and it becomes clear: Brady and Manning couldn’t surpass those guys unless they played a quadruple-overtime postseason game, then fought to the death in the shower afterward.
Even in the sports realm, their rivalry feels I don’t know. Tame? Benevolent? Manufactured? They could never surpass Ali and Frazier; the mutual bitterness isn’t there. They could never trump Bird and Magic; those guys practically grew up trying to beat each other. They could never match what happened between Russell and Chamberlain from 1959 to 1969, have a moment as compelling as Borg and McEnroe’s Battle of 1816, despise one another as much as Shaq and Kobe, capture a generational shift like Palmer and Nicklaus or resonate like Mays and Mantle during the days when America cared about baseball and little else.
Brady and Manning also like one another — a lot — to the point that it’s not worth asking one about the other. When I called Brady this week to pick his brain for a few minutes, the mere mention of Manning’s name had Brady gushing. That’s just how quarterbacks are wired. You never hear them snipe at a rival or grumble about the credentials of a teammate who took their job. (Only after they retire does the possibility of an Esiason-Marino incident come into play.) It’s the single hardest job in sports, and the only people who totally understand that are quarterbacks themselves. They pull for each other. All the time. When Bernard Pollard ended Brady’s 2008 season after eight minutes, a shaken Manning called him to check in. When Brady’s surgically repaired knee developed a staph infection a few weeks later, he remembered Manning battling a similar issue and called his foe for advice, saying later, “He was very encouraging. He always has been. He’s just that kind of a guy, a very classy guy.” I don’t remember hearing that lyric in “Hit ‘Em Up.”
“It’s a small club,” Brady explained to me. “You have former pros, guys who played in college, the present-day guys we all kinda look around and admire the other guys because you realize how much of a challenge [playing quarterback] is. I look at Peyton and think, ‘Man, I wish I could do the things he does.’ I look at Drew Brees, same thing. Or Aaron Rodgers. Anyone. When you play those guys, you aren’t buddies, of course — you WANT to beat them. Any other time, that connection is gonna be there.”
So maybe that’s why the rivalry doesn’t feel contentious. And yet, no two athletes lived out the phrase “competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field” better than Manning and Brady these past 10 years. They did it quietly, peacefully, efficiently but they did it. After what transpired in 2010, when Brady improbably grabbed the upper hand for a third time, it became the National Football League’s best individual rivalry ever. On paper, anyway. Let’s look at my checklist again:
CHECKPOINT No. 1: Two former friends turned mortal archrivals.
Don’t get hung up on this one. Even if it happens in sports from time to time — most famously when Ali turned on Frazier before their first fight, when Shaq and Kobe turned on each other in 2003, and when Ricky Vaughn and Roger Dorn feuded on the 1989 Indians — not every significant rivalry needs a nasty edge. Besides, Bird and Magic are practically brothers at this point. Does that affect how we remember their rivalry? Would it have felt more substantial if Bird had rapped “Tell Me How My A– Tastes” during Boston’s 1984 championship parade? Of course not. Even if it would have been the highlight of my life.
CHECKPOINT No. 2: Two fundamentally different people who grew up in different ways, had different life experiences and just seemed different in every way.
Here’s where the Brady-Manning clash gains momentum. One grew up in the South; the other grew up in Northern California. One was picked first overall; the other was picked 199th. One looks like a bouncer; the other looks like a movie star. One has been considered the best at every level since high school; the other had to repeatedly fight to prove he belonged. For years, one was considered “the talented guy who can’t come through when it matters;” the other was considered “the overachiever who always comes through when it matters.” One embraced his celebrity and enjoyed it, making goofy commercials, parodying himself in sketches and cultivating an image as a relatable Southern guy; the other morphed into an actual celebrity, dating actresses and supermodels, moving to New York and then California, gracing various magazine covers, sponsoring watches and boots, and becoming famous for playing football and for being famous.
If there’s an enduring snapshot of each guy, it’s their postgame news conferences: Brady impeccably dressed and coiffed, looking like he has to bolt in a second because he’s headed for a photo shoot; Manning standing there with that swollen, red helmet blotch on his forehead, looking like he’s about to be whisked away to the hospital for X-rays. At first glance, you’d assume Brady was the No. 1 overall pick who had been anointed as “The Next Great Quarterback” since he was 15 and Manning was the one picked 199th who had to fight for everything. Nope.CHECKPOINT No. 3: Two of the greatest in their field, not just at the time, but ever.
When the NFL Network counted down the 100 best NFL players of all time, Manning finished eighth (third for QBs) and Brady 21st (seventh for QBs). The voting happened last spring, well before Brady revived his prime with a stupendous 2010 regular season: 14 wins, 3,900 passing yards and a 9-to-1 TD-INT ratio (the old record, also owned by Brady, was 6.25-to-1) despite a ramshackle supporting cast of two former practice squad backs, two rookie tight ends, a slot receiver eight months removed from major knee surgery and a No. 1 target whose previous team basically gave him away in Week 6. Now he’s favored to win the Super Bowl — his fourth ring overall, if it happens — which would easily vault him into the top 10 of that same countdown. Not that those rankings matter; Brady didn’t even know about them.
“I don’t like being reflective,” he says. “I feel like I’m at the midpoint of my career; whatever people say in the future, I don’t care. What I feel the best about is winning a football game. That’s it.”
See, that’s why I hate talking to athletes: They tend to ruin the narrative you build in your head. Just know that Barbara Hershey would have to shoot Brady or Manning — and soon, within the next two seasons — for them NOT to be chiseled on the Quarterback Mount Rushmore. To wit