“I don’t believe I throw quite the same as before I was injured,” Manning says by phone on his way home from a recent Broncos practice. “A lot of that is injury, a lot of it is being 37 years old, and a lot is playing with a new team. I’ve had a lot of change. It’s hard to know what percentage is what. I’m just trying to be the best player I can be in this new chapter.”
Cut by Indianapolis post-surgery, it seemed victory enough when Manning made it back to the field in a Broncos uniform last season and led them to a 13-3 record. But those closest to him say the feat was if anything underestimated. “I don’t think people really understand what he overcame,” says Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, Manning’s offensive coordinator at the University of Tennessee. According to Manning’s father Archie, he was closer to retirement than anyone knew.
“It was, ‘Am I gonna throw like a 40-year-old man?’ He didn’t want to be out there if he didn’t belong,” Archie says.
It’s a fact Manning candidly admits, and for the first time discusses without reserve. That he underwent neck surgeries was well-known — it was “a public ordeal,” as he puts it — but what he hasn’t talked about freely until now was just how weak the arm was and how far he had to go to recover it. The surgeries so reduced him that when he began rehabilitation, he could barely grip the ball. “I had to relearn,” he says. And in the relearning, he learned some things about himself. For one, he says, “That I could persevere.”
Manning was born with undeniable gifts, a tangle of ribonucleic acids that bestowed on him golden boyness, a scanning intelligence, and that python-thick arm he got from his cool and silvery old man Archie, who remains a legend at Ole Miss and quarterbacked the New Orleans Saints from 1971 to 1982.
But Manning was also born with a congenital weakness: that neck. He was 16 when his older brother Cooper, a promising wide receiver, received a diagnosis of career-ending spinal stenosis, a collapsing of the spaces between his vertebrae that pressured the spinal cord. Archie insisted his younger sons Peyton and Eli be thoroughly examined for spinal-cervical weakness, too, and a doctor pronounced teenaged Peyton’s neck curvature a potential problem. It wasn’t bad enough to forbid football, but it was less than ideal.