He spent weeks in the weight room pumping embarrassingly low weights, five-pound dumbbells. He’d always been the kind of person who did 15 repetitions when 10 would suffice, but no amount of reps would make the nerve come back faster, and overwork was the worst thing he could do. Trying to throw was like “stepping on the gas and there is no gas in the car,” he says.
“Sometimes progress was not going backwards,” he adds. “It was just a real test of patience unlike anything I had to go through. There was nothing I could do about it.”
Not only was his arm weak; he had a weird sensation that he was no longer sure of where it was when he threw. At one point he tried to fire a ball and it flew a full 12 yards wide of the target. “It’s hard to explain but I kind of lost awareness of my arm in space,” he says. “When you had the same throwing motion for so long — golfers talk about repeating their swing, well, quarterbacks repeat too. But I couldn’t repeat. That was scary. Just discouraging.”
He fought to keep a good attitude, hoping that the arm would somehow dramatically improve at the last minute, so he could show up at the Colts’ training camp. For four months, he woke up every day and told himself that today was the day his arm would come back alive. “You talk about being pretty disappointed around two in the afternoon when you realize today is not the day,” he says.
That September, the disc re-herniated yet again. This time, Manning sought a permanent solution: a fusion to stabilize the neck. It would be his fourth surgery in two years. He sat down with Archie and Olivia, who were concerned that his priority be his health and not football. Manning explained that he was going to give it just one more try.
“I’m gonna work as hard as I can, and listen to the doctors,” he said. “And if the doctors say I can’t, then it’s been a good ride.”
Baby steps, small measurements
At the start of the 2011 season, Manning was in another hospital bed recovering from a single-level anterior fusion: a spinal specialist named Robert Watkins removed the damaged disc from his spinal cord, filled the space with a bone graft, and welded the vertebrae together with a plate and screws. This time when Manning woke up, he could barely throw a dart. The game was prescribed as part of his rehab, but the first time he tossed one, he couldn’t penetrate the dartboard. “I could barely get the thing to stick,” he says.