NEW YORK — Peyton Manning doesn’t need to go out on top. He needs to go out when he’s done, when he’s too slack-armed to salt his food much less complete a pass, and not a moment before. He shouldn’t let anyone push him toward that placid, empty vale called retirement.
“I feel like they’re dropping hints to me,” he said earlier this week. “All these hints at, like, retirement. I guess everybody’s trying to get rid of me.”
The presumption that Manning should consider quitting if the Denver Broncos beat the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, that winning his second Super Bowl would complete him to the point of finality, has dogged him all week. His fellow Broncos have quietly asked him to autograph keepsake No. 18 jerseys for them, in case the Super Bowl is his last appearance.
“I must have signed 10 jerseys for my teammates,” he said. “Which makes me think they think I probably should be out of here after this game.”
The habit of subtly encouraging older athletes to go out on top is a kind of anti-aging complex: No one wants to watch their skills deteriorate, or their cheekbones fall. The inclination is to freeze-frame them, and to cringe from watching their career twilight. The usual phrase is that they shouldn’t “tarnish the legacy,” meaning that to hang on will result in some weird emotional voiding of all they ever did.
But there is something captivating about the dying fall of Manning’s passes, and the faint graying in his short lick of taupe-colored hair. What drives the retirement conversation is the combination of his age, 37, and the unlikeliness of his comeback from a fourth neck surgery, which sidelined him for all of 2011 and left him with a nerve-damaged arm. In fact, he’s in the most riveting phase of his career: working with a compromised body for unforeseen rewards, a paradoxical peak in which his numbers have never been better, while his arm has been noticeably weaker.
Watching Manning post-surgery is like watching an expert picking locks. What nimbleness there is in his movement is all know-how.
The kid quarterbacks throw balls that look like they were shot out of phasers. Manning’s passes are more of a vanishing: one minute the ball is in his hand, and the next, in someone else’s. Sure, sometimes it wobbles and swoons before it gets there. Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman is exactly right when he observes that Manning can throw “ducks,” and that “he doesn’t necessarily catch the laces all the time.” That’s not a criticism; it’s just fact, partly a result of lingering nerve damage from the surgery, as Manning himself acknowledged — though with a competitive bristle.
“I do throw ducks,” Manning said. “I throw a lot of yards and touchdown ducks, so I’m actually quite proud of it.”
If all athletes retired when the sheen came off their physical gifts, it would eliminate the marvelous surprise of second acts. No, Manning’s body isn’t what it used to be, but he is physically sound and there are even startling signs that his arm is still coming back alive. As Pierre Garcon observed, “from early this year to the end of this year, he’s throwing the ball better.” The arc of Manning’s recovery has been tremendous. He was so weak after surgery, even his own brother Eli believed he was finished.
“I was pretty much convinced that he was done,” Eli said on the NFL Network this week. “There was no way he could come back and play football. That first time he went and we were just throwing it in the backyard of our house. We’re throwing 15 yards away, and it was a lob. He couldn’t throw 15 yards on a line. It had no pop.”
It was surprising enough when Manning won Comeback Player of the Year, but it was just a limbering up as he adjusted a new system in moving from the Indianapolis Colts to the Broncos, and new teammates. Why would he walk away just when he’s been given the best, deepest receiving corps he’s ever had in Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas?
“I feel a little bit better than I thought I would coming off that surgery a couple of years ago,” he said. “I feel better physically. I’ve been rejuvenated playing under a different offense, playing with new receivers because it keeps me stimulated every day. So, I certainly would like to keep playing.”
Whether Manning ever sets another record or makes another Super Bowl, to quit with something left would be a betrayal of his basic nature. Retirement and living indolently on money might sound appealing to a bored accountant, or a footsore nurse.
But the attitudes of athletes, who are in the business of exhausting themselves, are different. Competition for them is a form of inquisitiveness, a compulsive questioning of how much they have in them. To be a bystander with something unspent is torture. I learned that several years ago in talking with Manning’s great friend Pat Summitt. Her Tennessee team had just gotten upset in the NCAA Final Four prematurely, and didn’t make it to the championship game. She had to sit idle in the stands and watch Baylor win the title. “Look, you weren’t going to beat Baylor anyway,” I said. There was an outraged pause before she replied. “Well I would like to have tried,” she said hotly.
Nolan Ryan was true to himself when he played baseball until he was 46, and so was Satchel Paige, playing until he was 59. So was Martina Navratilova, winning a Wimbledon doubles title at 49. Legacy to these people doesn’t matter as much as the knowledge that they used themselves up.
“I’d have to be, like, 70 to have a legacy,” Manning said. “I’m not even sure what the word even means.”
He added: “I’m down the homestretch of my career, but I’m still in it. It’s not over yet. And so it’s still playing out.”
There is something courageous about an athlete willing to decline in public, to suffer the loss of vanity and aura of immortality in front of an audience. We puzzle over why they can’t walk away more easily, but maybe Louis Armstrong answered that best: “Musicians don’t retire. They stop when there’s no more music in them.”
Peyton Manning needs to finish his own song.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.