By Les Carpenter
Monday, February 5, 2007
MIAMI He walked off the field winner of the Big One at last and into applause beneath the Dolphin Stadium stands Sunday night. Camera lights flashed and a league publicity man came up to greet Peyton Manning, then pointed down the hall toward the interviews.
And on the night he won a Super Bowl, Peyton Manning walked behind a barricade through a tunnel. Stadium workers done for the night stopped in their steps and clapped. Some shouted his name. Manning smiled, but never stopped. Beside him were two Broward County Sheriff's Office escorts in yellow rain jackets. They kept pushing him forward, toward a door where a gantlet of soldiers stood in brown uniforms. When the soldiers saw Peyton Manning on the night he finally won a Super Bowl they began to whoop and shout. And maybe this is where the best quarterback on the brink of being defined by significant defeats realized just what he had done.
He turned his head and mouthed the words "thank you."
Then Manning walked into a giant room, past a sign that read "Winning Coach and Super Bowl MVP," climbed a short staircase, stood behind an interview table and exhaled.
"It's nice to be able to hoist the trophy this year," he said.
All around him, the questions flew about the biggest win of his life and he shrugged and frowned and made "aw, shucks" motions with his lips. He said it "was a great team win" and "we did it together" and all the other things he says to deflect the spotlight.
But, yes, something changed in a monsoon Sunday night. History rewrote itself even as the field gave way and the rest of the Indianapolis Colts stumbled across the grass. Peyton Manning, the reigning Greatest Current Quarterback Never to Win the Big One, had become the game's biggest winner. No one can deny that.
As Manning spoke on the stage, his father, Archie, walked up to the entrance of the hallway that leads to the locker rooms. Archie wore a blue suit and did not know where to go. He held his credential and looked at stadium guards, who simply looked back and shrugged.
"I don't know where Peyton is," Archie said. Then, getting no answer, he began to walk down the hall.
He was asked if it felt good to stop hearing that his most famous son was unable to win the games that mattered most. And he chuckled.
"I won't deny that it hurts," he said. "It's a bunch of baloney, really."
They had not seen each other this week even though both were here in Florida. Archie kept a schedule making visits, doing interviews, while Peyton kept a low profile, participating in only the public appearances required by the NFL and otherwise remaining somewhat secluded at the team's hotel next to the beach in Fort Lauderdale.
But they talked by phone every day. And in those talks Peyton seemed relaxed. All around him the story churned about the quarterback who can't win the Big One, who is tormented by his failings in the big games and was certain to be denied a place on the Olympus of quarterbacks who had both dominated their games and clutched Super Bowl trophies.
At one point the public debate around Super Bowl week turned to the Hall of Fame and whether with 37,586 passing yards at just 30 he would be a first ballot Hall of Famer without the title. The thought was that he needed to win Sunday night.
Yet Manning seemed unfazed by the talk. As the years have gone on, he has become less consumed with his legacy even as others debate it more than ever. Earlier in his career, Archie said, Peyton did more interviews and discussed these subjects because he thought it was his responsibility as one of the best players in the game. As time has passed, he has withdrawn, worrying less about what people think and more about his game.
When Archie visited him one Monday after a Colts game this season, he glanced at the clock and realized that "Monday Night Football" was on. He turned to Peyton and asked if he wanted to watch the game. His son shrugged and turned the television on but with the volume off.
No need to let the message of others define him, even in something as arcane as a football game on TV in which he isn't playing.
Lost in the legacy of Peyton Manning as the man who couldn't win the Big One is the fact that he has been nothing short of brilliant in these largest games. In the past it was always a fraying offensive line or disappearing receiver or flaky kicker who let him down. Manning still picked up the blitzes, found the open receivers and led his team into position to win. It was always Marvin Harrison or Mike Vanderjagt who failed.
Still it was Manning who carried the stain of their failures across the otherwise spotless parchment of his career. Then on Sunday the rain fell. It came in torrents, swirling in the stadium lights and dousing the field like never before in a Super Bowl. Archie Manning looked around the stadium baffled. "It's so weird to see rain down here," he said later.
For a time he worried this would come to hurt the Colts, a team accustomed to the comfort of their domed stadium and smooth artificial turf. But as the night wore on he saw Indianapolis was dominating. He saw his son was winning and soon the last blemish on Peyton Manning's career would be gone. "You hoped there would be justice," he said.
In the end there was. And Peyton Manning held the trophy just like all the other great ones whose legends had been validated had done before him. Then as he stood in the hallway beneath Dolphin Stadium, Archie Manning smirked.
"Kind of got that done," he said. "On with your career."