When I was a little boy, I would ask my dad what it was like to watch greats like Gale Sayers, Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown. I’d seen the highlight videos but wanted to understand what if felt like to watch them play live.
My dad would struggle at times for the right words to describe what that was like, and sometimes he didn’t use words at all. He would just let out a deep sigh, smile, shake his head and put his arm around me. One word he did use: inspiring.
I feel that way about Peyton Manning now.
He’s been the model of consistency, discipline, focus and hard work for his entire career, and he’s always been of impeccable character and professionalism. He’s one of the toughest and most passionate football players I have ever seen. As a former player and just someone who loves football, I respect him for all of those intangibles. That’s not the entire reason I find him inspiring, though.
Less than two years ago, Manning had a fourth surgery to repair his spine that this game has damaged. The most recent forced a doctor to slice his neck open, remove a disc between two vertebrae in his spine, replace it with a piece of bone, fasten it with a titanium plate and screws and then sew him back up. Despite all of this, he has set career highs in yards and touchdowns this season and will be leading the Denver Broncos into the AFC Championship Game this week.
Some days, when my neck hurts particularly badly, I’m not sure if we appreciate that enough.
That’s my picture.
I had spinal fusion surgery, too, and it left me with a titanium plate and four screws embedded in my neck.
In my sixth year in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills, I hit a pulling lineman while playing linebacker. On contact, my entire right arm and hand went completely numb. The strength dissipated. I got scared when I heard the doctors talking about my spine, but they told me to get some rest and they’d evaluate me further the next day.
Later that night, I wanted to test my strength so I asked my wife to push my arm down as I tried to hold it up. She pushed it down with one finger. We knew it was bad. Not long after, I was sitting in an office listening to Dr. Andrew Cappuccino explain what would happen.
“We’ll remove the bulging disc that is pressing into your spine and replace it with a piece of bone that we’ll shave off of your hip and then secure the area with a titanium plate and four screws,” he said. “That area with the titanium plate and screws will be stronger than ever before, but …”
“… you’ll be taking a risk if you decide to play again. When you get one level of vertebrae fused together, the levels above and below take more force than before. There is a strong chance you will eventually experience another herniated disc, which will press into your spine, and you will have to have another surgery.”
I decided to play again.
After the Bills terminated my contract due to the procedure — my agent told me I now had a red flag beside my name because of my neck – and I spent the offseason pondering whether or not my career was over, the Atlanta Falcons called and asked if I still wanted to play. They told me to catch the first flight to Atlanta the next day – a day before training camp opened.
With Manning behind center, Denver’s offense operates at a level few teams can claim.
I’ll never forget how happy I was to be given another opportunity and the excitement I felt on my way to Atlanta. Football had been the main part of my life since I was 7 years old, the thing for which I worked so hard every day. I’ll also never forget the next night, helplessly trying to fall asleep in Atlanta.
It hit me then that the following day I would be running full speed into 300-pound men with a neck that had been cut open only six months prior. What in the world was I thinking?
I didn’t sleep a single wink that entire night. I was nauseous thinking of all the bad that could possibly happen.
What if there hadn’t been enough recovery time? What if the titanium plate and screws wouldn’t hold when I hit someone? What if my vertebrae shattered into my spine and paralyzed me?
I stared at the ceiling that night and decided I was going home.
The next morning at 5:45, before the sun was even up or my alarm went off for the first day of meetings, I called my wife, my parents and my agent and told them that I just could not do it. I was going to walk up to the administrative offices, thank GM Thomas Dimitroff for giving me the opportunity and then apologize for leaving so soon. I was going to retire.
My family heard the fear in my voice and gave me a pep talk. They said it was completely understandable to be scared but that I should stay a few days to see if my nerves calmed. After all, there would be no full contact the first two days of camp, so I’d be able to slowly immerse myself into the thought of playing again.
They were right — I felt much better after running around the first day. I felt even better the second day, enough to give the third day a shot. The first full-contact drill was 9-on-7. In the NFL, this is the most physical part of any practice. It’s when the offensive and defensive fronts practice the run game. No passing, just physical, smash-mouth football.
My turn came and I remember being in the huddle thinking, “God brought you here, so it’s meant to be. Whatever is going to happen will happen, so if you play this next play, play it the only way you were ever taught – all out.”
The huddle broke, I got aligned and read the formation: I-left, weak-side guard light in his stance, a wide split between the front side guard and tackle. “They’re going to run power right at me,” I thought.
Sure enough, the ball was snapped and the backside guard pulled to the front side and I knew I had to take him on. I pulled the trigger and ran into him full speed, driving my helmet right up under his facemask.
The whistle blew and I looked around to make sure I was still alive. After confirming that, I looked down at my right hand to make sure I could move it. I checked my right arm. I did a few small, slow neck circles to make sure nothing cracked or popped.
Everything was OK, and a huge smile spread across my face.
Sometimes, while watching Manning play, I wonder if he experiences the three unique types of pain that affected me after my neck surgery — past, present and future pain. Each is crippling in its own way.
Past: This is psychological anguish, the pain you’ve already been through that haunts before each game. You try to shake it, but it’s always there. You remember the deep ache and throbbing pain just after surgery; the time you accidently tilted your head too far, causing a wince, even though the neck brace is supposed to prevent it; the pain felt during rehab sessions that tested your will; the writhing pain after a simple sneeze.
Present: This is the physical pain of trying to play football again. It exists due to the residual effects of the surgery and the nature of the game. This pain might rear its ugly head when Manning is hit by a beastly defensive lineman who breaks through the offensive line with bad intentions, after which he might check to see if his fingers are all moving properly.
This pain might make Manning check the functionality of his arms by moving them in circles, like he did after being hit to the ground on a touchdown throw last week against the Chargers. There are also the everyday pains that might come in Manning’s routine, like the deep ache that develops by sitting at a computer too long or hunching over a playbook the wrong way.
Future: Lastly, this is the pain that arises out of fear from thinking about your future. I bet Manning occasionally does what I did while still playing: Lie in bed at night thinking about the titanium plate and screws, the discs above and below the one that was repaired, hoping they are strong and secure, praying everything will be OK, mustering up enough faith to believe you are safe from harm.
It’s been six years since I had my neck surgery, and I routinely visit the doctor for checkups. The photo above is me holding my most recent X-ray from a few months ago.
I see that scar in the mirror every day (they went through the front of my neck, like most cervical fusions) and shake my head in amazement, disbelief and gratitude. The whole gamut of emotions is symbolized by that scar. When I look at it, I experience a sense of pride and idiocy simultaneously.
Sometimes I wonder if I should have ever played again after the surgery, because of all the reminders of that decision’s cost.
Memories of my playing days are triggered every time the room is quiet enough to hear the annoying clicking sound when I swallow, caused by scar tissue that’s built up in my throat.
My right arm and hand have never returned to full strength — the nerves just aren’t what they used to be. My arm feels weaker, one of my fingers doesn’t work properly and I often get unbearable neck pain and headaches. When it’s cold outside, my right hand feels like it’s moving in slow motion.
My most recent MRI showed the discs above and below the original damaged area are now pressing into my spine, and they cause me pain every day. The doctor said that I need another surgery, but I told him that I’d rather just bear the pain. I can still hear Dr. Cappuccino describing how the surgery would work, and I don’t want to go through that again.
I played for three wonderful years with the Falcons after my surgery, but the doctor’s words — “you’ll be taking a risk if you decide to play again” – haunted me every day, and I considered retiring during and after each of those three seasons. I would bet Manning has heard and is haunted by those same exact words.
None of this is a plea for pity. Manning has made a fortune playing a game he loves, and I’ve been blessed in countless ways. I have a wonderful family; I played pro football for nine years; I’m able to fly across the country each week during the season to talk about football on TV; compared to many people in much worse situations, my general health remains intact.
This is just what I mean when I wonder, “Do we appreciate what Peyton Manning is doing enough?” Like Adrian Peterson’s return from an ACL injury, Manning is pulling off a medical miracle; this is not, and should not be, the standard for players returning from spinal fusion surgery. Manning will surely deal with some of the pains I have after he retires, but this season he has played football about as well as ever.
So this weekend, when Manning and Denver faces Tom Brady and New England in the AFC Championship, I’m going to appreciate and enjoy every minute, every throw, every audible at the line and every single thing that makes Manning so special.
Someday, a young kid will undoubtedly ask what it was like to watch the great Peyton Manning. Like my dad, I’ll probably struggle before beginning with his word: I’ll say Manning was inspiring.
I’ll also explain this Manning season in the context of his neck injury and the privilege it was to turn on the TV during the 2014 playoffs and watch one of the greatest of all time, improbably near his best, play this glorious game.
Coy Wire is a college football analyst for FOX Sports 1 and writes CFB and NFL for FOXSports.com. He played football at Stanford and spent nine years in the NFL with Buffalo and Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter at @CoyWire.