So this is how you do it. This is how you say goodbye. You show yourself with aplomb and composure, though not enough to stop choking back tears. You acknowledge the reality and the regret. You tell the truth.
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Great praise is due Colts owner Jim Irsay and Peyton Manning, a player who gave new meaning to the term “franchise quarterback.” Manning is certainly the best passer of his generation, maybe any generation. His regular-season statistics include 54,828 passing yards and 399 touchdowns. They seem like mere numbers now. More striking was the example Manning has now set for his successor.
Andrew Luck, the quarterback whom the Colts must select with the first pick in the draft, has the benefit of a Stanford education. Still, he better learn this lesson now: There’s no shame in not being the next Peyton Manning. Just don’t try to fool anybody, especially yourself.
“I don’t want to retire,” Manning said Wednesday morning, during his 22-minute appearance at the podium with Irsay. “I don’t feel like I have anything to prove to anybody. . . . Nobody loved playing quarterback more than I do. I love playing quarterback. I still want to play.”
As these pressers go, it was a most curious press conference, and a welcome one, too. There was no jockeying for position, no assignment of blame. It was what it was. It was sad, and it was over.
“The 18 jersey will never be worn again by a Colt,” said Irsay, who attributed their parting to “the circumstances” — “something neither one of us could imagine a couple of years ago, even a year ago.”
They included, as Irsay put it, the conflicting needs of “a rebuilding team with salary cap problems,” and Manning’s desire to start and again strive for a championship. Given the nature and uncertainty of Manning’s post-operative condition, those goals became mutually exclusive. They probably always were. Less inevitable was the way in which these men managed to keep their dignities intact.
Remember: It has been only six weeks since Irsay called Manning “a politician.”
It was a reasonable accusation, I thought. After all, Manning dealt with his third and fourth neck surgeries in a manner that was, well, less than candid. Then, with a $28 million bonus in the balance, he suddenly became glib. Yup, he sounded like a politician.
I figured the remark portended doom for the Manning-Irsay alliance, and eventual humiliation for each of its principals.
OK, I was wrong, the past 24 hours have seen them both act like politicians. (I mean, what was that “interview” on the runway if not an old campaign trick?). But I can’t recall a politician behaving so well. This being a political year, it’s worth noting that voter turnout would increase exponentially if candidates could conduct themselves like Manning and Irsay. It’s also worth hoping that the Brett Favre and LeBron James were watching Wednesday morning. The quarterback and the owner controlled the message by — get this! — being honest and being humble.
These situations tend not to end well, of course. They involve a ballplayer’s acknowledgment of his own athletic mortality, something particularly difficult for a franchise quarterback to accept. And they involve big dollars. Money and ego. They don’t make for happy endings or graceful exits. But against every expectation, Manning and Irsay have managed to distinguish themselves and honor the franchise.
“Jim, I will be forever grateful,” said Manning. “It truly has been an honor to play in Indianapolis. . . . I love the fans and will always enjoy . . . I leave the Colts with nothing but good thoughts and gratitude.”
Here, his voice began to break. Peyton is a control freak, anyone who has ever seen him barking at the line of scrimmage knows that much. But at long last, this was something he couldn’t control, something that made him want to cry. More than any of the majestic moments in his playing career, this one made him human: flawed, sympathetic and altogether admirable.
“I haven’t thought a lot about where I’ll play, but I have thought about where I’ve been,” said Manning, adding for the Colts fans (and it was difficult not to be one Wednesday morning), “Thank you very much. . . . I truly have enjoyed being your quarterback.”