Hate. Walk into any sports bar and you will hear the word thrown around by every Monday Morning Quarterback in the place. In a way, that emotion: the one of pure dislike, may fuel a fan’s desire to watch a game more than the love of their actual team. Deep down, we all have that team or player that elicits pure joy when we see them lose. Boston has their Yankees and Cleveland has their LeBron. Yet, there is one athlete who used to draw ire from some and morphed it into awe. That athlete is Peyton Manning.
How quickly we forget, but there was a time when Peyton Manning drew the “hate” element. Some of it stemmed from his being one half of the better debates in football. In any year between 2001-2010, the argument was Manning vs. Brady. Both players were so good, but in different ways. And those differences created two camps.
Brady fans exalted the Pats QB who racked up Super Bowls with ice in his veins. Brady was the guy who didn’t need an encyclopedia of audibles, just someone with hands to sling it to. And it didn’t really matter what that guy’s name was or the college he went to. To them, Peyton’s numbers were inflated because of the talent around him. He was a cerebral player and his clean-cut football lineage seemed too fairy tale-like for America’s equivalent of gladiators. And it was bad enough that the “haters” had to watch Peyton on Sunday, but there was Peyton on the weeknights trying to sell them a Sprint phone or Mastercard.
But more than a quarter through the 2013 season, the “I hate Peyton Manning” Facebook pages are silent. Why? Because there comes a time when an athlete amazes us so much, that the performance is so surreal, that we stop the day to day banter, and just watch. Peyton Manning is doing that right now, and the last guy that I remember doing the same thing was Michael Jordan.
According to Fortune magazine article, Jordan single handedly raised attendance at Chicago Stadium 87 percent in 1984-1985. By 1988-1989, the Bulls were selling out every home game. But unlike most athletes, Jordan’s influence extended beyond the hometown fans. According to the L.A. Times, in 1998, regular season games that featured the Bulls drew nearly twice the spectators of other games. Jordan and the Bulls played in four-most watched NBA championship Finals. Jordan was an enigma, an athlete who commanded the respect of fans from opposing teams. In 2013, Peyton is doing the same.
Manning’s first game back in 2012 from what some thought was a career ending neck injury was the most watched regular-season NFL game in 16 years, according to the L.A. Times. Opening night of 2013, which featured the Broncos and Ravens was the best Thursday night NBC had since the Olympics, according to zap2it.com. Even more telling, the attendance of the Jaguars/Broncos game in Jacksonville was 76,862, according to ESPN.com, while the previous two home games averaged 59,555. Something tells me fans weren’t there to see Chad Henne.
Peyton now has 22 touchdowns, the most ever through six games. He has set or tied a league record in every game this season. What we are watching is special and it is the way Peyton is doing it that has hushed all the naysayers. One could argue that the older Peyton is less physically gifted than the one who threw 49 touchdowns in 2004. Long balls have been few and far between and other quarterbacks around the league deliver the ball with more zip. But watching Peyton is a lesson in the quarterback position. He is somehow a quarterback and offensive coordinator all wrapped into one. He seems to know the route every one of his receivers running. People respect that, and they respect him.
Next week, Manning will return to Indianapolis where his legend started. My guess is that you will see a standing ovation from the fans who rooted for number 18 for 14 seasons. The thing is, I don’t know if the cheering will stop at the introduction. It is possible that the Colts faithful won’t be too upset if Peyton bests their team. They may even cheer him on. And I guarantee he is the only opposing quarterback they will celebrate all year.