It happens to more men than those who manage to escape it. It happens to the best of them, in fact it is often only the best of them that we notice. It happened to Hall of Fame QB’s Joe Namath, Terry Bradshaw, and Joe Montana to name a few; playing too far into the twilight and ending a Hall of Fame career amidst lack luster performances and injuries. It is an exclusive group of men, and it will very likely have a new first ballot Hall of Fame member; Peyton Manning.
I am just old enough to remember watching the Bill Walsh 49er teams and the seemingly unstoppable offense led by Joe Montana. I remember watching the wins, the deep passes, the Super Bowls, and I remember a fresh faced Steve Young holding a clipboard on the sideline. Even as a boy I know that Montana couldn’t play forever, and that one day Young would take the reigns, and when it came out that he would need surgery to repair his elbow at the end of the 1990 season it seemed that it would be the logical time for the transition. In my head, “Joe Cool” would have played his last game in the NFC championship against the New York Giants and walked away as good as he’d ever been.
Montana was succeeded by Steve Young in the 1991 season, but the transition and his eventual exit would not be as legendary as his play. Due to injury Montana would sit for all of the 1991 season and serve as a back-up for half of the ‘92 season, only to be traded to the Kansas City Chiefs in ‘93 where he was only a shadow of the legendary QB he’d once been.
Coming off of a lockout, and three of neck surgeries, the likelihood that a 36 year old Peyton Manning returns to anything that resembles the man that lead the Colts organization to playoff after playoff, that started over 200 consecutive games, and was a Super Bowl MVP is unlikely at best. Upstairs Peyton Manning will still be the smartest football player on the field, but physically the tools to execute just won’t be there. It’s a story that’s been told before; an Montana got injured dealt to KC the same as an injury plagued Namath was dealt to St. Louis. Perhaps most pointedly is Peyton Manning’s personal hero and arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time Johnny Unitas. “Johnny U” played until the tank was empty, ending his career in San Diego playing in 5 games for the Chargers in 1973, throwing for a total of 471 passing yards, 3 TD’s, and 7 interceptions.
The question facing Peyton Manning right now isn’t “How soon can I be on the field?” it is “How will I walk away from my Hall of Fame career?”. The man is a competitor, as is every Hall of Fame quarterback mentioned in this article. It is the desire to compete, to win, to be the best that ever played the game that inspires us as fans and captures our collective imagination. Knowing this, there is as much if not more to be said about knowing when to walk away and accepting that athletics is a gift that is fleeting.