I’ve been watching Peyton Manning play football for my whole life. At least the parts of my life that have mattered. I was in my last year at the Naval Academy in Annapolis when he was a rookie. I distinctly remember watching him in the TV room-we called it the “ward room”- with my roommate on a Sunday. I had stayed in to study for finals. Peyton beat the Bengals with three touchdown passes.
A few years later, while I was on a ship halfway around the world on my first deployment, he’d throw two more in a season opening win in New York against the Jets. Two days later, the towers in Manhattan fell. A month later, Peyton was on a bye week. He may actually have been watching us instead of us watching him as the war started, my ship launching the first strikes into Afghanistan, our picture on the front page of every paper in the world the next day.
In 2004, I didn’t see any football until November, deployed to a remote location, no television, no internet. But the week I returned he threw four touchdowns and beat the Vikings. He won his only Super Bowl, in the rain, in 2006, the year my mom died. She loved Peyton. A few years later, I returned home from Iraq, on emergency leave to be with my family. It was the first game I’d watched at home, for what seemed like forever. We watched football together. My wife, my boys and me. It’s what we did-what we do. He threw three touchdown passes, beat the Texans. A few months later, from a dusty mess hall in western Iraq, I would watch an interception he threw in the Super Bowl be returned for a Touchdown. He lost.
Last year, a few years after I left the military world, I finally got to see him play in person. I sat with my wife on a beautiful day in Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, his Broncos playing my wife’s beloved Chargers. We watched him throw wobbly balloon ball passes that floated and fluttered right into the hands of his receiver, most of the life gone from his once strong arm. He limped off the field and into the locker room right before half time having injured his leg. He came back in the second half as he always did. His Broncos would win.
Tomorrow, Peyton is probably playing his last game. The wreckage is bad, four neck surgeries, a bum leg, a bad foot, nerve damage in his arm that makes it hard to grip a football. There’s been a lot of mileage on him the last 18 years. I guess you could say the same thing for me-for all of us. For many, none of this matters. Football is just a game after all. But for some of us, sometimes it feels like a lot more. I’m sure tomorrow, as I sit down with my wife and my boys one last time to watch Peyton play, it’s going to be one of those times. Thanks for the memories Peyton.