Six months ago, I gave you 18 reasons why Peyton Manning’s season-ending injury was a good thing. One of them was that we might lose so many games we’d end up drafting Stanford wunderkind Andrew Luck.
Well, here we are. And there Peyton goes.
The response to this news on the part of fans has been textbook Kubler-Ross. In the weeks and days leading up to the inevitable break-up, Manning’s most ardent fans were in denial, holding out hope that he and the Colts would strike a last-minute deal. Now that Manning is irretrievably gone, they’re downright angry, clogging online comment sections and talk radio phone lines with bitter missives aimed at Colts’ owner Jim Irsay.
I feel their pain. It’s sad to see a local sports icon of Manning’s magnitude dismissed in such unceremonious fashion. But let’s be real for a minute: it isn’t that important who plays quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts next year.
What is important, though – what we should be celebrating – is the role Manning played in Indianapolis’s unlikely emergence from middling Midwestern town to major national city.
Manning brought more than a Super Bowl championship to Indianapolis. He was the final, if unexpected, piece in a 30-year-long strategy that helped transform Indy from a sleepy Midwestern burg into a City That Matters. This isn’t about NFL passing records or something silly and infantile like “Colts Pride.” This is about an unorthodox civic marketing gambit that made Indianapolis a bigger, better place – a city to be reckoned with. And it wouldn’t have worked without Manning’s fortuitous arrival.
It didn’t start with Manning, though, or even with the Colts. It started in the 1970s when a group of politicians, civic leaders and business people set in motion a so-called “sports strategy” that, over the course of the next couple of decades, brought Market Square Arena, the NCAA Headquarters, the RCA Dome, the Indianapolis Colts and hundreds of international sporting events to town.
This bold civic initiative came with a good bit of risk. What if, after putting all of our eggs into the “sports” basket, the result was nothing more than Indy becoming “small big city” with a lot of poorly-attended, mediocre sporting events?
It looked as if that was happening for awhile. Many of us have heard about how the Pacers had to hold a “Save The Pacers” telethon to keep the team in Indianapolis in 1977. But 20 years later, as the NFL was eclipsing baseball and basketball as the country’s most popular sport, a promising young quarterback named Peyton Manning strode into town. Talk about luck.
Manning embodied many of the same qualities of the Indianapolis citizenry. He was hardworking, humble and unfailingly polite. He wasn’t the flashiest guy in the world, but he was effective and efficient. And if you knocked him down, he would get back up, again and again.
In his 14 years with the Colts, Peyton Manning didn’t just become just the face of the team. He became the face of Indianapolis – a cultural juggernaut who transcended sports. The halo effect of his brand helped alter the perception of our city in a way no amount of civic marketing ever could.
TV pundits like to describe Manning as “classy.” That word is overused in sports, usually to describe an athlete who isn’t boorish, selfish, or lazy. It too often refers to the absence of negative qualities rather than the presence of good ones. Instead of “class,” I think what makes Peyton special are his self-awareness, decency, and dignity. He is keenly aware of his own limitations. He has good manners. He takes responsibility for his mistakes. As the most “southern” of the northern states, we Hoosiers appreciated that about him.
Peyton could be surly, sure. During his time with the Colts, he occasionally indulged in some ugly emotional theatrics in the heat of battle. But only because he cared so damn much. He cared more, really, than it was reasonable to care. And all those times he fell short as a Colt, the pain in his gut was palpable to all of us. We knew that feeling well. We’re Hoosiers, after all.
Peyton may not be a Hoosier by birth, but he is unquestionably one of us, even as he plans to put down roots in another NFL town in a quixotic quest to pick up the pieces of his injury-interrupted career for one, two, maybe three more years. I wouldn’t count him out wherever he goes, either. Even if the nerves in his neck betray him, his mind and heart won’t.
Instead of bemoaning Manning’s departure from Indianapolis, we should celebrate what he did here – and what he might still do elsewhere. Finally, we should thank him for putting the finishing touches on a hare-brained Hoosier strategy that was set in motion more than 30 years ago. In the end, Peyton did far more than bring a Super Bowl to Indianapolis. He – along with corps of other hardworking, less-famous Hoosiers – brought Indianapolis to the world.
Photo by derivative work: Ytoyoda (talk) Manning_on_the_sidelines.jpg: Craig ONeal [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.