The Good Race


Peyton Manning retired this week, bringing to a close a career that will include two dozen passing records, five league MVP trophies and two Super Bowl rings. His induction into the National Football League Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, is as certain as gravity.

But when Ken Burns and other historians wax poetic about the man, they should not overlook his other historic achievement: the greatest retirement speech in the history of sport.

Hell, it may be one of the greatest retirement speeches of all-time. Written himself and lasting nearly 12 minutes, his adieu to an 18-year-career was less a recollection of achievements than a realization of life.

I admit, I was bawling by the end, around the 11th minute, when he quoted Scripture, 2 Timothy 4:7

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

After the speech, when the cameras at ESPN cut back to the commentators, the athletes — hulking, bruising NFL greats who played through compound fractures — were sniffly with snot and blurry with tears. Lou Gehrig will always be remembered for his farewell to Major League Baseball as he entered his long night. And, given the darkness awaiting him, it may always be the most moving.

But consider: Lou uttered barely three sentences, in about a minute, to heartfully confess that, despite the disease that would later kill him and take his name, he was the luckiest man on earth.

For sheer poetry, though, Peyton’s speech is unrivaled, particularly for an athlete. Like, viral-video-graduation-ceremony-self-improvement-class good. Everyone from journalism instructors to Academy Award winners should keep that speech permanently. Not for its turns of phrase; in truth, non-football fans won’t get a dozen references to players or plays.

But watch his emotionally-wracked monologue for even five minutes, and it’s clear Peyton isn’t even giving a speech. He’s reading a love letter. To his sport, to his fellow athletes and coaches, to his fans.

Say what you will about football (and there’s much to condemn). The sport’s brutality may eventually be its undoing.

But sport — like movies, TV, Broadway, even Justin Bieber songs — are all forms of art (albeit, some more cerebral  than others).

And in Peyton’s speech, there’s no mistaking the heart behind the arm: an icon openly confessing, and weeping over, his love of an art he’s been practicing since he was strong enough to hold the instrument.

That alone is worth a reservation in Canton.

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