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.
Every year, international corporations vie mightily for the semi-regular HB Commercial of the Month Award (celebrating its first anniversary…some day). Particularly on Super Bowl Sunday.
But before we announce the HBCMA winner (sorry for the nerve-wracking tension), a note on the Super Bowl itself. It sorta sucked a little.
But still interesting, because the story will become more dramatic over the decades as historical accounts replace actual. While it was a really a turnover- and penalty-ridden slugfest, dramatic historians will rewrite it as the triumphant final run of Peyton Manning, finishing a Hall of Fame career with a Super Bowl trophy and a scoring pass.
So for the readers of this in centuries future, know this: It wasn’t that dramatic. Billed as a showdown between superstar quarterbacks, distanced by age, race and worldview, neither guy played particularly well. Truthfully, the game was a defensive gem, i.e., dull.
As, largely, were the commercials. If the 50th Super Bowl ads had a through line, it’s this: Pharmaceutical companies have way the hell too much money. Primetime Super Bowl ads on constipation and irritable bowel syndrome? American poop must be big business. Budweiser commercials railing against drunk drivers? NFL ads on how the sport is really for women? You’re disqualified simply for hypocrisy.
The winning ad comes from, of all corporations, some organization called Avocados in Mexico, which touts exactly what you think. Hopefully, they’re as good as their ads. I don’t know who directed this, but said director deserves an immediate U.S. TV show, if only to counter the dull comets who orbit the reality show landscape. The ad:
The literary award, though, goes to the ad for a Toyota Prius. In just 1 minute, 40 seconds the commercial manages to tell a story (a bumbling bank heist) establish sympathetic heroes (they leave some of the stolen booty to the car-theft victim) and manage a running story that would be worth watching. The director of this commercial deserves, at least, to be Michael Bay’s well-paid life coach, just to teach the guy succinct storytelling. The big winner:
You know you’re in trouble when Hollywood starts talking about you.
Just look at Steve Jobs. His death gave birth to six biopics in two years (it will be interesting if history renders a verdict of Jobs as a Henry Ford or P.T. Barnum).
Similarly, NFL Commission Roger Goodell, Tinseltown has you in their sites.
Hollywood has done myriad documentaries on the risk of helmet-to-helmet injury. But the true salvo came in November, when Sony greenlit the feature film Concussion, with Will Smith. Though the movie was a steaming bowl of turd, the story — about the coroner who discovered the concussion syndrome CTE in 2003 and tried to warn the NFL about risks — was a game-changer.
Artistically, the best thing about that film is that it ended. Eventually.
But that one of Hollywood’s biggest studio threw down with the biggest industry in professional sports is the larger distinction. Once, Hollywood viewed football as the sport of American heroism: Winning one for the Gipper; Marshall University’s resolve to play on despite a plane crash that killed most players; the grit of Rudy.
Now, the NFL is the mustache-twisting villain on the train tracks.
This won’t diminish today’s Super Bowl, of course, enjoying its 50th birthday with much pomp, circumstance, and pre-pubescent child singers. Football has never been more popular, now reserving two more days of the week, Monday and Thursday. NFL teams are holding games in London and Mexico for an international audience. If held to popular election, Super Bowl Sunday would win hands-down over Election Day as a federal holiday.
And ESPN is going apoplectic at the thought of the decline of its blue chip stock. Commentator Michael Wilbon, a grumpy former colleague at The Washington Post, has made a catch-phrase of this refrain: “The NFL will never die because people love to see other people hurt.”
He’s got a point. The Greeks and Romans practiced a more savage game in gladiator matches, and that was the world’s most popular sport from 100 BC to 325 A.D. The Greek philosopher Marcus Aurelius, himself a former gladiator, once urged that the kill-or-be-killed exercise was a necessary step in the ascension to manhood.
“It is not death that a man should fear,” Aurelius wrote. “But he should fear never beginning to live.”
And the NFL has similarly vocal support. This is the 50th anniversary of the championship, and never has the media sniffed the throne of a game more. There were two prime-time shows this week about the sport’s best Super Bowl commercials. With former athletes as commenters (Your seat in hell is reserved, Boomer Esiason).
But as philosophers also say, pride goeth. And while the sport currently enjoys a pinnacle perch, the sport is following an eerie trajectory of not only the ancient Greeks, but a contemporary sport, boxing:
Overreach. Like football, boxing was the most popular sport in the nation, dominating headlines and coverage for 80 years with heroes the United States once reserved for war heroes. Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali were more recognized than Coca Cola.
Football has a similar trifecta in Tom Brady Peyton Manning and Cam Newton, also all big endorsers of the endorsement. Commercially-concocted heroism never ends well.
Gambling. Boxing was quartered and fed to junkyard dogs by organized crime, which paid off boxers to take a dive. The sport became so fractured with competing illegal interests that, since 2004, we have not had a unified heavyweight boxing champion, once as preposterous a notion as flying cars. Similarly, the NFL is under federal investigation for its ties with fantasy football leagues, which are as crooked as my handwriting.
Denial. Boxing finally recognized the danger of concussions, and grudgingly conceded in 1955 a syndrome known as Dementia Puglistica, virtually identical to CTE. But the sport — with the NFL shouting an “amen” from the pulpit — claimed the brain injuries required a genetic precondition and posed a risk to only two types of athelets — boxers and steeplechase racers. To this day, the NFL insists that linking 70,00o blows to the head — which an average NFL lineman receives — to brain damage remains a questionable science (apply parallels to the tobacco industry here).
Windbag analysts love to counter that the sport isn’t in similar jeopardy because it appeals to a better-protected, more-aware demographic: teens (you know you’re listening to douche bags when they talk about reaching the right demographic, a fancy word for ATM).
But to those who prostitute in sales and hype, consider. There is but one demographic: child-bearing mothers. They are the first to recognize brutality, and the first step up to keep their children from engaging in it.
Today, boxing is a niche sport, filled with poor, uneducated athletes who fight for money or anger. Name one parent you’ve ever heard proudly boast “my boy is trying to be a pro boxer.” Now name a parent who doesn’t beam that the kid got a scholarship to a punishing college football powerhouse.
That tide may be shifting. With the high profile concussion-deaths of Mike Webster, Junior Seau and Ken Stabler, with the terrifying mountain of evidence that even a sport like high school girl’s soccer is a concussion risk, how many parents will want their offspring entering this workplace: