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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Burying Peyton's Hatchet

I did what many redblooded Americans did during the fourth quarter of the Colts-Patriots game. It was 31-17 Pats with twelve minutes left. Brady had the ball back and the offense marching again.

I turned the TV off.

I pride myself in being a knowledgable sports fan. I know when a game is over.
I woke up the next morning and skimmed a headline proclaiming last night's game as "one for the ages." I didn't need to click the link. I already knew what happened.

Peyton Manning happened.

I felt instant shame, a shame only diehard sports junkies can feel when they know they have stooped to the level of the casual watercooler fan. It's inexcusable to ignore one simple rule during any game involving number 18: never quit.

The craziest thing about Manning's latest masterpiece was that I was happy for him. Every fan has a nemesis player they maliciously root against their entire careers. For 12 years, Manning was mine.

Rewind to 1997. My girlfriend made the mistake of saying "Peyton Manning is kinda cute." I'll never forget those words. Our relationship was already on the fritz, but after hearing the words "Manning" and "cute" in the same sentence from her mouth I knew it could never work out. I had no choice but to end it at halftime.

My long standing feud with the Manning clan dates back to '97. Peyton, the heavy preseason Heisman favorite, smugly shook his head in disappointment after all-universe Michigan DB Charles Woodson took home the trophy. He waited five minutes before he could even offer a congratulatory handshake. Tennessee head coach Phil Fulmer exacted his revenge by notorious placing the undefeated Wolverines 22nd in the final coaches poll.

Fulmer's bitter slight cost my Wolverines first outright national championship in fifty years. Five months later, Manning was selected first overall, three spots before Woodson in the 1998 NFL draft. It was offical. I was the anti-Manning.

I cheered as Manning set the NFL rookie interception record (nevermind he set the TD record too). I reveled as ex-Wolverine Ty Law picked off Manning three times to send the Superbowl favorites packing in 2003. I felt an amazing schadenfreude when the Colts stumbled at the hands of the Patriots again in 2004.

Then something funny happened. Something that rarely happens in the undefined relationship between the obsessive fans and their wealthy nemesises who have no idea their tormenters even exist.

I started to like Peyton.

He refused to point fingers in the face of harsh criticism that he couldn't win big games. He was a perennial pro-bowler and consumate professional on and off the field. While ex-Wolverine Tom Brady was gracing the cover of GQ and knocking up Hollywood actresses, Manning stuck to Sports Illustrated and self-deprecating Sportscenter commercials.

I began to realize that Manning loved football. He was a fan, a historian, and a PHD student of the game. He also inarguably happened to be one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game.

There was the 21-point fourth quarter comeback over the Bucs with four minutes remaining. Four minutes! There was the 21-3 first half deficit he erased to finally topple Belicheck's Patriots in 2006 AFC championship game. Don't forget his 2009 monday night magic when Manning surgically dissected the Dolphins seconday despite the biggest time of possession disparity for a winning team in the history of the NFL. The Colts offense held the ball for less than fifteen minutes. Manning brought his team back from behind four times, including a late fourth quarter drive to seal the 27-23 victory.

Which brings us back to last Monday. I was disappointed I missed a page in the first ballot hall of famers career. I realized I had become a Peyton Manning fan.

This doesn't mean I'm going to go buy a warehouse of #18 jerseys. I still refuse to redact my futile ban of SEC football. But there's a unique form of respect I have for an athlete who turned one of his most venomous haters into a humbled supporter. It's a respect Manning earned without ever uttering a single word.

Please, just don't call him cute.


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