David Hoppe

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:: Peyton Manning: champion

This doesn't happen very often

By David Hoppe

He grew up in New Orleans and came of age in Tennessee. Who would have guessed that Peyton Manning had so much Hoosier in him?

If ever there was proof for the contention that Indianapolis is America's northernmost southern city, this may be it. Manning (most of us call him Peyton) made this his adopted home in less time than it takes most newcomers to find Meridian St.

There's an undeniably weird alchemy that can take place between a truly great athlete and the town where he or she lives. At a certain point, it becomes clear that the athlete is not only playing for a team, helping it to win but, in some way, is also representing the larger community.

It's easy, even justifiable, to put down the fan's tendency to over-identify with their favorite team — to say “we” instead of “they” when talking about the outcome of a game or a coaching decision that, in fact, is completely beyond the fan's control or ken.

But something different happens when a true champion comes along. The champion actually raises everybody's game a little, even if only on a subliminal level. This doesn't happen very often — maybe once in a generation, if you're lucky.

Peyton Manning has been that kind of champion for Indianapolis. In an era when most quarterbacks are nothing more than game managers, executing plays sent to them from coaches sitting in skyboxes above the field of play, Peyton has called his own games at the line of scrimmage. In this, he most resembles the leader of a great jazz band. There is art in what Peyton does. It hasn't always worked the way he has wanted it to; sometimes his vision exceeds his grasp. But a Colts game featuring Peyton Manning under center has never been anything less than an experiment in mastery.

Peyton Manning, in other words, has provided this otherwise arts-skeptical city with what I would call an aesthetic experience on every weekend of football season for over a decade. When you think about all the people — not just football fans, either — in Indianapolis who have had the chance, at one time or another, to have experienced this…well, it's hard not to think that, somehow, a little bit of that mastery has rubbed off.

That should be enough to explain Peyton's place in this city, but there's more. The guy's made us laugh. No athlete in memory has been such a viral media presence. Peyton's pitilessly dry, self-deprecating sense of humor expressed through scads of TV commercials and, memorably, on Saturday Night Live, has always felt just right, fitting in comfortably in a line of descent starting with Kin Hubbard, including Kurt Vonnegut (another Peyton fan, by the way) and David Letterman.

Then there's the charity work, starting with purchasing athletic gear for local public high schools and culminating in a major contribution to the St. Vincent's children's hospital bearing his name.

And did I mention a certain stadium? Now that we're rubbing the Super Bowl pixie dust from our eyes, we might recall that without Peyton, without the way he elevated a previously hapless team, there would have been scant support for a publicly funded downtown football stadium. It's an indication of just how corporate the economics of pro sports have become that money, not local history, determined the naming of this massive landmark. It should be named what people call it: The House that Peyton Built.

Peyton himself, of course, is part of this corporate culture. He's been lavishly — some would say obscenely — rewarded for the way he plays what is, finally, a game.

Corporate culture has a momentum of its own. Local stories, memories and sentimental affections are rarely able to stand up to the force that gathers at the bottom line. So for all Peyton Manning has meant to Indianapolis, the story he has created here appears to be coming to an end, hastened unceremoniously by injury. The financial calculus that made Peyton ridiculously rich now makes it impossible to take a chance on keeping him around.

My son calls me from his home in North Carolina where, every day, he follows the news about Peyton on the Internet and via sports talk radio. He is a man now, but when Peyton started playing for the Colts my son wasn't even old enough to have a driver's license. He wants to talk about what's happening and I hear resignation and regret in his voice.

He knows the Colts will likely draft a new quarterback, the aptly named Andrew Luck, this year. He understands this means the odds are Peyton Manning will never play another game in an Indianapolis uniform. For my son I sense that this is not only the end of an era — it's the end of a certain relationship he's had with his hometown. Things will never be quite the same.

My son also knows, of course, that this is the way things go. Change happens, usually in ways we can't control. You get used to it as best you can and try to look forward to what comes next. Losing a champion, though, is tough to take.