INDIANAPOLIS — In 48 hours, the most celebrated game in the entire world of sports will begin. And for about four hours, we won’t think about Peyton Manning and Jim Irsay and the somewhat tragic and inevitable end to Manning’s time in Indianapolis.
The Manning-Irsay story has by no means overshadowed the hype for the Super Bowl this week, but I’ve never seen a story come as close as this one. GLS got sick and tired of the story by Tuesday, mainly because it kept forcing us to think about the business side of the game at a time in which the focus is supposed to be squarely on what is about to take place on the field.
But that shouldn’t cause us to lose sight of the fact that this is a very important story.
I’ve had a chance to talk to dozens of local Colts fans this week, and it’s made me realize how deep the connection is between the people of Indiana and No. 18. Most of the people I spoke with said they hadn’t adored an athlete this much since Larry Bird. Many others said that nobody, not even Bird, compared to Manning.
This Super Bowl is bringing the world to a sleepy Midwestern city with a small-town feel, and they have embraced it. The people of Indianapolis love that they’re hosting this game, and they’re all well aware of the fact that it wouldn’t be here if not for Manning.
The game’s here because of the brand-spankin’-new Lucas Oil Stadium, which many consider to be the house that Peyton built.
No Manning, no Super Bowl victory in 2006.
No Manning, no Super Bowl hosting gig in 2011.
This is why the majority of people who have called in to talk with John Michael Vincent on his drive-time radio show on WFNI 1070 The Fan are still pushing for Manning to stay on board, despite the fact that such a philosophy would seem to fly in the face of logic.
Vincent claims that fans are “siding” with Manning “because of the sentimentality of it.” And that’s understandable. But it’s almost like they’re entering a new stage of grief and accepting the reality.
“They’re directly attached to the guy and the closer we get to the inevitability, people have come on board with it,” Mike Chappell, who covers the Colts for the Indianapolis Star, told me. “But fans are emotional, that’s what game days are all about. But at some point people are going to realize that it was a great 13 years plus one, but that this is the only move that makes sense for the Colts.”
The people here might be even more accepting of the situation if it weren’t for the recent back-and-forth between Manning and the organization. ”I think some fans are kicking and screaming,” Vincent told me. “The last thing you want to do as an owner is draw lines between yourself and the future Hall of Fame quarterback that everybody loves. That’s why they’re trying to squash it with that statement again today.”
Local Colts fan Carrie Petty is a strong Manning supporter. She was on WNFI on Friday afternoon, delivering her take on the situation. I listened in, and she used a line that summed up how many Colts fans seem to feel.
“This city owes something to Peyton Manning.”
Petty, who is the chairman of the Gleaners Food Bank of Indianapolis, isn’t naive. She knows and understands the business world, but she’s still having trouble coming to grips with the idea that a local legend is going to be dumped in what is purely a business decision. I got in touch with Petty to ask her what exactly she meant by that comment about the city owing Manning.
“I think that we need a larger perspective on the whole thing,” Petty told me. “The NFL is not just about money and bodies — it’s about the soul of the fan, the soul of the city. And everything that we’ve become as a city has been about the Colts and the journey we’ve all been on together, and there’s value in that. It’s an intangible thing, and I think there needs to be some emphasis on that. Of course we want to win, I get business, but there’s something more there.”
I think we’d all agree that, in a perfect world, professional sports would indeed emphasize those intangibles. But this isn’t a perfect world, and teams don’t typically reward players out of gratitude. They only typically reward them when there’s something in it for them.
“I think a lot of people were thrilled when they read that non-news story about how he’s been cleared to play, and I think it puts the public pressure back on Jim Irsay and the Colts to re-sign him,” Indianapolis Star sports columnist Bob Kravitz told me. “But what they don’t understand is that Andrew Luck is coming on line, and you simply don’t pay $35 million to a 36-year-old quarterback coming off multiple neck surgeries.
“And so that’s the issue — they’re thinking with their hearts and not with their heads. This is not their money, this is Jim Irsay’s money, and he’s not going to throw that kind of cash at a quarterback that he doesn’t feel that comfortable with being on the field.”
Chappell, Kravitz and Vincent are all in agreement: Manning isn’t coming back. ”I see absolutely no chance that he comes back,” said Kravitz. “I just can’t conceive of a scenario where he comes back to Indianapolis.”
And now it appears the people are slowly reaching the acceptance stage.
“I think originally if you even suggested that Peyton wasn’t coming back people would tell you to drop dead and leave town,” said Kravitz. “They’re not in denial anymore, they’re sort of accepting the very real possibility that Peyton Manning won’t be back. Now, there are still a lot of people hanging on to hope, but I think more and more people are starting to understand when they look at the Xs and Os and the black and the white and the numbers, that it just doesn’t work out.”