Anyone who either follows this blog (provided I continue to write new posts with any semblance of diligence) or has seen any of my Facebook or Twitter posts knows I have a serious passion for two sporting entities: the National Football League’s Indianapolis Colts, or tennis stylist Roger Federer. When I’m not reading about the (deteriorating) health of the Colts defense, I’m checking in to see whom Federer is smashing in the quarters of Tournament X. I imagined Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, with his square-jawed “I heart football, but I don’t want to look like it” visage, torching some hapless defense for 17 touchdowns until it finally happened in 2006 (I have accepted these numbers quite easily). I like to believe I willed Roger to complete his dogged quest for a Roland Garros trophy via those match points, his championship points, played repeatedly in my head. But there is only one relevant question in sports, and though Manning finds himself in a similar position to Federer–considered by most, conditionally, to be the Greatest Player Ever™–they’re past the point in their careers when they can dodge the inevitable questions about time. Time in the winner’s circle, time on the field, time on the tour. And of course, “time to retire?”
All my considerable, virulent homerism aside (even though I still won’t vouch for Tim Jennings), Peyton Manning is trending to break every major quarterbacking record–consecutive starts, completions, yards, touchdowns, games won, most consecutive games being totally awesome, highest jabbering percentage, et cetera. He has a preternatural ability to identify and exploit any defensive set. (Side note: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to emulate his field vision when playing my roommate in Madden, although my destroyed Xbox controller tally might give you an idea of how well I pull that off. I’ll call all these audibles–Collie with the deep out, Addai up the middle, the always-unsuccessful draw. If only the friggin’ game would let me yell “Waffle! Waffle! Tokyo right!” Then maybe I’d have an edge.) Defenders have even acknowledged that they’re going to give up a touchdown before the play even starts. Start him at his own 2; give him the ball with 30 seconds left. He doesn’t care. With a, well, Federer-like simplicity, and reliance on technique and anticipation, Peyton will simply render entire squads, coaching staffs, and schools of thought useless. Supposed defensive mastermind Rex Ryan contends Peyton “cost [him] two Super Bowl rings.” [Insert Rex Ryan fat joke here.]
Roger Federer knows a bit about making other men feel inadequate. With his classical movement and technique, he has embarrassed others to the tune of 16 singles Grand Slam titles (and, one time, himself, to this tune). Who knows how many others–but notably one David Foster Wallace–have waxed poetic about his style to a greater eloquence than I can achieve. Still, without Rafael Nadal, we’re looking at maybe 20 Slams, the calendar Grand Slam (maybe twice!), we’re talking barely fathomable achievements in modern sports.
As sporting contemporaries, Roger and Peyton may have some jarring dissimilarities. You’re all alone on a tennis court, in sole possession of your competitive destiny, whereas any number of teammates, coaches, assistants, waterboys, handlers, owners, celebrity owners, and sluts on a gridiron sideline loiter to advise and berate and coddle and encourage. Roger will, save for the occasional psychotic intruder (nice tackle–former NFLer?), never touch another player; Peyton lets a bunch of replaceable lugs save him from being crushed on every offensive play. (Still love ya, Jeff Saturday!) Tennis players win the last point; football players lead at the last second. Yet throughout their careers, these two sporting icons have endured the same tired criticisms. They’re soft; they can’t win the big one; how can they be the best of all time when their contemporaries are better? Critics viewed both players as flashy and prodigious but, hell, downright cowardly! And in some instances, anatomically lacking. Still, eventually they completed their career capstones, the above referenced championships, and all was right with the world.
But where do we, and they, go from here? The luster of those quite personally satisfying glories has worn off a bit–2009 is so last year, and 2006, Colts’ Super Bowl season? Puh-leeze. I’ve slept since then. Next!
Still, each player, despite what is considered advanced age for their respective sports (Peyton at 34, Roger at 29), remains near the top of the game. Peyton is actually playing better than ever. But both guys are coming off events they’d best like to forget: Roger has his loss to Novak Djokovic (who, at #2 in the world, is obvs no slouch) in the US Open semis, but more importantly, he’s coming off his worst Slam season since 2003, when he won his first major in London. Peyton th–Peyton thr–[gulp]–Peyton threw the game-clinching interception in the most recent Super Bowl, a quick slant to Reggie Wayne that Tracy Porter saw coming from next Tuesday. [Aside regarding this most tragic event: blame to go around. Peyton didn’t throw the greatest pass. Reggie slacked on the route. Tracy attributed his awareness of the play to “film study,” which has the feel of George W. Bush having won the presidency not via general election, but by outscoring John Kerry on a MENSA exam–the idiot out-geniused the genius. Not to take anything away from Sean “Oh Look, They Put Hank Baskett On The Field, For Real, During The Super Bowl” Payton.]
Keep in mind sports media has seriously no patience. Hell, this guy for Sports Illustrated apparently has made a career out of writing immediate responses to football games, mere minutes after they’ve occurred. He even called the whole damn thing Snap Judgments. (No contemplation allowed!) So now, without a Slam final to his name in a whole nine months, we’re to believe that Federer is DUNZO! He looked old and slow against Berdych in SW 19! He was tired at the end of the Djokovic semi! Peyton and the Colts (mostly due to the defense) are a .500 team, 2-2, after a quarter of the season. They can’t win the Super Bowl! They can’t even win their division! What happens when the greats are teetering on the brink of their own decline?
THEY SHOULD RETIRE!!!!!!
OK, not true. First, it’s easy to point out that both men are by no means finished contending for the highest honors in their sports. Roger, through diligent training, his smooth, physically easy style, and perhaps the magic of some great skin care products, has stayed injury-free for nearly his entire career. He survived to the penultimate round of America’s preeminent tennis tournament. He hasn’t been ranked below 3rd in 7 years. Peyton is in even better position to stay relevant; he evades defensive pressure through his quick release, thus regularly ranking as the least-sacked quarterback in the league. Fewer sacks means less wear-and-tear on Peyton, as well as no Theismann-like freak accidents (ew, no, I am not linking to that one! Gross). And as I noted earlier, despite his BS interception against Jacksonville last week, Peyton is arguably better than ever. So use of the term “decline” here is relative.
Regardless though of their current abilities, why is there so much pressure on older, iconic athletes to either continue their total domination of their peers or simply go away, do some television commentary, anything, just PLEASE, do NOT ruin your stat sheet!? Perhaps it is our natural inclination to reject the idea of the aging athlete, much as humans hate aging in general (time to pick up some more RF Cosmetics, Gramps). Unfortunately, Peyton or Roger cannot benefit from the Botox treatment, the tummy tuck, the omega-3 fatty acids (well, those might help for when they do sudoku in 50 years). As humans must accept the end of life, these athletes must accept their descent into mediocrity, then inability. They’ve watched their kinetic seeds blossom into premier sporting ability, and now they’ll watch the leaves wilt and the weeds sprout. They’ll feel death of their athletic skills as we only witness it. The perk for us mere mortals is that we don’t have newspaper headlines or cable sports prognosticators clamoring for us to just die or whatever:
“Our next topic–Steve. Does he give it one more year at the assisted living center, or is it time for him to hang up the loafers and head on to that great shuffleboard court in the sky?”
“Ya know Jim, I’ve followed Steve throughout his life. We all remember the amazing highlights, those incredible memos at the office, the unforgettable performance as Giggles the Clown at Little Jimmy’s 6th birthday, the legendary landscaping sessions. But it’s time to face facts. His stats show us that his sexual prowess clearly peaked in 1972, but like all the greats, he just kept going, sometimes not even showing up on game day; he even tried trading teams toward the end of his career–and we know that never turns out well.”
“You’re right Bill. And his bladder control ratio has been on the same trajectory. Could I see him sticking around, trying one more year, finally reigning as Bingo champion on the fourth floor? Sure. But you know…sometimes, this decline, it’s just sad. You gotta know when to let it go. So if we were to buy or sell here, I’d say–well, I’d say that neither is an option. Steve may just want to take himself right off the market.”
What is so unnatural or painful about the decline? It happens with every athlete. Retirement (then re-retirement, then re-re-retirement) beckons at some point. Sure, sometimes magic does happen–see Brett Favre’s 2009 comeback season. (Then again, see his 2010 season–maybe karma happens, too.) But either way, throughout sports history (and human history), we’ve witnessed the fraying of athletic ability. Serves slow, passes lose zip, errors increase, “I just didn’t have it today,” the footwork deteriorates, the ranking plummets, the rating plummets. We acknowledge it. We freak out, trying to prevent it. But we just won’t accept it–it just can’t happen to [insert favorite player here]! Humans never die–duh! Federer will always be amazing! He’ll go 88-6 in 2013! Peyton will forever throw a touchdown per year of his age–do you realize how many TDs that is in 2026?
This charade makes me wonder what we, as sports fans, actually enjoy when watching sport. Would I rather watch Roger slice and float and angle his way to a 5th set loss, or see him hit 30 aces in a straight-set win? Peyton throw 4 TDs in an OT defeat, or see Mike Hart rack up 160 yards rushing in a win? Of course–we want the win. Victory validates everything! And we await a loss as an opportunity to move to the Next Best Thing. But maybe our viewership and fandom would develop into something more complex if we viewed the game through our players’ eyes.
Federer often talks of his love for tennis in his press conferences. Peyton eats, breathes, sleeps football. Their play expresses their passion but masks the innumerable hours they’ve devoted to sheer work–watching game tape, running sprints, hitting backhands, throwing passes. Who are we to tell them to shut it down? Roger, in particular, owes no one anything–he can play as long as he damn well pleases. (I don’t think Tony Godsick is going to be hurting anytime soon.) And Peyton–well, I’d love to know if his teammates are right now thinking, “Yeah, 11 touchdowns, that’s great and all, but you did miss Clark on the out route at 3rd-and-6…” He’ll be accountable to his team, his coach, his owners, and, I suppose, ultimately, his fans. But rarely is he the reason for a loss (paging Larry Coyer), and as long as he’s a Colt, he’ll conduct his offensive orchestra.
So if they’re still rolling with the punches, I should too. I’ve decided that I’m going to relish what’s left in these icons’ careers without casting the critical eye. Rather than lament the lack of perfection in every performance, we should express gratitude that they’re still so relevant this far into their careers. I’m guessing they’ll do the same–if the typical human cheers up as they progress through time, surely these guys will too. Maybe Peyton never wins another Super Bowl (hell, at this defense’s pace, maybe he never wins another game). Maybe Roger starts losing in the 2nd round to the Kristof Vliegens of the world (nice haircut, buddy). Whatever. When these guys have had their fill of random hotels and dingy locker rooms, sore elbows and aching knees, I’ll know when to start grieving. Until then, I’ll take all of their play I can get. If Peyton and Roger are only looking forward, why shouldn’t I?