Sports is more than a game, it's an identity. Sports can help build a community, provide an outlet during tough times, and be an inspiration. We cherish our teams and worship their star players.
Sometimes we love our favorite athletes because they embody the identity of the city they represent. Other instances it is because they provide fresh excitement to a middling franchise, and on very rare occasions, the greatest athletes can transcend the sport and lift a city. Peyton Manning was one of the special few who could do all three.
We love him in Indianapolis because we saw him as one of us; a down-to-earth, modest and nice guy and looks no more physically impressive than your average 35-year-old yet possessed a laser-rocket arm capable of shredding the most vaunted NFL defenses. We love him in Indianapolis because he was the best to perhaps ever play quarterback and did so in an honest and upstanding way. Most of all we love him in Indianapolis because he reignited, perhaps saved, our city.
As a small market Midwest franchise, it is hard for both player and city alike to get recognized. Yet for more than a decade Peyton Manning was the face of the NFL and 14 years after he was drafted by the Colts, Indianapolis - a ho-hum city with harsh winters - was hosting a Super Bowl in a brand new state-of-the-art Lucas Oil Stadium.
From day one in Indianapolis, Peyton Manning was a leader that the team and city could rally behind. He represented the best of our Midwest values and played with a special understanding of the game that exuded the promise of greatness. At the time he entered the NFL, the Colts were coming off the worst record in the league and there was growing speculation that the Colts might consider moving to Los Angeles if the team couldn't revive a blasé fan base. Indiana, it was said, was a basketball town and would never be as passionate about the Colts as the Pacers.
Funny how that turned out....
Manning was not only the Colts savior; he revived a city still searching for its identity. It's hard to calculate the value of having a professional sports franchise but Peyton Manning and Colts fever that swept the state have inevitably improved the city's fortunes. Critics argue that teams can be an economic detriment and multi-million dollar new stadiums such as Lucas Oil, a burden on the tax-payer. Such analysis fails to capture the intangibles that sports bring. You cannot compute the value Peyton Manning brought to inflating the psyche of the city.
When a team wins or player thrives, it lifts the city's spirits, unites its residents and puts that franchise and that city on the map. During the Peyton Manning-era in Indy, people became more energized, our downtown became further gentrified into a commercial hub, and the city became a more attractive destination for businesses. The subconscious draw of wanting to be part of a winning city and organization is a factor that cannot be quantified. Sports bring vibrancy, life and passion that can't be counted in economic data. Even in the most difficult of economic times when your team wins, your city wins, even if that victory is only a temporary distraction from the hardships of life. For more than a decade, Indianapolis won because the Colts did. All the while Peyton Manning was the driving force of a franchise that captured the hearts and minds of a city and state. Without Manning, there would have likely been no new stadium, no Super Bowl and perhaps no football. Manning has single-handedly transformed Indy in ways no business or elected official could have hoped.
That one player could make such a difference is so astounding, yet somehow when Peyton took the field for the first game of his rookie year we all had a sense he would be special.
Manning's no-nonsense attitude was never flashy but his play was and people took notice. In his second season, Manning engineered the greatest single-season turnaround in NFL history leading the Colts from 3-13 his rookie season to 13-3 the following year. From there Manning led the Colts to the most victories by any professional football team in a single decade. The Colts not only won, they dominated. Along the way, Manning set just about every record a quarterback could, all the while making sure he represented the values of his team and community. Perhaps Peyton's greatest legacy was the way in which he carried himself and demanded that his other teammates do so as well. Manning was somebody we could all look up to and respect. His incredible success on the field wasn't cheapened by off the field issues such as convictions of animal abuse or chargers of sexual assault. He practiced what he preached and succeed by adhering to his values of hard work and clean living.
Fourteen years later Peyton Manning will leave Indy as one of the greatest players of all time, a Super Bowl champion and someone who will be forever beloved by Indiana and NFL fans. We will miss him dearly and wish him all the best. Watching Manning in Dolphin's orange or Cardinal red will be painful but as Manning himself said in his news conference earlier today, we will always be able to cherish the victories we shared together.
Each time we head down to see Colts' home games, we will be reminded of number 18's legacy as we take our places in Lucas Oil Stadium, the house that Peyton Manning built.