Peyton Manning: The once and future king?

There’s a terrific line in the terrific book North Dallas Forty by former Dallas Cowboys receiver the late Peter Gent (a terrific writer, while we’re at it) commenting on the not-so-thin line between sport and business in the National Football League.

A player for the fictional Dallas team imagined by Gent in his 1970s best-seller verbally attacks a management representative of the team, saying in effect “Every time we call pro football a business, you tell us it’s a sport; and every time we agree that it’s a sport, you say it’s a business.”

That flexible and elusive line that controls and defines America’s national pastime was shown in high relief Wednesday when the country’s favorite football player — Peyton Manning — was placed in a ridiculously ludicrous position opposite one of America’s most manipulative businessmen, James Irsay, the owner-by-inheritance of the mobile money-making machine called the Indianapolis Colts in a nationally televised attempt by the Colts to repay Manning‘s oft-stated devotion to his team with a well-aimed kick to the famed quarterback’s crotch .

There was Manning, oozing sincerity and sadness at the prospect of having to give up fourteen years of a successful and all-consuming professional affiliation … standing opposite Irsay, who was pretending to ooze sincerity and sadness while subjecting his most loyal, endearing, and profit-engendering player to the kind of appreciation that the directors of the 2012 North American International Auto Show would have shown to a 1984 Yugo car.

Because like a ‘84 Yugo, Manning is a broken-down heap. Or at least Irsay hopes he will be before 2012 is up. He needs Manning to come apart at the seams. Yugos sometimes ended up on the shoulder of the Lodge Freeway after depositing parts of their transmissions over various lanes of I-94 in attempts to arrive downtown. Peyton Manning has left parts of his body, particularly that key head support popularly known as the “neck,” on football fields all over the country in attempts to win football games for his teammates, their fans, and their dewy-eyed owner.

Why Manning agreed to appear with Irsay at a press conference is anybody’s guess. Mine is that it gave the fans a chance to see greatness, and mediocre bean-counting, side by side. I got the impression that he smartly defeated Irsay just be standing next to him.

Manning cried; Irsay cried. There was a major difference to the tears. Manning was emotional, and in pain — though he tried to hide that hurt — because he had just been forced to give up the object of his professional love. He had no choice in the matter. He had been shown the way out of the football town he had almost single-handedly created. Irsay “cried” what appeared to be tears, because he had just voluntarily thrown his most devoted employee off the Colts team bus and onto the scrapheap of broken athletic dreams … in a cynical attempt to play the safe odds in a match of age versus youth, injury versus health. And let friendship, and character, and long service be damned.

Manning was in tears over what Irsay had done to him; Irsay apparently cried about what he did to himself. Anybody find anything odd with that picture? Speaking to fans, Manning said “Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I truly have enjoyed being your quarterback.” It was a great quote. Irsay said — in a moment of stunning clarity and amazing discovery — “There will be no other Peyton Manning.” No kidding. Wow.

Football players are often judged by statistics. Manning has tons of outstanding statistics, impressive winning stats that allowed him and his team to dominate most of the other squads in the NFL for nearly a decade and a half. James Irsay has one truly outstanding statistic: According to the people who pay attention to such stuff, he has an estimated personal net worth of $1.4 billion. With a ‘b.‘ Wow again.

With that kind of cash, you have to figure that Irsay doesn’t cry too often. And you further would have to deduce that he could have saved himself and Indianapolis’ football fans from shedding tears (be they real or imagined) Wednesday by forking over the measly $28 million that his team had promised to pay Manning just a year ago … just a year before his neck started leaking key parts hither and yon.

Apparently Irsay’s decision was a close one. A difficult one. Apparently there was considerable thought that Manning’s neck was close to working again; that Manning is on the verge of reclaiming his position as one of America’s favorite and greatest QBs. If both those assumptions are true, or even close to being true, what in the world was Irsay doing Wednesday — rewarding Peyton Manning’s universally acknowledged, even by Irsay, selfless contributions to Indianapolis and to football by throwing him to the four winds? Manning didn’t deserve the risk? Wasn’t worthy of that chance?

James Irsay, businessman, could have made a statement Wednesday in his profession that might have elevated him to the level of excellence and character that has marked Peyton Manning’s career as a quarterback. He could have truly rewarded Manning — not with manufactured tears and the empty and obvious gesture of taking the opportunity to retire his jersey at that press conference, big damn deal — by showing #18 the kind of loyalty and daring and giving that Irsay had claimed to praise in his blubbery remarks. He could have matched Manning’s singular kind of character by returning the kind of faith and trust and bonding that Manning brought to his team and Irsay’s franchise. Not by making the safe play. But by exhibiting the kind of personal risk and stretch and daring that makes great quarterbacks; great players and individuals like Peyton Manning. By showing the world a courageous move that could have marked him as a great owner; or better yet, even a great human being. By refusing to abandon the face of their franchise.

Irsay made the kind of safe and faithless choice that likely stands to ultimately deliver a heavier return to his money coffers in Indiana. An unimaginative choice that makes rich kids who inherit vast fortunes look exactly like … well, rich kids who inherit vast fortunes.

Peyton Manning will go to Denver or Washington or Miami and write a dramatic ending to an already-legendary career. (My money’s on him as a shoo-in Comeback Player of 2012.) Or, he will fail in his attempts to continue his career; his neck will leak oil at somebody’s training camp, and he will be finally forced to the sidelines of life.

There, he will be greeted by legions of fans, generations of football aficionados who will be thankful for having had the opportunity to have witnessed the genius and courage of Peyton Manning on America’s football fields.

On that sideline he will find a well-dressed and forever rich James Irsay … an owner who, when he had the chance to join Peyton Manning on the playing field of real life, to repay the Colt whose courage and dash and giving made Irsay cry, chose instead to betray that Colt by making the “safe” move … to cut him, to abandon him, from the safety of that sideline.

Nobody gets blitzed there. Few get their necks damaged up in the owner’s box.

Count me among practically every pro football fan in America who hopes that Manning gets to make Irsay cry at least one more time in his career. Maybe on a February Sunday not too many years down the line.