The Couch: Peyton Manning setting the standard in how he plays and how he lives
When he woke from his operation, the golden arm that had made him an all-time great quarterback could barely take the weight of a feather.
It was September 2011 and Peyton Manning was facing the end of a fabled career in American football. This afternoon he and his Denver Broncos team are one game away from the Super Bowl.
In March 2012, the Indianapolis Colts released him after 14 seasons during which he won a Super Bowl, broke all sorts of records and transformed the franchise. The Colts had drafted him straight from college; it broke his heart when he had to leave. He'd never missed a game after his NFL debut in 1998. But now he'd missed the entire 2011 season and the Colts decided to move on without him.
They couldn't see him, at the age of 35, becoming again what he once had been. The "laser rocket arm," wrote Sports Illustrated last December, was "more like a cap gun now."
But in the regular season just finished, Manning, who will turn 38 in March, made 55 touchdown throws and passed for 5,447 yards in total. These are the stats that matter and both are new NFL records. The old dog had learned new tricks.
But first he had to learn all over again how to throw a football. The surgery in September 2011 was the fourth operation on his neck in two years. It removed a herniated disc from his spinal cord that had been fraying the nerve connecting with his right arm. The nerve had deteriorated to the point where his arm could barely function at all. The operation was necessary for the quality of his life after football; there were no guarantees that he would ever play again.
By all accounts an exceptionally conscientious and grounded individual, Manning mentally prepared himself for the end of his career. If the doctors told him it was over, he would accept it. "Who am I to complain?" he reasoned at the time. "Who am I to say, 'Why is this happening to me?' I've had 20 years of unbelievable luck. If they say that I can't play, then it's been a good trip."
In November 2011, he flew to North Carolina and moved in with a favoured coach from his college days. He spent three months with David Cutcliffe trying to throw the ball, trying to regenerate the withered nerve. Cutcliffe was shocked by the deterioration. "I'd never seen him throw in person where it wasn't perfection." Now Manning's basic mechanics were completely out of kilter. "He had to relearn everything."
Eventually, the electric currents in his arm started to fire again. But it was too late to save his career with the Colts. The Denver Broncos took a gamble and signed him. His recovery became a project. "We broke him down like a car," one of their rehab specialists told Sports Illustrated. "Take the motor out, get the alignment straight, then focus on the horsepower."
Manning, they say, has a computer in his head when it comes to reading a game, and while his body was recovering, his brain was compensating, match by match, play by play.
He has spent thousands of hours studying game video, in particular analysing the defensive strategies of opponents. When he crouches at the line of scrimmage he will assess in an instant their formation. He will try to second-guess the moves they're about to make; he will probably have seen it before and stored it in his memory bank.
He will then select a counter-play and order the protection he needs from his colleagues. This is all done in a matter of seconds, and without resorting to the army of coaching staff on the sideline. Manning has changed how quarterbacks operate and has therefore changed the game itself.
"It's always been a cerebral position," says John Elway, the legendary former Broncos quarterback, "but Peyton made it more cerebral."
He receives some 300 letters every week from the public. Much of it is straightforward fan mail; many request autographs. Some of the letters are deeply personal, recounting stories of family tragedy, illness and bereavement. The remarkable thing is that he replies to many of them in handwritten notes using his own personalised stationery. He offers words of condolence, encouragement and advice, tailored for each
individual correspondent. Sometimes he will phone them, out of the blue, and they'll think it's a prank call from a friend rather than Peyton Manning, All-American good guy, All-American hero.
But the fact of the matter, according to those who know him or have worked with him, is that he is a good guy. He appears to have avoided the bends in personality that come with his level of wealth and fame.
There is one extreme dimension to his life and it's his work. He has been accused of a robotic approach to his sport and a commitment to preparation that is almost obsessive-compulsive.
One Super Bowl is seen as scant reward for someone with such an outsized talent and reputation. Today the Broncos face the New England Patriots and Manning renews his career-long rivalry with Tom Brady, the other dominant quarterback of the era. Brady has three Super Bowl rings and a 10-4 head-to-head winning record against Manning.
But even Brady admits that Manning has "set the standard". Not just in how he plays, but how he lives too.