I enjoy watching and following sports. For me it’s not so much about who wins or loses, but about the stories. There is nothing better than a great sports story. I challenge you to watch Hoosiers and not feel like you can take on the world afterward.
Sports stories are tales of humanity woven between goal posts, baskets and bases. Contrived as it may be, athletic competition sets up perfectly the roles of hero, villain, underdog and champion. Athletes often overcome and persevere not just with talent, but with strength of character. They perform feats we average folk simply can not. In an age when we so desperately need heroes to assure us that the impossible is possible, sports offers them up to us in high-definition.
I started following the NFL is 1985 when I was baptized as a Bears fan during the season that lead to their legendary win at Superbowl XX. The NFL has been fodder for many great stories over the years. Last weekend a happy ending was supposed to be written for one of its heroes.
Peyton Manning is the perfect protagonist for a great sports story. He had the all-American childhood, growing up in a close-knit family, playing football in the backyard. He’s handsome and has a beautiful wife and children. His quarterback career is marked with success from an SEC championship at the University of Tennessee, to eight division championships, two AFC championships and a Super Bowl win during his tenure with the Indianapolis Colts. If the story stopped there, Manning would have already scored a seat at the table with the greats.
But a good story needs conflict. In 2011 Manning had neck surgery and missed the entire following season. A year later the Colts cut him loose after 14 seasons. Instead of quitting he found his way to Denver where he surprised all his doubters by leading them to the Super Bowl just two years later. He surpassed expectations, set records and everyone said he was a legend.
Last Sunday night Manning was to earn his second Super Bowl win and cinch up the title of greatest NFL quarterback ever. Many expected nothing less. Many of us wanted him to win, because as cliché as it may be, we love a happy ending when the hero conquers all.
The best stories, however, have an unexpected twist. Millions of us watched as the Seattle Seahawks steamrolled Manning and the Denver Broncos. The ending left the nation dumbfounded. A Broncos victory was not guaranteed, but no one expected a blowout loss of 43-8.
This is where the story goes from rote to classic. One that leaves you pondering its lessons long after you finish it. It’s what our protagonist does in the face of defeat that proves his greatness, perhaps even more that a win would.
Seahawk Richard Sherman injured his ankle during the game. According to Sherman after the game ended Manning, genuinely concerned for him, approached Sherman and asked how he was. For most of us I think the well-being of an opponent who just shredded us in front of all of America would be the last thing on our mind.
Later the press asked Manning if he was embarrassed by the Broncos defeat. He told the reporter that was an insulting suggestion. It was simple, the other team was good and the Broncos didn’t play well enough to win.
Gracious and triumphant, even in defeat. How does Manning do it, and how can we learn to do it?
Another answer Manning gave the press after he won the Super Bowl with the Colts gives us a clue. In not so many words, a reporter asked him if having a championship under his belt finally validated him as great quarterback. He said, “I don’t play that card. I don’t play that game.”
Here’s what Manning knows that many of us forget when we fail. One win doesn’t make you great anymore than one loss erases all the great things you’ve done. And winning isn’t the only great thing we can do. Sometimes showing up, preparing and working hard is just as great. It is the sum of all you do.
It’s that simple philosophy that brought Manning success and cements his legend as a great even if he never wins another championship. That philosophy can take us normal folk pretty far too. We can’t be afraid of failure. If we do fail, we can’t let it define us and overshadow all the good we’ve already done. Accept the failure, access why you failed and move on.
Manning riding off into the sunset with the Lombardi trophy last weekend would have been a nice story. Facing the agony of defeat and showing grace in loss, that’s what legends are made of.