I watched Rudy last night and right at the end of the movie when the rest of the Fighting Irish players carried the diminutive hero off the field to the screaming roar of the 80,000 fans who had been chanting his name, I immediately though of Peyton Manning.
Why do we love Rudy? He played exactly two plays in his college career and didn't even make it to the pro's yet that scene at the end of the movie would have us believe that he was one of the greatest players in the storied history of the Fighting Irish.
Of course we don't love Rudy because of what he has done on the field or during his career.
We love Rudy because of what he had to do in order to be on that field at all. You see there is something deeply routed within the human brain that compels us to pull for the underdog. We are almost programed to pull for someone that has overcome adversity and climbed to heights that nobody ever thought possible.
Whether it was Alex Zanardi climbing back into the racing cockpit after losing both of his legs in an auto accident. Brett Favre playing the game of his life the Monday after his father died. Rudy, the little engine that could defying all logic and getting on that field of play for the Fighting Irish.
These are the stories that captivate our imagination and make common men into heroes of legend.
But what happens when the Hero doesn't overcome any adversity. What happens when there is no long shot. What happens when the 2-1 favorite of the horse race absolutely slaughters the 50-1 longshot and leads wire to wire. I believe that Peyton Manning is a victim of exactly that phenomenon.
Since Highschool Peyton has been regarded as a cant miss NFL QB. Peyton was a blue chip prospect in College and could have gone number one overall in 1997 or 1998. As a number one pick overall and the new face of the franchise in Indianapolis, Peyton was expected to succeed.
Since he came into the NFL there has been talk of him owning all the major passing records by the time he hangs them up and in 2006 his team won that elusive Superbowl to fill out an NFL resume that includes 3 regular Season MVP's, 1 Superbowl MVP, 9 Pro-bowl appearances and 6 straight 12 win seasons.
The on-field body of work that Peyton Manning has put together should be enough to silence even his loudest critics. Yet, strangely, its not enough. I am left to wonder if we hold his accomplishment in a much different light if Peyton Manning had been a QB picked in the later rounds rather than a first overal pick.
Would that give him that marketable edge if he was a sixth round QB who beat the odds to become a succesful QB?
If the on-field body of work isn't enough to convince people, surely what Peyton Manning has done off the field should have been enough to win him support in this highschool game of popularity we play with our favorite athletes.
To name just a few of the causes Peyton lends his name, time and pocketbook too;
Peyton's Peyback foundation - A non-profit organization setup by Peyton Manning to provide leadership and growth opportunities for children at risk.
Manning Passing Academy - A skill development camp for young players where they combine teaching the skills to play the game with sportsmanship, hardwork and dedication.
Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincents - After a lengthly relationship wtih the hospital, Peyton Manning was honored after the new Children's hospital was opened and named after him. The motto for the hospital is helping kids get back to being kids.
Manning's pitch in for Hurricane Katrina Relief - Among the many athletes and celeberties that pitched in when Katrina hit New Orleans were Peyton Manning and his brother. They hired a 747 in Atlanta and filled it with clean water, childrens supplies and food and delivered it to New Orleans people who needed the help.
These are just a few of the more notable examples of how Peyton Manning has given back to the communities he is involved in. Yet again, there is no story there. He didn't orchestrate a dog fighting ring, he didn't get drunk and kill a pedestrian, he didn't get produce any children out of wedlock, none of that good stuff that sells papers.
In fact if Mike Vick comes back and wins an MVP in the NFL it could prove to be a bigger story than if Peyton Manning was to go on and win a fourth. Again, people would paint a picture of a redeemed Mike Vick, how he had it all, lost it all, and then gained it back. Unfortunately that is the kind of plot that we are programmed to respond to.
Perhaps I am way off base and there are perfectly sound reasons that Peyton Manning can often do no right. Perhaps this Quarterback who has had everything handed to him on a silver platter deserves all the negative press because heck, it comes with the job.
Yet, I am not wrong about the perception that is out there. Its cool to bash Peyton Manning.
When Manning speaks his mind as did this season about the uncertainty surrounding the coaching staff of the Colts this year, we tear him to pieces as a bad teammate. When he doesn't speak his mind, we tear him apart for being a generic robot with no personality.
When Manning gets visibly upset on the field, we point that out as a flaw. Nobody likes a whinner right? Yet when he doesn't show emotion on the field he gets called out as someone that isn't invested enough to win... Remember our idiot kicker!!!
When the Colts couldn't win a Superbowl everyone figured they had found the flaw in the NFL's golden boy. Once his team did win the Championship the new flaw was that they should have won more.
When Peyton starts an incredible 176 games in a row that isn't a testment to his toughness. Rather he just doesn't take enough hits to win the big games, or has benefitted from an unusually talented offensive line.
For every positive, someone out there inevitably feels the need to throw out two negatives. As if they personally have to be the ones to show the world that Peyton Manning isn't as great as he seems.
Would people still feel this way if Peyton wasn't expected to succeed? Would it somehow matter to people if Peyton perhaps had to overcome cancer and make a triumphant return, or if the Colts had taken him with the first pick in the 6th round, rather than the first pick in the first round?
Do people look for reasons to hate Peyton Manning simply because he isn't Rudy Ruettiger, beating the odds to step on the field when everyone else told him it would impossible.
I am left to wonder in spite of all the negative press that surrounds Peyton Manning, is it simply no longer good enough just be as good as advertised. To receive top billing and then go out and deliver the goods.
Will 2009 be the year that we cut Peyton Manning some slack. He doesn't embody everything that is wrong with the NFL....Far from it in fact. This season Peyton Manning should climb the ladder into the top 3 all time in most of the major passing category.
As a someone who is has been along for the ride, both good—2006 Superbowl Win- and the bad—pick your first round playoff exit—I am excited to see Peyton take those steps up on the podium he will share with the other great QB's in history.
Even if the rest of the popularity gang chooses not to acknowledge Peyton I am okay with that. Truth is I wasn't very popular in highschool myself either. Heck, guess I finally have something in common with Peyton Manning.