SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The news conference began with the scripted, woozy-eyed tone that's become the norm for Super Bowl week. Then, suddenly and seemingly inadvertently, Peyton Manning said something that should give us all pause when it comes to our crack cocaine-like obsession with football.
What he said was one of the more interesting things ever stated by a player during Super Bowl week. His words—along with other sobering news this week—reminded us of the conflict inherent in this sport, the contrast between the glossy, shiny, pompous Super Bowl and the guttural, raw violence of the sport.
We forget the toll it takes on these players to reach, or try to reach, this pinnacle. Then people like Manning and Ken Stabler remind us.
Manning was asked about the staggering news that Stabler, quarterback for the Raiders, had severe CTE. He expressed his shock at the news but then transitioned into something I'd never seen before. It was a glimpse of real NFL life.
The Super Bowl tries to keep its own consequences under wraps. It wants us to focus on the shiny objects. We usually do. Not this time.
"Certainly when you have injuries, when you have surgeries, the doctor sometimes will mention to you, whether you ask him or not, 'Hey, you are probably heading for a hip replacement at a certain time in your life,' " Manning said. "I said, 'Doc, I didn't ask you if I was going to have a hip replacement. I didn't need to know that right here at age 37, but thanks for sharing.' "
Manning, who is now 39, added, "I look forward to that day when I am 52 and have a hip replacement. Am I going to have some potential neck procedures down the road? I don't know the answer to that. The hip part was true. I can't remember which doctor told me that. I have seen a lot of doctors. He was nice enough to share that information with me. I feel like I do a lot of things to try to 'prehab' if you will. Preventive type of stretching. I wear a posture shirt and different things like that. As those things come along later in life for me, I will try to handle them and try to have a good plan when those are around. I feel pretty good as we speak and I am fortunate for that."
We know about all of Manning's neck surgeries. That's bad enough. Now, still in his late 30s, he is talking about needing a hip replacement.
He's a football player. These things happen. But he's also an immobile pocket quarterback who spent most of his career (except his rookie season) well protected by offensive lines. Manning wasn't Mike Vick scampering into the secondary and getting blasted by the safety. Manning is ranked 44th on the list of the most sacked quarterbacks of all time, despite ranking second in pass attempts.
He's barely been touched by NFL standards, yet has had neck surgeries and will need a new hip. And he hasn't even hit 40 yet.
None of this is to feel sorry for Manning. He has more money than some small nations. The issue is that as we ready for the Super Bowl, as we party and drink and gather with friends and colleagues, we tend to ignore the human element of this game.
Sometimes, things force us to pause and look around at the sport we love. This is one of those moments. Especially with the news about Stabler and the fact he had CTE.
Dr. Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System and a professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University School of Medicine, told the New York Times' John Branch that Stabler was a "classic" example of CTE. "It may be surprising since he was a quarterback, but certainly the lesions were widespread, and they were quite severe, affecting many regions of the brain."
In the same article, the Times also reveals quarterback Earl Morrall, who played 21 years in the NFL, was diagnosed with CTE. He had an even more severe diagnosis than Stabler.
CTE remains the NFL's bogeyman, and the Stabler news makes things even scarier. This disease has no limits to its reach. Stabler took even fewer sacks in his career than Manning, and when a quarterback like that is getting severe levels of the disease, this is really frightening stuff.
We're becoming so desensitized to what the NFL does to the body that we are watching a guy with a broken forearm try to play. It's admirable what Thomas Davis is trying to do, but we're at the point where we don't even flinch at a guy trying to go with a broken limb.
Jack Youngblood played with a broken leg. So did Terrell Owens. I know. It's football. It's still incredible what both we and players will tolerate.
Love the NFL, always will. Love the Super Bowl, always will. But the amount of ugliness we need to look past to keep enjoying the sport continues to grow. Soon we'll need the Hubble to look past all that junk.
Even during Super Bowl week, we've had CTE, a prostitution sting that led to Broncos player Ryan Murphy being sent home and the disturbing domestic violence allegations against Johnny Manziel. In many ways, these four things encapsulate what's happened in the NFL all season, if not for some years.
Even Roger Goodell is having a difficult time compartmentalizing. As part of an extensive interview with the New York Times Magazine, he was asked if he'd seen the movie Concussion. Goodell said he hasn't had time to go to the movies, but in the next sentence, he said he did take his daughters to see The Intern.
So, there's that.
It's not easy to look past this whole mess, but we find ways to do it. We will all do it Sunday, and we will enjoy the Super Bowl. Because football is our addiction. We can't get enough.
But maybe for just a second while you're watching, remember exactly what happens to these players.
Be reminded of exactly what it is that we love.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.
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