Peyton Manning, Heroes, and Our Obsession with Sports

This week Peyton Manning retired after playing 18 years of professional football. He is considered, for the non-sports fan reading this article, one of the best quarterbacks and football players of all time. Football – American style – is THE most popular sport in this country. Hands down. It might be our secular religion. We go to large stadiums; read churches or cathedrals. We obsess to the nth degree; read pray. There are millions of fans and football generates billions of dollars. It is good to keep in mind that to be a “fan” of anything is short for fanatic. Just saying.

I became a Tennessee Volunteers fan, where Peyton played in college, because of Peyton. I was not alone. In the late 1990s, for instance, the name Peyton was one of the more popular names for boys throughout the state of Tennessee, and in many parts of what is known as SEC country – the southeast part of our country. Peyton was tall and good looking. He was the kind of guy young women would love to bring home to meet mom. He was the kind of guy that young guys would love to bring home to meet dad and talk about football. He was nineteen when he became larger than life.

One of the jokes about Tennessee and its particular color of orange goes something like this: “Do you know why Tennessee’s color is orange? So you can pick up trash for jail work-release on Friday, go to the game on Saturday, and hunt on Sunday.” In other words, let’s pile on the white hick and bubba. Peyton transformed that. He really did.

Peyton made pulling for a school from the southern end of Appalachia cool. He took that burden of social awkwardness of rooting for hillbillies upon himself. I am not disparaging folks from east Tennessee and western North Carolina, and if you are offended by my socioeconomic comment than you don’t know what others say about the region. It’s rural, out of the way, usually ignored. People make fun of the region. I happen to like it. But Peyton transformed it, at least for a time. He really did.

Peyton became what some rabid football fans would call a hero. Many people throughout Tennessee, the south, and college football concurred. And this is where the trouble can begin. Fair and equal are not the same, nor is good and goodness. Neither is leadership and heroes.

Being a hero can be tough. I have never been one but I’ve read enough from them or about them that I think I have a decent idea about their lot. They are ordinary people, usually living in very ordinary places, and suddenly they are called. Most heroes may not understand this call. In fact, many avoid it or run far from it.

The hero is summoned by God, as the hero might say, to a task to change things, to make the world more just, to save someone, or to challenge our assumption we are always correct about life and the world. Heroes take on the dark forces, go to distant places in their soul if not physically, stand up for the weak and those afraid, and say to the king there is another day coming. Heroes help to make that day happen now. They speak of resurrection.

This all may sound quite familiar. It’s the usual storyline we read in the old fairy tales, where someone is in need and the hero braves much to change the world. The hero is never entirely sure how the story will turn out yet agrees to the adventure, albeit rather reluctantly. Heroes risk much. Being a hero is not easy, I suspect, because it puts you in the land of transformation. Something in the story or world has to change, and we pull for the hero in book or film because the hero takes our place. Confrontation ain’t easy. The characters the hero meets in these stories can be stark, ugly, dangerous types as Michael Ventura points out, because transformation is not to be taken lightly.

Peyton retired this week and retired as the “sheriff”, his nickname because he ran the field. He changed the game, he changed the landscape. He was in charge.

Sheriffs are mostly portrayed in our culture to be heroes, for all the reasons described above. I like Peyton, and in my book he is the best quarterback to have ever played. He did transform the quarterback position. But he is not my hero.

You see, on March 24 we remember in the church Oscar Romero, the Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador who was gunned down in 1980 by the ruling elite of his country because he preached on behalf of the poor. Ironically, he was assassinated while celebrating the Eucharist. I think of so many others who have given their very lives for this crazy thing called – disciple. They are heroes.

Peyton is not perfect and no one asked him to be. Not the University of Tennessee, the Southeastern Conference, or ESPN. He was a great quarterback who changed sports. He is a good person from all accounts. And I bought in, literally. Each month I pay ESPN through my cable and in doing so I wonder if I contribute to the enduring mythology of our culture that athletes are heroes just because of winning. I like Peyton and would love to meet him and chat with him. But he is not my hero and I am just fine with that. Heroes, Peyton Manning, and sports – I think of how skewed our expectations of athletes can be, how we demand they be heroes. I will now turn the channel to ESPN.