This story on No. 3 athlete Peyton Manning appears in the 20th anniversary issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!
Just the cold, hard stats ought to give you some idea: two Super Bowl victories, 539 touchdown passes, seven TD completions in one game (at age 37), 55 scoring passes in a single season, 200 career NFL victories, five season MVPs. Peyton Manning is the only starting QB to win Super Bowls for two teams, the second time with a cracked neck, on his very last day as a player. Plus, all of those teeth-gnashing comebacks. I'm not sure it really takes an algorithm. You can tot up excellence like this on a napkin.
Still. Complex statistics don't reveal all that interests us about No. 18's superiority. They document who did this and who did that, but "who's actually better" is left un-agreed-upon -- as it should be. In my line of indoor work -- and what you're reading now is my line of indoor work -- all I have to be is excellent, not better than Margaret Atwood. Admittedly, of course, my stakes are not the same as in football.
Thought of in this binary way, dominance takes on a slightly serio-comic gladiatorial spoofy-ness; visions of gleaming and greased muscle-bound Victor Matures, brandishing stubby swords at the bared necks of some poor guys who are being ... well ... dominated.
It's also true that "dominance" doesn't and probably can't mean "dominant for all time." Unless the NFL goes out of business soon (a different story), the future can't effectively be dominated. Domination will always be an essentially nostalgic concept consigned to the present, and also (of course) to the past.
Stats likewise have a hard time being authoritative about the whys, hows and wherefores of a career such as Manning's. I'm talking about the oft-invoked intangibles, the attributes that "can't be taught," which live in the DNA of any great performer, from Nureyev to Maria Callas. Manning was loaded with these. Archie and Olivia's genes, for starters.
But so much was also just Peyton. For instance, a virtually unquenchable curiosity for the game itself, bordering on spooky reverence. Many observers noted that when Manning entered the league in '98, it was his brain as much as his throwing prowess that the Colts saw assuring their future. He was also immensely competitive -- a term of art in sport, signifying many things; from being a dirty player to being a win-at-all-costs nutter to being a selfish, infraction-prone daredevil. Or -- in Manning's case -- being technically thorough at all phases of the game, being uncompromising regarding his own performance and everyone else's, and being able to play through ridiculously painful injuries. All of which rendered him the nearly perfect role model, teammate and football savant, whose example made everyone around him play better -- if only because if they failed, they'd have to answer to No. 18.
Beyond this high-quality skill set, he was likable, albeit bloody aggressive; was tall (6-foot-5) for his era; and possessed a laser memory for everything he ever did or saw, including offenses, defenses, coaching proclivities and the office personnel's names at Colts headquarters on his first day in town.
Dominance in sport, when all the equipment is stored away, is probably a pseudo-measurement we have little practical use for. Which doesn't make it a less integral part of the "sports brain," thriving as that brain does on the nebulous and pleasingly unprovable. Why not add to Peyton's dominance quotient the fact that younger players were starstruck just to be on the field with him; that veteran players hated losing to Peyton Manning more than they hated losing to any other QB; that not failing played such an inordinate role in his cognitive makeup; that putting the ball in Manning's hands with a minute left became the equivalent of a psychic episode on opponents' sidelines; that for all of his immense accomplishment there was still an aura of the unlikely about Peyton. And finally that he himself -- so apparently outgoing, so likably goofy, so eminently skillful and football-savvy -- was at the same time rather unknowable, almost enigmatic, up close.
These things count too. No? They contribute to the romantic notion that great athletic, if improbable, skill reflects a corresponding but unheralded inner greatness: a sense of moral heft. Of character. Which takes us just a bit further down the road toward believing that sport and our devotion to it has real significance, possesses consequence and means more than just being the sum of whatever we can dream up to say about it.
Richard Ford, a novelist and short-story writer, was the first author to win the PEN/Faulkner award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in the same year, for his book "Independence Day." His most recent release is his memoir, "Between Them: Remembering My Parents."