A FAN’S NOTES, The Rumpus Sports Column #32: The Quarterback Birthright

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When you hear the word rivalry, do you think of old-fashioned sibling throat-grabbing? Are you reminded, for instance, of the moment in the Book of Genesis when Joseph’s brothers rip off his famous ornamented coat and sell their annoyingly prophetic sibling into slavery? Or do you think of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning?

Last Sunday’s delicious, down-to-the-wire Patriots-Colts game was hyped as the match-up of the week, and for good reason. As Mike Tanier pointed out in his Fifth Down blog, there hasn’t been a quarterback rivalry like this one since Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas used to play each other in the 1960s. The Patriots won the game Sunday—they’re the better team this year, so there wasn’t much that Peyton Manning could do (except throw for four touchdowns to a corps of substitute receivers who barely know their routes). The game lived up to expectations partly because Manning, the precise, practiced, still-passionate veteran, was able to lead the banged-up Colts’ offense up and down the field as though the Patriots’ defense was the Buffalo Bills’ defense or something. True, Manning threw three interceptions—in a post-game interview, he called the final one “sickening”—but the bad throws only served as reminders that, unlike Brady, Manning was carrying a whole team on his shoulders.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Brady and Manning have paid each other some pretty nice lip service over the years. There is rivalry, but on the record there is also professional appreciation. They’re not pals or anything, but most likely they mean it when they say they admire each other’s work.

This season, Tom Brady has changed. His hair is longer, his face scruffy with stubble that adds texture to his Ken-doll looks. In the Patriots game against the Steelers a few weeks ago, Brady barked what seemed to be an obscene, angry motivational speech at his offensive linemen when the team failed to convert on third down. Sideline cameramen caught the quarterback’s whole tirade, and it was replayed several times (one of the best reasons to watch NFL games: slow-motion replays of curse-filled sideline meltdowns). Where is this instinct for fiery leadership coming from? Have the demands of fatherhood made Brady impatient, cranky, hungry, confused? Unlike his childless archrival, Brady has two children, both sons, both under the age of 4. The boys have different mothers. It’s enough to make a man feel tired sometimes, I’m sure.

Despite Tom Brady’s new look and better head-to-head record, Peyton Manning wins when it comes to Best Overall NFL Rivalry Participant. That’s because Manning has a concurrent rivalry with his younger brother Eli, the quarterback for the New York Giants. Given the pro career of their father Archie, the Jacob-and-Esau implications of the Manning family story are undeniable. I can’t confirm that Eli ever draped his forearm with lamb’s wool and fooled his father into blessing him, but I’d guess that he feels pretty competitive about the Manning quarterback birthright. Which makes me wonder: what is it like when one brother watches the other one play? Last year, Eli watched form a luxury box while Peyton played in the Super Bowl against still another elite QB, the Saints’ Drew Brees. So what exactly was going through Eli’s head during the game?

Thoughts that May Have Gone Through Eli Manning’s Head While He Watched his Older Brother Play in Super Bowl 44

  1. I don’t like being the clean-cut one.
  2. Today Peyton’s game-face makes him look constipated, and when he looks constipated, he almost always wins.
  3. Dad is being a little loosey-goosey with the free Bud in the skybox mini-bar.
  4. I am the clean-cut one, and I’ve pretty much learned to accept it.
  5. Why is Kant so insistent that doing the right thing for the wrong reason isn’t merely dubious, but despicable?
  6. It’s not like Peyton is much of a rebel, but people look at me and they go, “Well, he’s the clean-cut one,” because I’m young-looking.
  7. I love Peyton I hate Peyton I want him to win and to lose.

Brian Schwartz teaches writing at New York University. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in print publications on both coasts, and online at Ascent and Mr. Beller's Neighborhood. More from this author →