A Super Bowl Preview for People Who Don’t Know Football (2014 Edition)

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RICHARD SHERMAN – THE TOTAL PACKAGE

In 2014, Richard Sherman has made himself known, and we should be thankful for this. His story is a quintessentially American one; it’s banal and heartbreaking to say it couldn’t have happened in any other place or time, but some of what sets Richard apart in his rags-to-riches trajectory is how deeply he wants to be representative of a much larger group of men and women like himself. He is not, as they say, simply along for the ride.

Richard grew up in Compton, California, a place known to most Americans through rap songs, violent films, and piqued news footage. Afflicted by such media, it may be difficult for many to imagine the vast majority of Compton citizens who are simply trying to get by, attend work or school, and feed their children. Kevin and Beverly Sherman are two such people. Kevin rises at 4 a.m. daily to drive a garbage truck, and Beverly is a senior clerk for California Children’s Services.

Kevin, who has bullet wounds on his body from gang violence, did everything in his power to keep his children from repeating his mistakes. “Kids do a lot of stuff when you’re not around,” Kevin told the New York Times. “But if you’re always around, they can’t do nothing.” In time, the local gangbangers didn’t even want Richard or his brother Branton in their gangs. “They would tell us to go home and pick up a book, or go home and play football,” Branton told the Seattle Times. “They would say, ‘This lifestyle ain’t for you.’”

In addition to their rules and supervision, Kevin and Beverly also incentivized good grades, offering their kids $5 for every A and $3 for every B. Richard’s 4.2 high school GPA cost them some money over the years; he graduated as the salutatorian of his high school class and was voted Most Likely to Succeed, all while being a star athlete.

“I know the jock stereotype,” Richard told Sports Illustrated. “Cool guy, walking around with your friends, not caring about school, not caring about anything. I hate that stereotype. I want to destroy it. I want to kill it.”

“It didn’t seem like Richard even lived in the inner city,” high school coach Keith Donerson told the San Jose Mercury News. “He read a lot. His vocabulary was totally different. He didn’t talk slang, and the other kids teased him about it.”

Perhaps just as importantly, Richard found a role-model when he discovered Muhummad Ali. “[Ali] understood how to manipulate the world,” Richard says. “He created a persona. He was a leader, an entertainer, and he knew how to break people down in the ring. I wanted to be like Ali.” Richard, already a talkative kid, began to understand how to frame his speech, and the importance of backing it up.

Richard accepted a scholarship to Stanford University, where the football team was led by future San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. At first, life wasn’t easy in Palo Alto. The academics were rigorous (“I hadn’t even read The Iliad yet,” Richard says) and his disciplinarian coach, Harbaugh, seemed to lose faith in the talkative kid from SoCal, prompting Richard to change positions from wide receiver (which he played in high school) to defensive back.

Asked about Richard’s chances of making the Stanford team as a defensive player, Harbaugh told reporters, “Don’t know if he’ll be able to beat anybody out over there or not.” Richard was shaken by the lack of confidence but refused to quit. “I had to prove it was possible,” he said. “Compton to Stanford.”

Richard may have known he was an anomaly, but he fiercely refuses to remain one. While still at Stanford, he arranged for students from South L.A. to visit the campus and led the tours himself. Richard also started a charity, Blanket Coverage, which provides updated textbooks and school supplies to inner-city kids. “It’s hard for them to take the SATs when the textbooks they’re using were made in 2000,” he told the San Jose Mercury News. “How can they compete?”

As a pro football player, Richard might have even more money to help the kids of his hometown, but his bad blood with coach Harbaugh reputedly cost him. “Richard Sherman does not like Jim Harbaugh,” Cris Collinsworth reported on NBC last year. “He thinks he’s a big reason why he didn’t go higher in the draft. He was told that Harbaugh had negative things to say about him to scouts that came over.”

Perhaps as a result, Richard fell down evaluation lists, becoming the 154th player chosen in 2011, which is not pretty. Only players picked in the third round and above are guaranteed a spot on the team; Richard was picked in the fifth. Today, he’s making $555,000, a million and a half less than the top defensive back picked that year. That day was the last tear in the bucket. When Richard’s dad was asked how the family feels about Harbaugh now, Kevin said, “It’s a passionate hate.”

Harbaugh, now coach of the San Francisco 49ers, has a player named Michael Crabtree who also has a bit of history with Richard. According to the Seattle Times, Richard went to shake Crabtree’s hand at a fundraiser last summer, and Crabtree tried to start a fight with him. Richard was startled but vowed to keep future skirmishes on the field. “I’m going to make a play and embarrass him,” he told his brother at the time.

In the final seconds of the NFC Championship game this January 19th, to decide the Super Bowl berth between Seattle and San Francisco, Richard did just that. With the game on the line, San Francisco’s QB threw the ball to Crabtree in the end zone. If Crabtree caught it, San Francisco would win. Enter Richard Sherman, who jumped and smacked that football like an origami swan chucked at a ceiling fan. Interception. The Seahawks, and Richard Sherman, won the game.

Crabtree, meanwhile, disrespected Richard in the media before and after the game. When asked if Richard was the best cornerback in the NFL (many believe that he is). Crabtree replied, “Uh, no, I don’t think so.” After the play, Richard and Crabtree engaged in a little back-and-forth, which ended when Richard, saying “good game,” earnestly attempted to shake Crabtree’s hand, and Crabtree shoved him in the face.

Crabtree’s actions got a little less coverage than Richard’s postgame comment to Erin Andrews, when he said, “I’m the best corner in the game. When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you’re gonna get! Don’t you ever talk about me!”

In a cosmos of post-game sports clichés, it was the rant heard ‘round the world. A wave of journalists, bloggers, and fans fell over themselves to criticize Richard’s “unsportsmanlike” behavior; they called him a monkey, a thug, and worse. Fortunately, the wave was met with great force by writers like Greg Howard, Cord Jefferson, Rembert Brown, and Richard Sherman himself, who last week threw the word “thug” out on the floor of public discussion like a slaughtered bear, and thank God for that.

In the context of Richard’s life, from a childhood in Compton of avoiding gangbangers, to earning a Stanford degree, to rising to be the best at his position in a professional sport, this ecstatic apotheosis was a revelation. He had just reached the Super Bowl, the most public of all American spectacles, for the first time in his life, by specifically beating a hated former coach who cost him millions of dollars and an opposing player who had routinely disrespected him.

How many times in our lives are we able to witness specific, personal victories like this, let alone be a participant in them? This is why rematches exist in sports, and perhaps why sports exist at all – to beat the guy, the opponent, the system, that’s beaten you, and to narrate to non-participants that it can be done. Richard, for giving the NFL and its fans its most honest victory sound bite in years, was roundly condemned.

He has taken pains to address the invective that has nothing to do with his race or city of origin, even on his honest dislike of Crabtree. On the Tuesday before the Super Bowl, he wrote, “If I could pass a lesson on to the kids it would be this: Don’t attack anybody. I shouldn’t have attacked Michael Crabtree the way I did. You don’t have to put anybody else down to make yourself bigger.”

Still, he says, “Back when football was raw and unsanitized, the same things they fined guys for now were the aspects of the game that people loved. The NFL once allowed players to live in the moment and be entertainers. I may have been wrong in my gestures, but if I had to do it all again, I’d probably do some of the same things. It was a big moment, and it was how I felt at the time.”

He’s also since turned the controversy to his advantage, selling “Don’t You Ever Talk About Me” t-shirts on his website, which may suggest to some that he was insincere and calculating all along, but let’s stop there. This is America – someone was going to make those shirts. Would it make you feel better if it were Nike? If your answer’s yes, consider asking yourself why that is.

As James Baldwin writes of the American dream, “If people are denied participation in it, by their very presence they will wreck it.” You do not have to like Richard Sherman or even be a Seahawks fan to recognize what the NFL is doing when it fines or admonishes him in his moments of pride. Richard Sherman is significant because, like all things once considered “abnormal” that have or will become normal, he represents more than what he portrays. Richard knows as well as anyone, because of the uniqueness of his trajectory, he is not the American dream – that’s a ways off, and the divisive reaction to his statements helps reveal the heartbreaking distance.

For now, whether you love his discourse or hate it, recognize who the man is, what he means, and what it means for him to be here. Whether Seattle or Denver fan, you can celebrate along with that.

dthomas

DEMARYIUS THOMAS – THE QUIET MAN

On March 15th, 1999, Demaryius and his family were asleep in their home in Montrose, Georgia, when police officers pounded on their door.

“I got up out of bed and heard a loud noise,” Demaryius told ESPN. “Somebody kicking down the door. I’m just scared at that moment, I didn’t know what to do. I see my mom on the bed, handcuffs behind her back.” Demaryius’ mother, Katina Smith, and grandmother, Minnie Pearl Thomas, had been arrested for manufacture and distribution of cocaine.

Katina begged the police to let her get her children ready for school one last time before they sent her to jail. She packed lunches for Demaryius, then age 11, and his younger sisters, helped the little ones get dressed, and walked them to the bus stop. “I hugged them and said, ‘I’ll see you when I get back,’ and told them, ‘I love you,’” she told the  Denver Post. “But I never came back.” In February of 2000, after almost a year in jail while awaiting sentencing, Demaryius’ mother, the convicted bagman of the operation, got 20 years; his grandmother, the kingpin, got 40.

“They would try to keep me from seeing all of it, but I did,” Demaryius told NFL.com. He adds, “I knew my grandma was selling it and my mom was keeping some money. I told my mother one time that they needed to stop because I had a dream that they got in trouble. I started crying like every night after then. And then it finally happened.”

In the small Georgia town where they lived, the grandmother wasn’t cooking and dealing drugs to live large – she was trying to keep a roof over everyone’s heads and maintain a middle-class lifestyle. “I mostly did it to make ends meet, to buy my kids what they wanted, so they could wear what the other kids were wearing, so I could keep my house nice on the inside,” Minnie told the Denver Post.

Demaryius’ father, Bobby Thomas, a career Army man, was supportive but wasn’t around much; throughout Demaryius’ life, he’s been stationed as far away as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. He sent money and clothes, but wasn’t able to provide a home close to the family in Georgia. In the months after mother Katina and grandma Minnie’s arrests, Demaryius and his sisters wereshuttled around to stay with various relatives.

Meanwhile, his mother and grandmother were sent to women’s prison in Tallahassee, Florida. Word is, Katina could have reduced a sentence of four years if she had testified against her mother, but Katina had refused. “It hurt me when I found out she wouldn’t tell on me,” Minnie said. “I think of her kids and how they’re being raised. It’s not that they don’t have good lives, but they would have been better with their mother.”

Still a little boy, Demaryius buried the pain of losing his mom and distracted himself with school and sports. “Sometimes, I felt like when I need her, she can’t be around to help me, so I just started crying,” he said to ESPN. “I was angry.”

Holding his emotions inside and keeping a low profile was nothing new for Demaryius, so it was difficult for those close to him to realize how much he needed their support. “Even from when he started walking, he’s always been a timid guy,” his father Bobby Thomas said, “He’s nervous in front of people, especially when it comes to talking.”

At age 12, the shy, hurting child found an uncle, Pastor James Brown, who gave Demaryius a stable home for the rest of his teenage years. James and his wife made Demaryius work in a pea field and usher at church, and banned baggy clothes, but they provided the structure the young man needed.

Around the time Demaryius moved in with Uncle James, his father took him to visit his mom in prison. The experience left him shaken but with a new sense of focus. “I never want to go to jail,” Demaryius said, “Never, ever.” Nor was he consequently tempted into the now-defunct family business, adding, “I didn’t want to be around drugs because I saw what could happen.”

Knowing that his athletic talent, his 3.00 GPA, and 1275 SAT score could open a lot of doors, Demaryius stayed close to his family and enrolled at Georgia Tech. There, the quiet young man emerged as one of the top college receivers in the country, and an eventual first round pick of the Denver Broncos in 2010. Despite his success, Demaryius continues to feel his mom’s absence from his life. Since arriving in the NFL, he calls her every Sunday, but it’s no substitute for fifteen years of missed games. “She never saw me play anything,” Demaryius told ESPN, his soft voice plangent with sadness.

His entire life, Demaryius has watched other guys hug their moms after a victory, and seen tears of pride in the faces of parents besides his own. Still, he didn’t starve his heart with anger, but made something of himself; something his mother is so proud of.

“I know it has been hard for him. He’s the one who holds everything inside,” his mom told the Denver Post. “But at the same time, it has given him the strength to go on and be better than the example I set for him.”

With her sentence up in 2020, Katina Smith will have a chance to see her son play football for the first time in person that year, if he’s still in the NFL at age 32. If that happens, she says, “I’m going to lose my voice.”

DeckerERIC DECKER – THE CELEBRITY

Maybe you knew someone like Denver Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker in high school: a star at every sport, a good student, so handsome it made your blood hurt. And such a nice guy, you couldn’t even despise him for any of this. You knew he was destined for big things; you may have even deeply wanted it for him, because of what proximity to success seems to say about you.

Eric is from the small town of Cold Spring, Minnesota, population 4,027, seventy-seven miles northwest of Minneapolis. 294 lakes surround the town in Stearns County; Eric’s humble childhood was as quiet and willfully anonymous as any young life devoted to fishing and sports. No one there would’ve expected that one of their own would reach a level of fame that has forced Eric and his wife, country singer Jessie James, to move three times in two years, and finally into a gated community, to avoid invasive fans.

It isn’t just that Eric’s an NFL star, a fantasy football darling, and a model – it’s also his reality show on E!, Eric & Jessie: Game On, which has just been renewed for a second season. Although he laughs off his participation, telling Denver’s FOX 31, “She’s (Jessie) really the main character,” in truth, it’s a struggle. Much of his family didn’t sign the release forms that would’ve cleared their participation in the series; as a result, the wedding episode that capped last season was awash with blurred faces. Whether personal or professional, their protest must’ve been deeply felt.

Before Eric appeared on the national stage, the most famous thing about Cold Spring may, sadly, be a 2003 shooting at the high school when two students were killed by a 15-year old classmate. Eric was a junior at the time; he knew each of the victims.

Eric avoided the line of fire by hiding in a closet for 45 minutes with several classmates. “Every girl was crying, every guy was trying to stay calm, and when they came and got us, we had to go across the street to the elementary school with our hands up,” Eric told the Denver Post. “That moment, you’ll never forget. It changes your life in a second.”

It can be difficult to gauge the trauma from tragedies like these on the survivors, but Eric not only hit his athletic career with renewed focus, he applied what he learned from his grieving process. Eric now speaks to high schools about grief and recovery, most recently to students at Arapahoe High in Colorado, who lost a student to gun violence last December.

Eric’s next stop was at the University of Minnesota, where in 2009 Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel called him the “third-best wide receiver in college football.” In 2010, the Denver Broncos picked Eric in the same draft with his future roommate, best friend, and fellow wideout Demaryius Thomas. Then signed to a four-year contract, Eric is a free agent after the Super Bowl, and one gets the sense that he’ll be massively compensated wherever he plays next year.

One also gets the sense he’ll try his damndest to not let the money and the second season of the reality show cause him to end up like fellow Minnesota-born pro athlete Kris Humphries, late of the Kardashian dominion. With Eric’s willingness to share lessons from his grieving process, his charity work with Judi’s House (which provides bereavement support for children) and Decker’s Dogs (which gives service dogs to injured veterans), his character may be strong enough to withstand millions of dollars and a reality TV marriage.

“I think both of us, we come from good roots,” Eric says, subtly differentiating wife Jessie’s Army-brat Georgia background from other reality starlets’. “I come from small-town Minnesota. Didn’t have a lot growing up. Had a good upbringing as far as earning what I’ve got.”

While Eric would like his fame and accomplishments to help overshadow the tragedy of eleven years ago, for both himself and Cold Spring, he needs moments like those at his grandparents’ house in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. There he is just Eric, one of nineteen grandkids playing Euchre or 500 by the Christmas tree, not a single release form to be signed, not a single face blurred.

Wilson

RUSSELL WILSON – THE UNDERDOG

The young starting quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, Russell Wilson, who has led his team to a Super Bowl in only his second year in the NFL, already has a few distinctions to his name.

At five-foot-ten and 5/8ths, Russell is the shortest starting quarterback in the league, and he’s also the lowest-paid of any starting QB. His salary of $526,217 a year doesn’t even crack the top 50 of all NFL quarterbacks.

This means that dozens of backup quarterbacks—guys who wander around on the sidelines with a clipboard and a cute stocking cap every Sunday—make more than Russell. The Minnesota Vikings, a team that won five games in 2013, have three quarterbacks on their roster who each made at least double Russell’s salary and had the temerity to cash the checks.

There’s a correlation between Russell’s modest height and modest paychecks. NFL teams want a 5’10” quarterback about as much as Emeril Lagasse wants Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in his gumbo. The knocks are familiar: too fragile, too scrawny, and too short to see over those giant offensive linemen. The last time a 5’10” quarterback even threw as many as 20 touchdowns occurred when Doug “Flutie Flakes” Flutie did it, back when Marcy Playground was tearing up the charts.

Anyone in the Wilson family will tell you that the key to Russell overcoming the disadvantages of his small frame was the advantage of having an attentive, brilliant, and energetic father like Harrison B. Wilson III. Harrison was a Dartmouth grad, president of his law school class at the University of Virginia, an attorney, (very briefly) a tight end for the San Diego Chargers, and fun-loving raconteur.

“My dad was like a sitcom,” Russell told Sportsonearth.com. “He was like The Cosby Show. He was fun and always on your side, but always was trying to teach a lesson or the moral of the story.”

“Why not you, Russ? Why not you?” his father asked him, insisting to his young son that being short does not preclude athletic ability. “The separation’s in the preparation.”

While no amount of preparation could make him taller, Russell certainly knew he needed every advantage he could make for himself, and his sober perfectionism extended beyond athletics. “I went to North Carolina State to play football and baseball,” he tells Men’s Fitness. “I promised my dad I would graduate in three years, so I took 18 credits each semester.”

Russell not only graduated from college in three years as planned, but did so with a 4.0 GPA. A two-sport Division I athlete with those grades couldn’t have been wearing togas at the beer pong table, and by all indications he was the same calm, driven young man he was in high school. According to ESPN, Russell didn’t have a drop of alcohol until he was 21. He’s been with the same woman (Ashton Meem, now his wife since 2010) since high school. Even his taste in music (Earth, Wind & Fire, The O’Jays, gospel music) is wildly straight and old school by modern-day locker room standards.

“When I first met him, I kind of thought he was trying too hard,” Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate said. “Just this stupid rookie trying to walk a straight line. But he didn’t change. He’s just so focused all the time.”

After three seasons of football and baseball at NC State, Russell had his bachelor’s degree but still had one more year of NCAA athletic eligibility. The football team was grooming a giant six-foot-six kid named Mike Glennon to be their future quarterback and seemed ready for Russell to move on. On June 8th, 2010, Russell was drafted by the Colorado Rockies in the fourth round of the baseball draft, and a professional sports career was his for the taking.

The next day, he went to the hospital, where his father was recovering from a series of strokes. Although his father was unresponsive, Russell sat at his bedside and told his dad that he’d been drafted by a major league baseball team. He prayed with his grandmother for a while before stepping out into the hall, and then something in his heart told him to go back into the room.

“I walked in and I could see the (EKG) monitor,” Russell said. “As soon as I walked in the door I said: ‘Hey, Dad, I’m here.’ As soon as I said that, the line went flat.”

“I knew my dad heard me and he could hear everything I was telling him about how I got drafted. He was waiting for something great to happen. That’s how I knew he went in peace.” Russell was 21 the day his father died; his dad was only 55.

Russell grieved, but didn’t slow down, playing his first game for Colorado’s minor league Tri City team only fifteen days later. He also transferred to the University of Wisconsin to use his final NCAA scholarship year, enrolled in graduate school and led the Badger football team to the Rose Bowl.

The Seattle Seahawks, impressed with Russell’s personality, skill, and persistence, took a chance on him in the draft’s third round. They thought, if Russell gave up baseball (which he did) the diminutive kid might be the backup to their high-priced starting quarterback Matt Flynn. They didn’t expect that Russell would soundly beat the 6-foot-2 millionaire NFL veteran before training camp was even over. Flynn never started a single game for the Seahawks, becoming just another expensive benchwarmer in a cute hat.

All that the NFL’s shortest, lowest-paid starting quarterback did his rookie year in Seattle was lead the team to the playoffs and throw 26 touchdowns, tying the NFL rookie record held by his next opponent, Peyton Manning. A year later, the soft-spoken perfectionist from Virginia is at the apex of his profession, dealing with the jejune swamp of smarm and sybarites that characterizes much of Super Bowl week, about to face the greatest quarterback of his generation.

In the moments when Peyton and Russell make their best, last decisions, and overcome the bureaucratic choreography of football to force the game into unknown and magnificent forms, Russell will think of the seats in the stands next to his mother’s, and won’t be embittered.

My dad’s always there watching me,” he told Madison.com. “I always have him on my mind. I pray a lot and thank the Lord he was in my life.”

 

peytonPEYTON MANNING – THE AUTEUR

Even if you’ve avoided watching the NFL your entire life, you may recognize the memorably unusual face of Peyton Manning. His $12 million income from endorsing Gatorade, Reebok, Sprint, DirectTV, and MasterCard make him both suspiciously hegemonic and the 19th-richest athlete in the world. His appearance on SNL was one of the best performances by a jock in recent memory. When he moved to Colorado to play for the Broncos, he bought twenty-one Papa John’s franchises in the Denver area and has consequently colonized their advertising as well.

The dry, affable everyman he tends to portray off the gridiron belies the fact that Peyton is a phenomenally intense guy who, by his own deliberate design, has become the greatest quarterback of his generation. If Tom Brady is the George Clooney of the NFL (looks, charm, specific skill set) and Tony Romo is the Johnny Depp (underrated risk-taker who often makes disappointing choices) then it’s tempting to call Peyton the Tom Hanks or Daniel Day-Lewis. Yet, that is not the case; what Peyton does is so cosmically innovative that there is no modern-day equivalent. He’s the NFL’s Buster Keaton.

Nobody on the professional level plays quarterback like Peyton Manning, because Peyton’s game is contrary to the game’s codified power structure. Here is what’s supposed to happen: When a football team’s on offense, the head coach and the offensive coordinator decide what play to call, whether a run or a pass, and the coordinator calls it in to the earpiece fixed inside the quarterback’s helmet. The quarterback convenes a huddle where he tells his teammates the call, and together they attempt to execute it. The players are simply actors who follow the coaches’ directions.

With Peyton Manning, the coaches offer him a couple suggestions. Peyton sometimes chooses one of them. And then, an estimated 95% of the time, he changes the play yet again before the ball is snapped. More than anyone in modern history – and it’s not close – Peyton calls his own game in the NFL, even making alterations to existing plays, during the game, seconds before the ball is snapped. He is lead actor, writer, and director on the field, all at once.

Lately, everyone’s making a big deal over how often Peyton yells the word “Omaha,” which is one of the code words in his system of audibles by which he communicates secret plans to his fellow offensive players. For that reason, Peyton won’t tell us explicitly what “Omaha” means; it’d be like giving away an award-winning recipe. To Peyton, the word “Omaha” is as mutable and essential as Borges’ Zahir. Every team has similar intentional mysteries; Manning’s success this year has simply dilated the public’s wonder over this one.

The city of Omaha is loving it; the city zoo named a baby penguin “Peyton Manning” in January after the quarterback said “Omaha” 31 times in the Broncos’ victory over the Patriots. Eight businesses in Omaha teamed up to donate $800 for every time Peyton said the name of their city; this resulted in a haul of $24,800 for PeyBack, Peyton’s nonprofit charity for disadvantaged youth.

This season, he’s not only lost key teammates to injury and the influence of Noam Chomsky, he’s risen from his own beatdowns to have perhaps his greatest year ever. This season, at age 37, after four neck surgeries, including a spinal fusion surgery that has taken away what mobility he had, Peyton’s 55 touchdown passes broke the NFL record in 2013. He’s an old man by NFL standards, body broken, forced to beat this brutish game with the most agile mind his position has ever seen.

After the Super Bowl, win or lose, Peyton will do what he always does and spend the entire month of March watching every play of the season he just completed, poring over his mistakes, ensuring that no one will beat him the same way twice. He’ll spend time with Ashley, his wife of thirteen years, and their twin babies. He’ll support Republican political candidates and surprise local school kids with free laptops for their classroom. Maybe he’ll write another children’s book with his NFL quarterback brother and his former NFL quarterback dad.

A deeply religious man, Peyton’s Christianity seems to help him keep things in perspective. “I rank [my] priorities as: faith, family, and education, then football,” Peyton writes in his book Manning. “I don’t think God really cares about who wins football games.”

Peyton the human being does, however, with an unfathomable, intransigent ferocity. Notice, this Sunday, in every “Omaha,” the chess piece move himself across the board, and challenge every player, both teammate and opponent, with the proximate and collateral effects of his beautiful decisions. There is the perfect, fully human realm of sports, a sandlot of expertise, where, both eminently thoughtful and elevated above all thought, the game, at last, will seem to play itself.

***

Photo credits:
Richard Sherman: Steve Bisig, USA Today Sports
Demaryius Thomas: David Zalubowski, AP
Eric Decker: Ron Chenoy, US PRESSWIRE
Russell Wilson: Elsa/Getty Images
Peyton Manning: Bob Levey/Getty Images


J. Ryan Stradal’s writing has also appeared in Hobart, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rattling Wall, Joyland, Trop, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Nervous Breakdown, and NFL.com, among other places. His first novel, KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST, will be published by Viking in July 2015. Find him, if you must, at JRYANSTRADAL.COM or @jryanstradal on Twitter. More from this author →