Sad, disappointed and uncertain. Colts fans feel all of those.
They may also feel older.
For a few hours on cold-weather Sundays in Indiana, we lived in a time warp, where 2010 seemed no different than 1998. Life changed all around us, but, hey, Peyton Manning was still behind center for the Indianapolis Colts. Every week. He started 227 consecutive games. Hoosiers could confidently go to their closet, pull out that No. 18 replica jersey, throw it on, and look just as fanatically relevant as the year before, aside from the fading colors and tighter fit. Sunday after Sunday, “we” expected to win.
Manning was a model of consistency, changing plays before the snap, repositioning his teammates, and spiraling the football to his favorite receivers. Their names changed over 13 seasons — from Marcus Pollard and Marvin Harrison in the early days, to the current corps of Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark. Manning remained.
Yet, as reliable as he’s been, time inevitably passes even more proficiently. The neck injury that threatens to sideline Manning for all of this season — and perhaps shorten his amazing career — makes that reality clear. Bouncing back from physical ailments is rougher for a 35-year-old than a 25-year-old.
Peyton Manning is indeed 35 and quite human. He’s had three neck surgeries since March 2010, including two this year. The most recent procedure, earlier this month, successfully fused his damaged cervical vertebrae. Still, he won’t play today when Cleveland comes to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indy. He won’t play next week or the week after. He may sit out till January to heal and recover. Meanwhile, we’ll turn on the TV or trek to Indy and see the oddity of a No. 5 — newly hired veteran Kerry Collins — playing quarterback.
This clearly isn’t 1999 or 2007 or 2010. Peyton is older. Accepting that means acknowledging the same for us. Sweet sixteen’s turned 31, as Bob Seger once sang.
It’s sobering, but hardly catastrophic.
“Aging isn’t for sissies,” Jay Olshansky, an authority on the topic, said last week. “That’s kind of a general rule I’ve developed in the field.”
Olshansky has studied mortality and aging since 1984, and serves as a professor in the University of Illinois-Chicago School of Public Health and a research associate at the University of Chicago Center on Aging. Like all of us, he lives with it, too. He’s 57 and recently had to alter a running regimen he’s practiced since his 20s because of a lower back ailment, spinal stenosis. (Ironically, Manning’s older brother, Cooper, ended his football career while still in college because of stenosis.)
The prognosis for Manning contains hints of optimism. Such surgeries have successfully allowed other NFL athletes to continue playing, and Manning could suit up until he’s 40 or older. With such glass-half-full hope, Colts vice chairman Bill Polian decided last week to leave his star on the active roster, just in case Manning beats the rehabilitation clock.
Polian also is shrewd. The Colts are pre-planning for Life After Peyton. “Peyton’s at the age now where he recognizes, and we recognize, that his career is in the homestretch,” Polian said on his weekly radio show, while adding that “we fully expect he’ll be back with us.”
Even if Manning does just that, he — and the franchise built around his talent, skills and savvy — must adjust to the effects of aging, year by year.
“There are changes that are happening that you have to adapt to,” Olshansky said in a telephone interview last week. “Are they all bad? Well, no, but you have to adapt to them.”
If you find the following list a revelation, you’re either too young to have experienced it or have an aversion to mirrors. As most people hit 30, it starts — hairs turn gray, eyesight gets fuzzier, and skin starts wrinkling. For some, joints move more stiffly while getting out of bed. (NFL quarterbacks feel that way in their 20s, let alone in their 30s or 40s.) At 40, bones become brittle, muscle mass starts deteriorating, and threats of various diseases increase.
The march continues into our 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and, God willing, 90s. Spelling out the compounding changes, decade by decade, might make you pull the covers over your head and spend the rest of today in a catatonic state, so we’ll leave it at that. Relative to that scale, Manning is a pup. In NFL years, though, as Polian put it, he’s “in the homestretch.”
Assuming his neck heals as hoped, Manning’s game tactics may have to shift along with his aging body as he rounds his career’s final turn. Fewer deep routes for his receivers. Limited scrambling. For thirtysomething pro football players, “they can’t really have those explosive moves when they’re older,” Olshansky said, “so they have to do something different.”
Ideally, they’ll compensate with greater wisdom. Manning is off the charts in that category. Already a football genius fresh out of college, he’s now a gridiron Ph.D. That helps while trying to outfox stronger, faster 26-year-old opposing linebackers … to a degree.
“I’m sure all of these [veteran] athletes would love to have all the knowledge they have now in their [former] 20-year-old bodies,” Olshansky said. (Don’t we all?)
Crafty as those old pros are, “ultimately, you have to fall back on your ability,” Olshansky said.
Baby boomers — the “me generation” — tend to struggle with mortality more so than older or younger folks. “People born decades before you or I are more willing to allow the ravages of aging to take its toll,” Olshansky said. “There’s something very unique about ours.” That’s why anti-aging products and procedures comprise an $80-billion-a-year industry in America, and could grow to $114-billion annually by 2014, according to Global Industry Analysts.
Olshansky has some advice. “About the only equivalent of a Fountain of Youth that we know of today is exercise,” he said.
So, take a brisk walk in that No. 18 jersey today, accept Manning’s predicament, and wish him a long, pain-free life on or off the field.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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