SI makes right choice: Peyton Manning

Posted on: December 18,2013

Rick Cleveland

Rick Cleveland

Surely, you have seen by now where Peyton Manning, Archie and Olivia’s middle son, has been named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year for 2013.
He is the 60th winner, joining the likes of Roger Bannister (the first), Stan Musial (the fourth), Arnold Palmer (the seventh), Bill Russell (the 15th), Muhammad Ali (the 21st), Jack Nicklaus (the 25th), Joe Montana (the 37th), Michael Jordan (the 38th), Cal Ripken (the 42nd), Brett Favre (the 54th) and Lebron James (last year).
I list those to say this: Not just anybody wins this honor.
“I’ll tell you what’s almost as impressive as the people who have won it is the people who didn’t,” Archie Manning said.
Those would include John Elway, Peyton’s current boss, Walter Payton, Bear Bryant, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Johnny Unitas and Jerry Rice, just to name a few.
“I think it’s the most prestigious award in sports because it takes in all the sports,” Archie Manning said. “I look at this way: One of the people they chose Peyton over this season was Mariano Rivera. I mean, what a class act that guy has been for so long. I almost hate it that he won’t win it.”
My take: SI made the perfect choice. Peyton Manning, his career threatened by a serious neck injury problem that required four surgeries and caused him to miss an entire season, has re-learned how to play football — and throw a football — and remained at the top of his game.
Manning’s 47 touchdown passes during the Broncos’ 11–3 start puts him four TDs away from breaking Tom Brady’s record for most touchdowns thrown in a season. The Broncos lead the league in total offense (453.4 ypg), passing (333.6 ypg), receiving (344.4 ypg) and points scored (535). You almost couldn’t make his story up. He doesn’t have the arm strength he had four years ago, but, at 37, Peyton Manning still quarterbacks like a conductor leading an orchestra.
Keep in mind, he is doing all this after being essentially discarded by the Indianapolis Colts. He has always conducted himself with class and humility learned from his parents. He is, in every sense of the word, a sportsman.
Looking at Peyton’s grizzled visage on the cover of SI, I can’t help to think back to a day 20 years ago. Peyton was a fresh-faced 17-year-old senior at Newman High in New Orleans, the nation’s most highly recruited high school football player, and I was sent down to New Orleans to interview him. After all, he was Archie’s son and Ole Miss was one of the three final schools he was considering. (This was at about the same time the venerable Don Shula was being named the 40th SI Sportsman of the Year.)
Jack Wilkinson, my buddy from the Atlanta newspaper, wanted to do the same type story I was doing, so Peyton agreed to an interview with both of us over lunch. We met him at the Mannings’ house on First Avenue in Garden District and we let Peyton choose the restaurant. He not only chose Uglesich on Barronne Street, he drove us in his SUV and navigated the back streets of New Orleans like an old pro.
We got to Uglesich, one of the great, old New Orleans restaurants (gone but never forgotten), and were greeted warmly by Anthony (Ant-ny) Uglesich, the owner. We sat down and ordered. Peyton chose the soft-shell crab po boy, and suggested we do the same. Even then, Peyton liked to call the shots.
So, of course, we did order the soft-shell. We all had Bargs root beers and french fries on the side, and then Jack and I started asking a 17-year-old high school senior question after question. And I’ll make a long story short: We, meaning Jack and I, two veteran sports writers, were dumbfounded by Peyton’s intelligence, his manner and, most of all, his maturity.
As Jack told me later that day, “I felt like I was interviewing a 35-year-old, 12-year NFL veteran.”
I did, too. I knew Peyton was going to be special. I just didn’t know he was a future Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.
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