Marolt: It ain’t over until the old Manning slings
January 8, 2016
You see it all the time. A player on the bench holding a ball motions to another and they step behind the fray on the sideline and toss it back and forth. Sometimes it's a receiver or defensive back changing gloves mid-game, or maybe it's a player working out a kink. Like I said, it's not unusual … unless it makes your heart pound.
He'd slipped his helmet on. Big deal, the late afternoon sun had gone home and took the warm glow on the east stands with it. Then he took his jacket off. No way. Brock Osweiler, the Broncos' starting quarterback, had stretched a stocking hat over his head and was reaching for a towel. Are you kidding me? I looked back, and arguably the greatest quarterback who ever played the game, Osweiler's backup for the past six weeks who I thought would never again complete a pass in Mile High Stadium, was throwing the ball with purpose behind the bench. The chills running up my spine burst into goosebumps.
Back-up NFL quarterbacks never play unless they have to. No coach plans on using them. They enter games by default, byproducts of roster attrition. When they go into a game, it's time to groan, make haste to beat the traffic and contemplate splurging on the season tickets again next year while listening to the regrettable recap of the season on the car radio.
Nobody budged as whispers were traded between 75,000 fans in the beat of a pulse. The defense trudged off the field after giving up the go-ahead touchdown to the visiting Chargers, a heavy underdog but winning now by fortune of recovering three fumbles and two interceptions as of midway through the third quarter.
The players coming off sensed something was up. None headed for the bench to recover and study photos from the booth as they normally do between possessions. They found places along the edge of the sideline among the ball boys, statisticians, trainers and staff who had suspended their duties and stood stock still waiting to see if what they thought they were seeing was really happening.
Of course, magic in sports doesn't happen in a moment. It's the million moments before plastered up in a sloppy collage that make the chosen one stand clear — Peyton Manning leading the Broncos to a 7-0 start to the season. Peyton Manning throwing almost twice as many interceptions during that stretch as touchdowns. Peyton Manning setting the NFL career record for passing yards and two downs later exiting the game, and most probably his career, after throwing his fourth interception on that auspicious night off an injured left foot that could no longer staunch the recoil of the right-arm cannon that made him mythical, rendering it more dangerous to his legacy than the opposition.
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Back to the future, it was a contest nearly meaningless in the morning that became critical as favored teams fell in earlier games and opened up incredible playoff possibilities for Denver. It's about a gimme game that flamed into survival mode as the home team scored easily on the first drive, gave into complacency and then locked up under the stress of feeling the easy win slipping away.
My goosebumps hatched into butterflies as the TV timeout ticked on. Kubiak has nerve. Nobody knew what Manning had left. If he goes in and comes out on top, the coach is a genius. If Manning isn't what he once was once more, it's over — game, season, tenure in Denver.
It's impossible to describe the light of 150,000 eyes focused on one point, but nobody in the stadium saw anything but the familiar figure precariously carrying his legend back onto the field when the game resumed. As the obvious was officially announced, the stadium shook and eardrums split from the inside out.
The cliche is truth — the rest is history. It was as if pandemonium proved that the fates of sport are not always indifferent to the pleas of our hearts. Our hero saved the day, which is so rare in reality that our memories get reprioritized when it happens.
In sports, as in life, there are big, perfunctory annual events: the Super Bowls and birthdays, the World Series and anniversaries. And, there are the small, once-in-a-lifetime things we don't see coming, never repeating themselves, that send our spirits soaring and that get painted in our memories, but never recorded in the books. The disbelief of balancing on two wheels for the first time, the initial sight of your future spouse and watching heroes rise from their own history; these are the moments to cherish.
Roger Marolt hopes to nurse his bad case of bronchitis for another month or so. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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