Jason Natzke’s love of football is inextricably linked with Peyton Manning.
January 2, 2005
It was a typical January day in the Mile High City: a little balmy outside for sure, but hardly a cloud in the sky. Buried in a throng of others, my father and I shuffled up the ramp to the top section of Invesco Field. In the Natzke house, football was quickly evolving from weekend background noise to what we planned our Sundays around. The Denver Broncos were becoming something my father and I could share, something we could be passionate about together. This January day marked my first professional football game.
From our nosebleed seats, I squinted through the binoculars with excitement. I watched several Bronco players go through pregame warm-ups before I panned to the other side of the field to scout the opponent: the Indianapolis Colts. My father said the Colts were expected to rest their starters, as they had clinched home field advantage through the playoffs. I noticed a very tall quarterback in a white number 18 jersey warming up in the south endzone. Each pass seemed to shoot out of his arm with a fiery intensity and the other players seemed to magnetize around him. I couldn’t look away. My father took notice.
“That’s Peyton Manning,” he stated.
“You mean from the commercials?” I asked.
The Broncos defeated the Colts that day by the score of 33-14 and while Manning only played one series, I was glued to my seat with every snap he took. I was ecstatic about the win and confident about my Broncos heading to Indianapolis for a playoff rematch the following week. Seven days later, Manning played more than just eight snaps: the Colts walloped the Broncos 49-24. In a masterful performance, number 18 torched the Denver defense to the tune of four touchdown passes. Midway through the third quarter with the game well out of reach, my father broke our disillusioned silence as we sat in the living room:
“That Manning guy is pretty good.”
“I guess so. Even if it was for one series, I can say that I got to see him play last week.”
August 2, 2012
The sweat was dripping down the bridge of my nose, but I didn’t care. My father and I were seated uncomfortably in a sea of orange and blue, watching the Broncos practice at their annual Training Camp with thousands of other fans. It had become an exciting tradition for us over the previous few years, but this day felt different. Peyton Manning, the same Peyton Manning that had repeatedly broken my Broncos heart, now wore orange.
Every pass that day in the hot summer sun was as crisp on the practice field as it was in pregame warm-ups back in 2005. Manning displayed the same intensity with his body language and had a consistent intention behind every throw. While 300-pound defensive linemen jogged to positional drills, 18 looked like the biggest player on the field.
The real magic occurred when Manning removed his helmet: I watched him invite a young fan to assist him in pranking a fellow teammate by loosening the cap on a water bottle … when the teammate took a drink, the water splashed in this face. Manning gave the young fan a high-five. When the second-teamers were getting their reps, he engaged in an animated conversation with a group of practice squad players who would never see the field in the regular season. Once practice had concluded and after his teammates had made their way back to the facility for some shade, he took the time to connect and make eye contact with every fan that asked him for an autograph.
It wasn’t what he was doing that was so fascinating to watch; I had seen other players practice in years prior, other quarterbacks begrudgingly sign autographs for eager fans. It was how he was being. As my father and I made our way to the parking lot, he stopped in seemingly dramatic fashion:
“We saw a master at work today,” my father said.
“And now he’s our quarterback,” I responded.
February 2, 2014
For a few hours, it was the greatest day ever. The Broncos were playing the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII and not only was our team was one win away from NFL history, it was my father’s birthday. We were intent on celebrating a birthday gift from our favorite football team well into the night. I was already thinking about Tuesday’s parade.
On the first play of the game, the ball flew over 18’s head and with it, every Denver fans’ dream of Super Bowl glory. On an evening I’ve tried to forget, there is one memory that stands alone: while being embarrassed on the world’s biggest stage, never did Manning lose his composure. I never saw him fall to the ground in disgust after throwing a pick-six; never once did he seem to throw a teammate under the proverbial bus or eschew a referee.
Even after the 35-point blowout, while visibly displeased, Manning took the time to answer every question at his post-game presser with authenticity and composure. He took accountability for what had happened and apologized to Broncos fans, despite not needing to do so. I shook my head in both disappointment at the result and appreciation for the response.
“Even the great ones fail,” I said to my father.
“That’s part of what makes them great.”
March 7, 2016
It’s been just over a month, but my father and I are still discussing Super Bowl 50. Through ear-to-ear smiles, we talk about the genius of the defensive game plan and the magnificence of Von Miller. Above all else, we marveled at how number 18, the master for so long, had the courage to step aside and let others lead the team to Super Bowl glory. In the shadow of Father Time, Manning played a supporting role and the Denver Broncos became champions because of it. Sometimes a master has to summon the humility to follow someone else.
My father looks at his watch and tells me it’s time to turn on the television. Wearing my orange number 18 jersey, I tune into Peyton Manning’s retirement news conference. I watch a usually composed and focused Manning fight back tears and struggle through extended pauses over the course of his speech. His voice is cracking, yet he appears just as in command as I’ve seen countless times on the field. The emotional exposure is contagious; his strength is coming from vulnerability. Even his retirement speech feels like a four-touchdown victory.
It can be easy to confuse mastery with perfection, heroes with flawlessness. No one we admire is perfect, no human being exists without areas of opportunity … least of all a professional athlete. Peyton Manning is no different. And yet, we project onto heroes the traits we’d hope to exemplify ourselves: extreme talent, mastery of craft, impactful leadership, strength from vulnerability, the ability to set aside an ego, the list goes on. But the true beauty lies within the fact that these are all traits we are capable of expressing ourselves. Others succeed and fail on a grand stage, others pursue greatness to show us that we can do so as well. The path to mastery isn’t an easy road, but one that we are all capable of walking.
Many years from now, I’ll take my future son to his first professional football game. We’ll be sitting in the stands, binoculars in tow:
“What was it like to watch Peyton Manning?” He’ll ask me.
“It was like watching a master,” I’ll respond. “And he played for MY team.”
Thank you, 18.
Photo Shea Huening/Flickr