Benner/Sports and Colts and Opinion and Sports Business

BENNER: Tight-lipped Colts keep us guessing about No. 18

September 10, 2011

In early spring of 1996, I reached for a sweater on a high shelf in my closet … and, suddenly, I felt as if I had been stabbed in my upper back. The pain was excruciating. I couldn’t raise my left arm above my shoulder. The middle and index fingers on my left hand went numb.

Not good. I’m a southpaw.

Long story short: I had a herniated disc. A week later in Methodist Hospital, the skilled Dr. Terry Trammel (he of race-driver-repair fame) removed the disc, excised the tip of my pelvic bone and used it to fuse two vertebrae (C 4-5) in my neck. I wore a brace for six weeks and rehabbed for about six months.

I won’t say I’m as good as new—there still is slight numbness in the tips of the two fingers—but I’m good enough to carry on a normal lifestyle.

Then again, I’m not an NFL quarterback. Had I been one, that would have been a career-ender.

So now, without any knowledge other than the media/blog/website reportage and the trickle of information released by the Indianapolis Colts, what I fear most is that Peyton Manning is not done for a game, or six, or even a season, but that he could be finished for his career.

Spines, nerves and vertebrae are nothing for anyone to trifle with, but that’s especially true for anyone susceptible to being body-slammed to the turf by the likes of Ray Lewis.

Certainly, we will have nothing more than speculation on which to, uh, speculate. Until we receive a declarative statement from the Colts or Manning himself, we will be dependent on “unnamed sources” feeding the frenzied masses with information or, just as likely, misinformation.

Except for their Twitter-loving owner, Jim Irsay, the Colts are among the most secretive organizations in sports. And among superstars operating in the public eye, few ever have been more protective of their privacy than No. 18.

How are Ashley and the twins doing, anyway?

As Manning told local reporters recently, “I don’t know what HIPAA stands for, but I sure do believe in it.”

HIPAA, of course, being the acronym for the federal mandate for privacy of one’s medical records.

Oh, and then there’s that little matter of money. One supposed insider citing “sources close to the team” reported that, under the terms of Manning’s new $90 million contract, he could potentially never take another snap and still walk away with $55 million.

Which beats the heck out of a gold watch.

Of course, I hope the only thing that comes to pass from this is more Manning passing. Maybe this isn’t the end of the road, but a speed bump en route to another Super Bowl … or two.

But in both the short and long term, folks, this is the test. The bandwagon started rolling upon Manning’s arrival and has been piling on passengers ever since. Heck, I’m one of them.

Anybody can ride high with 10-plus wins and playoff appearances every season, led by one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. But what happens when 12-4 becomes 4-12? In the wake of the Manning injury, I read some of the national comment. There is no small amount of belief that Indy is a front-runners’ town, and that football is not part of our DNA like it is in Green Bay, Pittsburgh or Cleveland.

Manning and the Colts have made it easy to buy into what they’re selling, including that $720 million stadium they play in. In fact, without Manning, perhaps we have no Colts and no new stadium.

After all, it’s not difficult to dial back to the pre-Peyton days, when the RCA Dome was a great place to go on a Sunday afternoon … to avoid the crowds.

Remember, too, the Pacers once had the toughest ticket in town. Sure, they hastened their demise and loss of fan support with The Brawl and its aftermath. But more than anything, it was the losing that turned people off.

At any rate, if you want to buy into the idea that, without Manning, the season is lost, that’s your choice. I still plan to go to the games. Perhaps Kerry Collins can perform better, longer, than most believe. Perhaps the defense can hold up its end. Maybe Coach Jim Caldwell will be more judicious in his use of timeouts.

In the meantime, let’s hope for Manning’s recovery … and that we haven’t seen him play his last down.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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