Benner/Sports and Colts and Opinion and Sports Business

BENNER: Manning departure hurts, but life goes on

March 10, 2012

It wasn’t supposed to end like this.

Peyton Manning said, “I’ll always be a Colt.”

Only he won’t be.

This was supposed to end like it did for Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers.

Yeah, I know. Different sport. Different times. And vastly different “circumstances,” the word Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay and Manning used repeatedly during the farewell press conference.

Nonetheless, Miller was able to ride it out as one of us. He went out on top, or close to it, and on his terms, as a Pacers lifer.

Miller’s exit was definitive. Play today. Gone tomorrow. Jersey hung in the rafters.

Manning, meanwhile, could come back to Lucas Oil Stadium in a different uniform. He could be throwing touchdown passes to defeat the Indianapolis Colts.

Can you imagine Reggie Miller as a New York Knick gunning down the Pacers?

Shudder.

At least we have a fairly good idea that Manning won’t end up with the evil New England Patriots. But somewhere in the AFC or, especially, in the AFC South?

Shudder.

Yet, our emotions need the perspective of reality.

One, Manning didn’t die. He’s very much alive and soon to be (we hope) 100 percent healthy. He can move on to another team, empty another Brink’s truck, continue to make his commercials, and attempt to close his career in more glory. Good for him.

Two, the NFL is a business. It’s professional football. Those who want to castigate Irsay for this pragmatic business decision are so far off base they’re not even in the ballpark. Irsay, let’s remember, paid Manning millions this past season when he didn’t play a down.

Three, the conspiracy theorists who believe Irsay intentionally delayed this decision until after the March 1 deadline for season-ticket renewals need to put the bong down.

Four, Loyalty Lane is a two-way street. Manning could have stayed here. He chose to leave. And it’s the right decision given the circumstances (there’s that word again).

And five, Andrew Luck.

Still, it hurts. Manning, like Miller before him, has been our sports identity. He took us all on an incredible joy ride. He took us to the top of the mountain and almost there again. For 12 of his 14 seasons—excluding the first and the last—there was the reasonable expectation that every time the Colts lined up, they would win. He was as close to a one-man football team as there is.

Of course, off the field, there was the multitude of good works. His name on the children’s hospital at St. Vincent Health. The PeyBack Foundation. The example he set of principled work ethic and doing it the right way. He represented the values we Hoosiers value.

And, finally, we must contemplate what might have occurred had then-Colts General Manager Bill Polian not made the decision to draft Manning ahead of Ryan Leaf back in 1998. Many, including yours truly, have theorized that, had the Colts not developed into an elite, successful franchise over such a long period, there might not have been enough public sentiment to support the construction of a new stadium, which means there might not have been that little XLVI party we threw a month ago, or even a guarantee of holding on to the NCAA’s Final Four on a regular basis.

In any case, Manning’s presence in Indy has been profound, his stamp on this city indelible. He was—and is—a class act.

Yet, obla di, obla da, life goes on.

For the Colts, it’s the late ’90s all over again. New coach. New general manager. New quarterback.

One thing is for certain: We’ll find out what kind of football town we really are.

As for No. 18, we should wish him the best but only when it’s not at the expense of the Colts. What I wish most for him is good health and that he is not putting himself—after four neck surgeries—at peril.

And maybe, when his playing career is over and if he chooses to keep his unmatched intellect in the game, I would hope he could find his way back to a Colts sideline in some capacity.

No, it wasn’t supposed to end like this. It’s almost like finding out that Jimmy Chitwood left Hickory after his junior year and ended up winning a state title for the big school. But in sports, perfect endings are rare.

In the meantime, some have suggested a statue be erected to honor Manning’s tenure here. I’d be OK with that.

But I’d prefer to see one for Reggie Miller first.•

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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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