Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Clash Of Icons

The game was billed as a clash of icons. Arguably the best quarterback in the history of the game on one side and the most dominate middle linebacker of this generation on the other. Unlike most games that are hyped by using words like “clash of icons”, this one actually delivered, an epic back and forth battle that went two overtime periods before delivering a winner. Peyton Manning was once again disappointed, while Ray Lewis’ pending retirement got postponed another week.

Peyton Manning fascinates me, always has. On the one hand, I’ve never seen a smarter quarterback. No one who has ever played understands the game better than Manning. He will go down as perhaps the greatest of them all. I read his statistics, I look at his record and marvel. Yes, its true that most of his numbers were racked up inside a windless seventy degree dome in Indianapolis, and his legacy is obscured by a lone Super Bowl title amidst all that statistical dominance, but anyone who knows anything at all about football must acknowledge his brilliance. And yet, for his entire career he has been hard to watch. All of that hand jiving, caterwauling at the line of scrimmage, all the pointing, ranting and raving before the snap, the false starts, the hesitations and misdirection…its like all of America is screaming,” For God’s sake SNAP THE FREAKING BALL!!” But that’s Peyton Manning.

I watched Joe Montana, I watched Dan Marino. I saw Joe win all those Super Bowls with one clutch performance after another, while Poor Dan hardly ever got to a Super Bowl. My eyes told me that Dan was a far better Quarterback, but there was Joe lifting the trophies. I watch Peyton Manning, I watch his little brother Eli. My eyes tell me that Eli isn’t worthy to hold his big brother’s jock strap, yet Eli has two rings to Peyton’s one. Team sports can be a cruel mistress to personal greatness. Yet through it all, Peyton Manning ccan always be counted on for one thing, class through adversity. Once again last night after a bitter disappointment, there was Peyton Manning, two hours after the game, dressed in a suit, waiting in the empty Ravens locker room for Ray Lewis to finish his press conference, so he could offer his personal congratulations.

Ray Lewis is the best middle linebacker I have ever seen. I’m not old enough to have watched Dick Butkis, and I barely remember Willie Lanier. But when I watch a thirty four year old man lugging a brace the size of a small child around on his right arm, make 17 tackles in 12 degree weather, I can do nothing but stand amazed. As awkward and gawky as Manning is, Lewis has always been a fluid thing to watch, swift, athletic and lethal. Despite all of the pre-game histrionics he is famous for, once the game begins Ray Lewis has always played with discipline and calmness, keeping his head while everyone around him is losing theirs. When he blew out his tricep earlier this year his entire team went into a tailspin, since his return they seem unstoppable. Never have I seen a defensive player have such an impact on his teammates.

He announced his retirement as soon as this season is over. Each game could possibly be his last, and he is playing like it. But with Ray Lewis there is always the cloud. It follows him. As a younger man, he was every inch the Miami Hurricane, in every negative connotation associated with that team. There was the limo, the entourage, the gun, the murder and a trial with an ambiguous verdict. Now Ray Lewis seems to have found God, quoting scripture to anyone who will listen, and because it’s Ray Lewis, everyone listens. He’s seems the quintessential changed man. The cynic might say that his new found religion is an attempt to scrub the blood stains from hands, to assuage the guilt and wash his image clean. Maybe, maybe not. I only know that he does seem like a different man, a man who has grown into his stardom, and not been diminished by it.

The Ravens won the game 38-35. Peyton goes home. Ray moves on. And even though its only professional football, I find myself caring.