This is part II in an epic, completely fictional series starring Peyton Manning, a 38-year-old future hall of fame quarterback, and me, a 24-year-old Denver Broncos fan who feels that Peyton is, in a figurative sense, his father.
To read part I, click here.
A loud CLANG jolts me awake. I groan and look at the clock by my bed: 2:34am.
Another loud CLANG and I sit up in alarm. Walking over to the window, I squint at the floodlights pointing out over the 40-yard practice football field in the backyard.
It’s Peyton. He’s throwing perfect missiles at the goal post from one side of the field to the other. Rubbing my eyes, I focus on his face. It’s one filled with pure determination, a bead of sweat running down his large forehead.
Smiling, I pull on sweats and a Broncos training jersey, tiptoe out of my room and past Mom and Peyton’s bedroom. A muffled CLANG sneaks through my closed door and I thank G-d the master bedroom’s window looks out on the opposite site of the house. Of course, Peyton considered that before building the backyard field. He thinks of everything.
I make my way downstairs and slowly open the back sliding door, not wanting to disturb Peyton while he’s in the zone. I walk out and push it closed until it latches into place with a soft click.
“What are you doing up so late?” Peyton hisses in a low voice from the field.
I cringe and turn around. He looks irritated, hands on his hips.
“Couldn’t sleep,” I lie, not wanting to admit he woke me up. “Just wanted to come down and watch you practice.”
His face softens some and he takes a deep breath. “Come over here, son.”
I walk over to him and he points the football in his right hand to the ground. “Take a knee.” I raise an eyebrow in curiosity but oblige. He takes a knee in front of me and grabs my shoulder with the other hand.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he says firmly. He sounds like he’s about to ship off to war. I squirm uneasily a bit under his hand. He lifts it up and points the football at the goal post he was throwing at.
“Do you know what I was just doing?” he asks, voice still filled with tremendous purpose.
“Umm,” I start. “Working on your precision?”
“Wrong,” he states, matter-of-factly. “It’s much more than that.”
I wait for him to continue but he seems to be lost in thought, staring at the goal post. I’m not sure if he expects me to guess further so I just kneel in silence until he bows his head and says in a voice so low he’s basically whispering, “I’m getting old, son.”
“Dad, you’re 38,” I respond. “That’s not old.”
“I know that,” he sighs. “And I’m blessed to have my health, you and your mother, your grandparents, Eli, Cooper, my teammates, everyone around me. But I’m running out of time, and you know what I’m talking about.”
I nod. “You’re in the fourth quarter of your career,” I say, quoting him from a recent interview.
He nods back. “Football is all I’ve ever known. I don’t know who I’ll be when I have to say goodbye.”
“But, then again, you’re fresh off the best season a quarterback has ever had!” I begin protesting. “And what about what Tom Brady said? ‘He’ll quit when he sucks?’ You don’t suck!”
Peyton chuckles. “Tom’s a funny guy. Look, I know I’ve still got it, but I’ve also got to recognize when my time is up, and I know I’m somewhere on the back of the back nine.” He smiles at the repetition in his speech.
“Yeah, I guess that makes sense,” I say. “And especially after how we did in the Super Bowl, you’ve got to double down on the focus, right?”
Peyton’s face immediately darkens. He stands up and takes a few steps away before stopping with his back towards me, staring at the far goal post once again. Alarmed, I quickly blurt out, “sorry, dad! I didn’t mean to upset you.”
Peyton’s shoulders heave as he sighs. “I don’t dwell, son. I don’t have the time for it. I’m out here this late because all I do have time for is what’s in front of me.”
“You mean the game in Seattle this Sunday?” I ask. “You guys will shut them up, it’s time for a little revenge.”
Peyton turns to me and flashes his all-knowing smirk. I can sense he’s about to teach me another invaluable life lesson using football as the vehicle to deliver it.
“Yes, I want to win the game this weekend,” he starts. “But I want to win every game. Winning or losing against the Seahawks this weekend won’t mean anything to me besides a win or a loss. You have to have the perspective that there’s a bigger goal in mind, and this is just one step on the way there, even if it’s a particularly loud and prickly step.”
I stare at him. He stares right back and after a few seconds I break away. It’s too much to handle.
“It’s late. Run a quick post and get off to bed,” he says.
I stand and line up to his right. He yells “hike!” and I sprint 15 yards down the field before veering left toward the goal post. The pass is absolutely perfect, even more than usual. It lands directly in my hands, not too hard, the second I step into the endzone.
“Atta boy!” Peyton calls. “Now get back inside!”
I jog back towards the house and toss the ball underhand to him as I pass by. He winks at me and turns back to goal post. As I slide the door closed behind me I see him muttering to the ball under his breath.
In the morning at 7am sharp, I drag my feet downstairs, exhausted. At the foot of the stairs I hear two men letting out identical bursts of laughter. “UNCLE COOP!” I shout as I turn the corner into the kitchen.
“There he is!” yells the oldest Manning brother. He crosses the room and wraps me in a bear hug, then ruffles my hair as he pulls away. “This one looks primed for the energy trade,” he jests.
Peyton and Mom, who’s sitting at the other side of the table, share a knowing look, as if to say, “classic Cooper.”
The phone rings and Mom frowns, looking at her watch. “Who’s calling this early?”
Peyton sighs. “It’s probably Eli. I’ll get it.”
Cooper elbows me and winks the same way Peyton always does. “Eli could never figure out manners.” We snicker together as Peyton picks up the phone.
“Hello? Hey Eli. Uh huh. Yeah, Cooper’s here. Yep, he insulted your manners. Well, it is pretty early. You know you can just text me, right? No, I won’t put him on, stop whining. Let’s not do this again. What are you calling about, anyway? What? Tips for the Texans? Just get rid of the ball, Eli. It’s J.J. Watt. He’ll flatten you. Uh huh. Well, I don’t know what to tell you there. Just throw it to your receivers, not the other team. Okay brother. Talk to you later.”
He hangs up the phone and rolls his eyes at us. Cooper’s in stitches. “Ha! Eli. Love him.”
Peyton shoves a piece of toast in his mouth and says through chews, “time to get to practice.”
“Can I come watch you today, dad?” I ask.
“Nope,” he shoots back right away. “You have school, buddy.”
“You can come to work with me,” says Cooper. I frown and shake my head. He offers this every single time he comes over.
Peyton gives mom a kiss, pats me on the back, shakes Cooper’s hand, and grabs a duffle on the way out the door. Before shutting it, he pokes his head back in and says, “son, don’t think I forgot about parent-teacher conferences tonight. I better not hear how you’ve been harassing poor old Ms. Jablonski again.”
I gulp as he shuts the door.
To Be Continued…