Peyton Manning is king of the audible. But his neck injury has taught him that not everything is his call.
This story appears in the Oct. 17 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Peyton Manning spends his days power walking in silence. On this sunny September afternoon, he briskly churns along the length of the Colts' practice-field end zone. He wears a gray hoodie cinched to his neck -- the subject of three operations in the past 19 months -- along with blue shorts and white cleats. He stops to erect a fallen pylon, then checks his watch. He's off, head down, hugging the sideline in a funny walk, a near race-walking walk, the most exercise doctors will allow, up to the 10, the 20, the 30 ...
Without breaking stride, he glances at his old life at work. The Colts, his team. The quarterbacks, his position. The offense, his offense. He doesn't know when he'll enjoy that life again. He quickly turns his face and drops his eyes, racing to the 30, the 20, the 10, the end zone!
He checks his watch again, then cuts left for another lap, around and around, over and over, like a toy train on its tracks, to the foreign echo of a substitute quarterback's audibles and the thud of incomplete passes -- enough to drive him crazy.
The NFL's greatest control freak is learning the hard way that he doesn't control anything. On Sept. 8, when Manning would have typically been preparing for the Colts' season opener, he was under general anesthesia in Los Angeles, his neck sliced open, as Dr. Robert Watkins Sr. and his son, Dr. Robert Watkins Jr., placed a piece of bone from Manning's hip between two collapsed vertebrae. Recovery is estimated at three months, so there's a strong chance Manning won't play this season -- not unless the Colts are in playoff contention. Staring at his football mortality has rattled him. "Football is his god," says one of Manning's friends. "When your god is lifted away from you, how you handle it might change your life."
Manning, meanwhile, isn't saying much. Which isn't new. He's closed himself off as he's aged; most teammates didn't know that his wife, Ashley, was pregnant until after she delivered twins last March and they read about it in the newspaper. And while in the past he typically responded to text messages quickly, his replies lately have been tardy and terse.
If friends ask him how he's doing: "Good." If they wish him well: "Thanks." Some of his friends' messages remain unanswered; others don't bother texting at all, presuming that a mere note at such a touchy time might add to the four-time MVP's stress. "I assume it's driving him crazy," says Jim Sorgi, Manning's close friend and former backup. "I texted him a few times. He was down. He doesn't let it show. He keeps his frustrations to himself. But there's a different mojo about him. His texts are short."
Is Peyton panicking? Scared? Defeated? Despite his few public comments, nobody really knows. Even Tony Dungy, once a window into Manning's mind, was in the dark when he claimed before the season that his former quarterback would play this year "unless he's dead." Maybe Manning, at 35, is simply experiencing the hell that all injured jocks go through. They have to reconcile the isolation of being away from the team -- of no longer being depended on every week -- with the inundation of support from the outside world. As soon as they're laid up, their voice mail typically fills, and their phone buzzes nonstop with texts. Teammates want to know the inside scoop; friends want to send prayers; folks to whom the athletes never gave their number reach out. And it galls athletes that everyone's question -- "When will you be back?" -- so closely mirrors their own. "You don't feel like talking," says LaDainian Tomlinson, who shares an agent and marketer with Manning. "Knowing Peyton like I do, he's probably so frustrated that he's not talking to anybody." How an athlete responds to get-well messages offers perspective into how the greats think. During the dark days following his knee injury in 2008, Tom Brady offered reassurance. He e-mailed friends to say not to worry, that he'd be okay. Then he disappeared to rehab in California, choosing not to loom over his teammates.
Manning, though, looms large. He walks laps around the field, favoring his right side, struggling to turn his neck to the left. He advises in quarterback meetings. He sits in the coaches' box during games, taking notes and giving input. Media interaction has come in short snippets. Manning puts on a good face for teammates, "working hard on his rehab," says defensive end Dwight Freeney. But he's learning one of the toughest lessons in sports, according to longtime friend and current Giants receiver Brandon Stokley: "With an injury, you can work as hard as you want and not see results."
"Football is Peyton's god," a friend says. "When your god is lifted away from you, how you handle it might change your life."”
Manning's mind doesn't work like the minds of other players, whose focus is limited to their specific assignments. He thinks more like a coach: He can't control the most important thing -- winning games -- so he tries to control everything else. It's just how he's wired. That's how the least talented natural athlete of three boys from a sports family has willed himself to become arguably the greatest quarterback ever. If a serious injury damages the psyche of a typical athlete, it must have a waterboarding effect for Manning. "What I'm learning about my injury is that there are some unknowns," he recently told The Indianapolis Star. "Such a large part is out of my hands."
The biggest unknown, of course, is whether he's finished. Manning maintains that he hasn't contemplated that prospect, but anyone who knows him knows that can't be true. He always thinks three steps ahead. And this injury has been years in the making. Dungy recently said he believes Manning first injured his neck against the Redskins in 2006, when the quarterback was twisted between two defenders. He wiggled his arm after he stood, as if it had gone numb. Neither he nor the Colts knew it until after the season, but Manning had pinched a nerve in his neck. On March 3, 2010, Manning had surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago to repair it. For a while, the pain subsided. But this spring, the pain returned. So on May 23, he was back at Northwestern as doctors shaved part of the bulging disk that had pinched the nerve.
Unable to rehab with Colts doctors due to the lockout, Manning sought help from outside sources. Each day, he e-mailed videos of his exercises and simulated throws -- and pictures of his twins, son Marshall and daughter Mosley -- to Duke head football coach David Cutcliffe, who's known Manning since high school and has become something of a career quarterback counselor to Peyton and Eli. Typically, Cutcliffe would ruthlessly critique Peyton. But when Manning, angry and frustrated, told him that the pain hadn't decreased, the coach eased up. "Our conversations turned from getting his body back to getting his mind well," Cutcliffe says.
Manning felt sorry for himself. He blamed the lockout. Cutcliffe told him that the bravest part of being an athlete is knowing that you don't always win. But that advice didn't help. "The realities of the situation hit him hard," Cutcliffe says. Others tried to help too.
Manning has always been a ready therapist when his friends have been injured. Stokley tore his Achilles tendon in 2006 and grew so depressed that he decided to retire. But before Stokley filed papers, Manning took him to dinner and asked, "What's your plan?"
"I think I'm done," Stokley said.
"No way," Manning said, lips compressed and eyebrows arched, conveying the certitude of a perfect audible. If Peyton thinks I can play, Stokley thought, then I'm going to try. Five years later, he's still in the game. So he and dozens of other players with similar stories were eager to pay Manning back. But Manning wasn't having it. And he seemed to grow silently desperate when it was obvious he wouldn't be healed for training camp. He reportedly flew to Europe during the summer to undergo unproven stem cell therapy. It didn't work: He threw in camp, but his passes lacked zip. The Colts briefly considered playing him only in the red zone, but that plan was scrapped. Soon, pain had spread from Manning's neck to his back. This was serious, and the Mannings don't mess with necks. Years ago, Archie Manning had Peyton and Eli tested for spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal that ended oldest brother Cooper's football career at Ole Miss. (Both tested negative.)
So after consulting with his inner circle -- family, half a dozen doctors around the country and the Colts brass -- Manning "ran out of audibles," Cutcliffe says. He underwent anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF) surgery at Dr. Watkins' office in Marina del Rey. The surgery typically goes like this: The patient is sedated, and the surgeon slices a one-inch incision below and to the right of the Adam's apple. A metal device holds the neck incision open as the doctor pries apart two vertebrae, which painfully clamp on a disk like teeth biting on a tongue. The disk, as white and soft as crabmeat, is removed, and a piece of the hip bone is inserted in its place. A 17-millimeter titanium plate is then screwed in to fasten the bones as they fuse. Dr. Joseph Maroon, neurosurgeon for the Steelers and one of the world's leading experts on ACDF surgeries, calls the procedure a career saver because eventually it'll ease Manning's pain. And Archie Manning says that his middle son was relieved to end the uncertainty of why his neck wasn't healing. But it also introduced the uncertainty that it might not completely heal, of which Manning is fully aware.
If Manning were forced to retire, most believe he'd be devastated. But there's some debate among his friends about whether he'd also be at peace. He has never taken football for granted. The evidence was on every snap as he waved his arms and folded his hands into origami to make sure it was perfect. For 13 years, he has combined players' hours with coaches' hours: lifting weights, game-planning, preparing for practice, reviewing practice, visiting with the media, setting his team's tempo, then going home and diving into his man cave to watch defenses until he fell asleep.
Once a loner in his study habits, Manning has in recent seasons tasked his backup to dissect defenses and, as he orders, "find something interesting." The backup, grateful for the opportunity, does what Peyton would do: He returns with pages of notes. Which gives Manning more to process, more to harness, more to try to control. Manning has turned the ultimate team game into something closer to golf: He doesn't compete against opponents as much as against his own limits. And while he might be angry about his neck and he might feel shortchanged by the lockout, he's not entering the twilight of his career in denial.
Unlike Brady, who says he wants to play until he's 40, Manning has never placed an arbitrary number on his career. It will end when his body no longer allows him to be great. His ego lies in his legacy, not in his longevity. His contract negotiations in July were proof. For once, he didn't sign a cap buster. He insisted on a back-loaded, cap-friendly five-year, $90 million contract, complete with a team opt-out for next year should Manning be unable to play.
Manning knows that if he's going to win a second Super Bowl -- if he's going to silence critics who claim that only one represents potential unfulfilled -- he can't do it alone anymore. Which is another reason he'll probably remain sidelined unless the playoffs are within reach. He won't suit up at 70 percent for a losing team, unable to make the plays that he once chided his teammates for not making. "He won't put himself in," Sorgi says. "He'll wait."
But will it be a different Peyton Manning who does eventually get back behind center?
"I don't know," Archie Manning says. "This is a transition for Peyton. He's accepted it. He's going to do all he can do."
In other words, he's still Peyton. Injured or not, what makes Manning great is a reserve of ruthlessness, confidence and will that allows him to believe he can control the uncontrollable.
He will continue to believe it until the end.
Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.