Peyton Manning earlier this week signed a five-year $96 million contract to play football for the Denver Broncos. Someone cue The Twilight Zone music.
You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of the sight and sound of rotting quarterbacks reverting to their ripened selves but of mindlessness; a journey into a wondrous land where athletes get better with age. That’s the goalpost up ahead — your next stop, the Football Twilight Zone.
Peyton Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. But after the wear-and-tear of playing every game for thirteen seasons and four neck surgeries, Manning doesn’t have much more history to make. By Manning’s age, Hall of Famers Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, and Otto Graham had already retired. Manning isn’t in his prime. He’s in his twilight zone.
There is something Rod Serling-strange about Number 18 switching horses from colt to bronco. Mile-High Manning is Coy and Vance on The Dukes of Hazzard. It’s Guns N Roses without Cousin It under a top hat playing lead guitar. It’s Bizarro Superman. It’s unsettling, as though we’re living in the alternate reality. Everyone knows Peyton Manning was supposed to retire a Colt, right?
Michael Jordan wasn’t wearing a Washington Wizards jersey when he sank that playoff-series-winning shot with Craig Ehlo in his face. Willie Mays didn’t track down Vic Wertz’s bomb over his shoulder patrolling Shea Stadium’s centerfield. Chicago Black Hawk Bobby Orr never flew through the air after scoring a Stanley Cup-winning goal. Joe Namath’s Super Bowl boast didn’t come as a member of the Los Angeles Rams.
Witnessing a franchise player don the uniform of another franchise can be jarringly surreal. Navy Blue and Orange Crush just doesn’t suit Peyton. The uniform switch is visually startling in the Sports Twilight Zone. So is the performance.
Was that really Franco Harris on the Seattle Seahawks or his slower, softer, older brother? Could that aged and bloated Dominique Wilkins even dunk when he played for the Orlando Magic? Why did Johnny Unitas have to ruin a storybook touchdown-pass ending with the Baltimore Colts by tossing all those interceptions for the San Diego Chargers?
But Peyton Manning seeks to defy the script. There is precedent in the NFL and beyond. Joe Montana still had gas left in the tank when he led the Kansas City Chiefs to consecutive playoff appearances in the early 1990s. So did one of his favorite targets, Jerry Rice, when he moved across the bay to Oakland. Ray Bourque, who couldn’t win a Stanley Cup after twenty seasons in Boston, won one in his first full season with the Colorado Avalanche. Manning, whose greatness has always been more cerebral than physical, can make a better case than most that he will age like wine rather than milk.
Perhaps John Elway, the Denver Broncos vice president of football operations, knows something that the rest of us don’t. The man who lured Manning to Denver led the Broncos to Super Bowl victories at 37 and 38 years of age, making him the oldest and third-oldest quarterback to win the big game.
Age is just a number. But even in the fuzzy math of NFL contracts, 36 (years old) plus 4 (neck surgeries) doesn’t equal $96 million for five years. Maybe it does in the Football Twilight Zone.
Wanting to relive the past is a familiar theme of The Twilight Zone. In “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine,” Ida Lupino bunkers up in her projection room watching her Hollywood glory days until she succeeds in wishing herself onto the screen. “Static” features an embittered bachelor played by Oscar-winner Dean Jagger who shuns television for an ancient radio that broadcasts programs from a time when his future still looked bright.
In “Walking Distance,” the most celebrated of these nostalgia episodes, a discontented advertising agency executive finds himself back in his hometown of calliopes, ’34 rumble-seated Roadsters, and ten-cent ice-cream sodas. The frustrated man chases down his younger self only to scare him off a merry-go-round and into injury. “I only wanted to tell you that this is a wonderful time of life for you,” he laments. “Don’t let any of it go by without enjoying it.”
The man’s (and the boy’s) father subsequently offered advice that somebody should have whispered to the old Bronco quarterback who perhaps imagines the Bronco quarterback celebrating his 36th birthday tomorrow as a younger version of himself. “You’ve been looking behind you,” the dad tells his 36-year-old son. “Try looking ahead.”
Football isn’t science fiction.