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Editor's Note: In September 2000, IM published a piece on Peyton Manning written by Todd Tobias, who passed away this week. In tribute to Tobias's talent, here is that cover feature.
With murder and mayhem off the field, and arrogance and attitude at game time, pro sports needs an old-fashioned role model. Peyton Manning is the man.
The headlines are ugly. In recent days, sports pages far and wide have read more like throwaway rap sheets than scrapbook-worthy tear sheets. We're not talking jaywalking and parking violations here; in 1997, 21 percent—one of every five—of the players in the NFL was charged with a serious crime, according to Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL, Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger's ethnographic study of the league. One can only wonder what a comprehensive study would reveal today; in just the past year alone, some three dozen NFL athletes have been arrested. A host of other sports celebrities—from Bob Knight to Tonya Harding—have garnered more press for their off-the-field behavior than their on-field prowess.
That's not to say that all professional athletes' mug shots belong on a post office wall. After all, if the statistics tell us anything, it's that the vast majority of celebrity jocks consistently steer clear of off-the-field ignominy.
What grabs bigger headlines is the bad behavior. Here's what was in the news the day we went to talk about role modeling with Peyton Manning:
Three days prior, Atlanta Braves relief pitcher John Rocker was sent packing to the minors for threatening the Sports Illustrated writer who quoted him making racist and homophobic remarks. Two days prior, Green Bay Packers tight end Mark Chmura, he of the improbably beautiful family you might have seen in one of the NFL-sponsored United Way television ads, was accused of raping the family's 17-year-old babysitter at a post-prom party. One day prior, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis explained in a solemn courtroom how he was not guilty of committing murder outside of an Atlanta nightclub (he was only guilty of obstructing justice in the investigation of a brawl that left two people dead).
Now, Lewis was exonerated of murder charges; Chmura's case was pending at press time and Rocker, well, he still appears to be a lummox. But whether these and other high-profile professional athletes are guilty of their assorted crimes and misdemeanors in a court of law is not, in the final analysis, what is most disturbing about professional sports these days. What's most disturbing is how a growing number of athletes fail to live up to their responsibilities to act as role models for the young people who are most susceptible to emulating their actions. And despite former NBA great Charles Barkley's famous (infamous?) argument to the contrary, like it or not, positive or not, by dint of their high-profile occupations, professional athletes are, indeed, role models.
At least one athlete takes that job seriously: Peyton Manning.
Of all the well-documented athletic gifts he possesses—and there are many—foot speed, it has been widely observed, is the one trait the gridiron gods forgot to bestow the day they laid the 6-foot-5, 230-pound blueprint for Peyton Manning, son of quarterback Archie Manning. So it's not surprising that when he walks from the Colts' practice field to the weekly sideline media briefing, he does so at a measured and leisurely clip. But the boyish signal-caller with the angular face and famous work ethic is not wasting time making a lackadaisical exit off the practice field ... he's killing it. Why?
A redwood tree of a player walks by a journalist arranging his steno pad and tape recorder. "Nobody wants to profile my ass," he mutters. The reason for Manning's delay is now as dear as the Indiana skies on this warm afternoon. He does not want his teammates to see him talking to the press. Not today, at least. He's dawdling on purpose.
It's clear that Manning is aware of his burgeoning superstar status, and as his team's leader, he is weary of getting too much of the credit and attendant limelight for his team's recent success. When it comes to accommodating interview requests from the national and local media, Manning has traditionally been nothing if not gracious. He's at ease with the media, and what else would you expect from a young man who grew up in its glare? His very birth made sports page headlines. But as the Colts come off a miraculous 13-and-3 season and seem poised to make a serious Super Bowl run this year, what Manning doesn't want is even more attention focused on himself. After all, haven't we already learned enough?
Here, in no particular order, is some of what the sports media canon has revealed already about Number 18: despite the knowledge he would be drafted No. 1 by the New York Jets after his junior year at the University of Tennessee, he opts instead to finish out his college career as a contender to win the Heisman Trophy; apologizes to fans when he does not win said trophy; loves country music; does not feel the need or obligation to prove toughness by talking about it; carries a pen at all times off the field so he can expediently accommodate autograph requests; prefers the taste of oat cereal to cornflakes; graduated with a 3.6 GPA and a degree in speech communications; hates the label "golden boy"; purchased 20 pizzas for fans waiting in line for Tennessee football tickets; adores his family; and owns most Colts rookie passing records.
Manning makes his way over to the sidelines. Any players who are prone to make comments like "nobody wants to profile my ass" as they watch their team's leader get interviewed have long gone. Manning gives the impression that deep down he probably would rather not be a part of this article, nothing personal, but there are 50-something other players on the team, many of whom also spend a good deal of their free time working in the community. There's defensive back Jason Belser, one of 31 finalists for the 1999 NFL Man of the Year Award and spokesperson for "Belser Belts," a public service campaign designed to raise seat belt awareness in the Indianapolis community. There's tight end Bradford Banta, a regular volunteer at the Indiana School for the Blind whose participation in the "Making Waves" fund-raiser last year helped land the school a new swimming pool. And don't forget wide receiver Marvin Harrison, who personally delivered 88 Thanksgiving-day turkeys to needy families in his native city, Philadelphia. Manning would much rather focus on what the team is doing collectively. But he's a good guy, so he puts up with the queries.
Are professional athletes living up to their responsibilities as role models today?
"Obviously, this year has been a tough year for the NFL off the field, but there are so many positive things going on with NFL players that unfortunately don't get the attention they deserve," says Manning. "Players have camps for kids, players are visiting children in the hospital, they are starting charity foundations; unfortunately, you see most of the attention going to the negative things that have happened. But I still think the majority of players are doing the right thing in their communities. You don't like to see negative things happen, but you are dealing with a large amount of players coming from different backgrounds, so you can't control everybody."
Most players know the burden of being a role model and try to live up to it, he insists. "I do think when a player comes into this league, he feels a responsibility to represent the NFL, and that for the most part, players are doing a great job."
It's certainly clear that Manning takes his responsibility as a leader off the field as seriously as he takes his day job. In 1999 he founded the PeyBack Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that encourages success among disadvantaged youths. This year, Manning was appointed to the NCAA Foundation Board of Directors; coauthored with his father a family values book in a football book's jacket (Manning: A Father, His Sons, and a Football Legacy); and has made so many appearances at hospitals, fund-raisers and leadership conferences across the country that it appears he's running for public office. He might as well be. Peyton Manning seems to be on a crusade. He wants the job that so many jocks have flagrantly denied: he wants to be a role model.
"The things that I do off the field, I think all that does is reinforce what is really important in life," he says. "[Football] is extremely important, and we practice hard. But when you visit a sick child in a hospital—and we had this flag football game yesterday for these foster kids—it reinforces what is important in life. It makes you realize the third down against the Dolphins is not as important as you would think."
When did all of this role model business begin, anyway? When could we look at a player and saddle him with that tag? He's a role model, she's not; she's a role model, he's not.
Was Jim Thorpe a role model? Thorpe was the greatest athlete the world knew and that pretty much fit the role model bill at the beginning of the 20th Century.
How about Jesse Owens? Was he a role model? When he paraded his lightning-fast feet and dark pigment past Hitler at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, was that something a role model does? No, that's something a hero does.
What about those old-timers from the 1960s, like Max McGee and Art Donovan, you see in NFL Films features on ESPN Classic? Are they role models? Yes and no. Since the off-the-field "trouble" they fondly recall seems relatively clean by today's low-bar standards (like the time former Green Bay Packer McGee had many beers and no sleep the night before a Super Bowl and went out and caught a record number of touchdown passes), they are relative saints. When Donovan, a former Baltimore Colt, appears on the Late Show with David Letterman and regales viewers with war stories, he comes across more as a guy you wish were your friend than a guy you wish were your mentor.
What about the past 10 years? Michael Jordan? Now we're really into complicated territory. With six national championships, Michael Jordan picked up where Jesse Owens began -- and athletes like Muhammad Ali continued—by slamdunking his way into the public consciousness. At the same time, with his sneaker contracts and commercials, he helped usher in the modern era of big-time endorsements and multi-channel sports networks. While he was a player, Jordan was the role model—the on- and off-the-field standard against which all other professional athletes were measured. Problem is, the more-is-more marketing rubric he set forth just doesn't seem like role model material anymore. We've become too media-savvy for that. Jordan himself seems to agree; he recently put an indefinite moratorium on picking up new endorsement contracts.
There are modest solutions being posited: Grant Hill, with his self-reflexive, "Image is Nothing," advertising campaign and Tiger Woods' Golf 101 spots. Are players today role models if they comment on the marketing spin while they are in the process of spinning?
Both of these athletes, like Jordan before, appeal to a broad demographic. In fact, Tiger Woods (OK, Nike) built his first major advertising campaign around this very idea. A series of ethnically diverse children are seen uttering succinctly but earnestly the words: "I am Tiger Woods." Nike, it seems, would have us believe that Woods is such a powerful icon of world harmony that when we emulate his actions, his role modeling powers are so infectious ... we actually become him. There's a little Tiger in all of us.[Editor's Note: That was then.]
Who knows more about what goes into the construction of a modern-day role model than a guy who helped construct one? Grant Hill's father, Calvin Hill, a former Dallas Cowboys running back and a current NCAA Foundation Board of Directors member, says understanding media scrutiny has a lot to do with it. "There's an old English proverb—'Fame is a microscope'—and I think now, fame is an electron microscope. All the various [TV] sports programs and sports media have been turned up; it's all been ratcheted up." Hill also says that the media glare has been accompanied by a decrease in public forgiveness. "Perhaps the expectations have changed as sports have changed," Hill says. "By that I mean that for which they would forgive Babe Ruth, they won't forgive today's athlete."
Hill says the number of athletes getting involved in their communities and taking the role-model mantle seriously has increased— it just doesn't get headlines. "I do know the more I see guys like Peyton Manning doing the right things in their communities, the more I become a fan. As a member of the NCAA Foundation, I can tell you we are very fortunate to have Peyton on the board."
Sports columnist Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star, a former Rocky Mountain News columnist, says being a role model is necessary for career longevity. "The way Peyton's handled himself from day one is indicative of the kind of guy he is. If players see the quarterback taking it to the limit, on the field and off, they tend to respond to that." Kravitz says that the role-modeling extends beyond the game. "I think Manning can do for Indy what John Elway did for Denver, and that is become totally synonymous with the city."
The Youthlinks Indiana Pathfinder Awards Banquet takes place on a Sunday in late June, a couple of weeks since Manning last met with reporters on the sidelines of the Colts practice field. Twelve of the city's most high-profile citizens are seated at makeshift dinner tables smack in the middle of, would you believe it, the RCA Dome football field. (Four days prior to tonight's gathering, the Oakland Raiders' No. 1 draft pick, placekicker Sebastian Janikowski, posted a $2,500 bond and was released from a Tallahassee, Fla., jail cell after being arrested for possessing an undetermined amount of GHB, a so-called date-rape drug.)
Manning has spent the first part of his vacation with his family in New Orleans, some time in Tennessee for a hospital benefit, and now—several days ahead of the Colts' training camp schedule—he's back in Indy to serve as a guest speaker at tonight's festivities. The gathering is a combination fund-raising event (for the upcoming PeyBack Classic, in which five IPS schools will play a regular-season football game in the RCA Dome) and dinner (honoring the role-modeling efforts of former U.S. Senator Birch Bayh and track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee).
Manning looks tanned and relaxed as he poses for pictures, signs autographs and converses with a few of the many familiar faces in attendance tonight —a host of professional athletes, politicians, CEOs and sports journalists.
He takes to the stage to announce the prize winners for this evening's $100-a-pop raffle. Among the 10 prizes being awarded is a visit to a child's classroom from the Colts quarterback himself. As he announces the winners, Manning is at turns self-effacing and downright funny. "I don't do homework," he deadpans.
"There are some who participate in this sort of event because it becomes the expected thing to do," says Dale Neuburger, president of the Indiana Sports Corp., the cosponsor of tonight's gathering. "That's not Peyton Manning. He's involved in every detail of this, and he's working in every way he can. He's not just putting in the minimum amount, giving a salute and going the other direction." As Manning announces the winner of the grand prize—a New Orleans golf outing and night on the town with Manning junior and senior—it becomes evident that what's missing in the mass-media image of Manning is his own participation in its creation. Whether he's burning defensive backs with his rocket arm or visiting a sick child at a local hospital, there is a palpable absence of public relations manipulation. Sure, there's been press coverage of his off-the-field endeavors, and he gives good sound bite when asked, but you don't get the sense Manning's trying to spin his community initiatives for personal gain.
This article originally appeared in the September 2000 issue.
>> MORE: See Todd Tobias's remarkable profile of boxing's biggest loser, "Almost Infamous."
>> MORE: Read Todd Tobias's amusing take on the process of balding, "A Hair to Remember."
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