Peyton’s Place

Tears in Indianapolis and sports in the American heartland.

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There was something genuinely touching in Peyton Manning’s farewell to Indianapolis. It was a vivid reminder that in a world-wide-web world of telecommuting, outsourcing and virtual everything, sports, whether high school, college or professional, is still inextricably tied to geography. In fact, in some of our medium-sized cities – Green Bay, Buffalo, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and others – one could almost say that life revolves around the sainted local franchise. In others, like Syracuse, Chapel Hill, Charlottesville and South Bend, major sports at the local college or university dominate the mood of the conversation on almost any given day. In even smaller towns, this devolves upon the local high school.

There’s nothing new about this; to the contrary, it is pleasingly old. As pointed out by Foster Kamer in a recent article in the New York Observer, such depth of feeling seems to be lacking in markets like New York City, where Hideki Matsui is traded immediately after an MVP performance in the 2009 World Series by the mercenary Yankees, and where fans call for the firing of Coach Tom Coughlin just weeks before an amazing Super Bowl win for his Giants. Big city fans can be fickle; team ownership, from the early days of George Steinbrenner, feeds this emotion and the media feed on it: witness the back-page headline in the New York Post when Jeremy Lin, after an unlikely and amazing stretch of performances, finally has a bad day against the Miami Heat, probably the best team in the NBA: LINEPT!

Smaller markets are certainly more tolerant. Maybe it is because they appreciate their teams more, in good times and bad. Let’s face it, metro New York City has about nine franchises to choose from, if you include hockey, and a couple of other things going on at any given time. Fans are easily distracted. Buffalo has the Bills, the Sabres and hot wings.

Manning’s fourteen years with the Colts, a long stretch these days, is largely credited with the impetus to build LucasOil Stadium, and, therefore, the reason Indianapolis got its Super Bowl bid this season. He is unquestionably personally responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars of revenues coming into Indianapolis and to the Colts, but equally important is the emotional investment of that city’s fans in their quarterback, which caused the usually stoic Manning, the Colts’ owner and general manager, the local media and the immediate world to get pretty weepy.

All this over a mere $28 million bonus that the Colts did not wish to pay Manning, who is in questionable health after missing the past season, but business is business after all; and the Colts have the #1 draft pick this season, with which they will gamble the franchise on the aptly-named Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. Would they have been better off having Luck under the tutelage of Manning for a few years? Probably, if history is any guide to such things, but that’s not the decision management made.

But back to my main point. I don’t wish to put down the Hollywood stars who flock to Lakers games, or the New York fans whose loyalty to a player or coach can turn on a dime, but the heartland is where sports truly live in the United States. When the long-suffering Red Sox fans in Boston finally win a World Series (or two), when the Saints come marching in with their post-Katrina Super Bowl win, when the Green Bay fans, who own their team, sell out every game for the past 52 years, one can just begin to understand the depth of devotion, the passion and pain, and the fleeting joy and exhilaration that can last a lifetime in a fan’s memory.

Why is this important, particularly now? Loyalty to a local team can be a reliable anchor in bad times, a common bond for people in difficulty, an escape from unpleasant economic reality. Yes, sports is “bread and circuses” and gladiatorial combat brought up to date, but it also epitomizes the optimism and hope of “wait ’til next year” (with apologies to the Brooklyn Dodgers, but in 1955 Brooklyn was just a big small town) blended with the indelible memories of past on-field heroics.

That’s why there are tears to be shed all over Indiana with the departure of a Peyton Manning. And rightfully so.

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