After all, Manning's genius has always been rooted in his willingness to be burdened. It began with the impossible expectations of being a Manning under center. It continued when he carried on the dreams of his older brother, Cooper, whose football career was cut short in college by a spinal condition. And it exploded in the NFL, as he scrolled through his mind before every snap, folding his hands into an alternative form of sign language to find the perfect play, reshaping the game as he dominated it. Which makes it all the more intriguing that Peyton Manning is prospering now because he has learned a simple lesson: how to let go.
That process began in January 2011. Manning, still a Colt, had just finished a tough season. He had a pinched nerve in his neck that was causing weakness in his right arm, sapping its strength like a leaky tire. And what haunted him almost as much as the surgeries that had failed to fix it was the unknown territory he was venturing into. "I'd make some progress but still didn't feel comfortable," he says.
He sought out many opinions from those he respects and one day was talking with Bill Parcells. Manning basically asked the old coach whether he thought he could still play, and if so, what his game would look like. Parcells was simple and blunt: "Can you still get 'em out?"
"What do you mean?" Manning asked.
Look at Jamie Moyer and Greg Maddux, Parcells said. Even as they aged, they could still get guys out, using tricks and smart. Parcells was metaphorically asking: Can you still move the chains? Can you get your team into the end zone? The conversation recalibrated Manning's mind. "It gave me a sense that, hey, maybe that deep comeback throw doesn't look the same as it did before," he says. "But maybe you can still get 18 yards a different way." It would require a level of patience and a suppression of ego that no alpha male quarterback seemed capable of. But Manning realized that letting go of his former self was his only way forward.
Then a third surgery on his neck just before the 2011 season -- causing him to miss the entire year and setting the stage for his release from the Colts -- complicated his plans. That December, he spent a few weeks with Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, the longtime quarterback whisperer to the Manning brothers, to begin his throwing rehab. One night, the two of them went outside and sprayed footballs with cold water to simulate a bad-weather game. As he threw, Manning was more than inaccurate; he was alarmingly inept. He couldn't catch a shotgun snap or grip the ball tightly enough to execute a handoff, which triggered a fear that he'd never contended with before. He wouldn't stop throwing that night, even after miss after miss, even after Cutcliffe implored him to save his strength. "He was afraid that if he stopped throwing, he would lose it," Cutcliffe says.
On the drive to Cutcliffe's house after that practice, Manning turned to him and said: "Am I doing the right thing? Am I going to be able to play effectively?"