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Peyton's Last Stand

Peyton's Last Stand
Manning's Much-Hyped Return Recalls Another Legend's End

It says a lot about the peculiar appeal of professional football that one of the sport’s most iconic images is that of a bald man—who looks far too old to be playing such a brutal game—on his knees, bleeding and dazed.

The concussed player in question is Yelberton Abraham Tittle, whose Hall of Fame web page and nearly every other reference abbreviates as Y.A. Appearances to the contrary, he was only 38 when the photo was taken by Morris Berman, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photographer known slightly less widely for a close-up of the mutilated bodies of deposed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his mistress after they had been killed and dragged through the streets of Milan by the fascist ruler’s former subjects.

So Berman knew a powerful image when he saw it.

I remembered his Tittle photo (the Mussolini shot is one you would only try to forget) while thinking about Peyton Manning’s starring role in the buildup to Super Bowl 50 on Sunday, when the Denver quarterback will attempt to keep his crumbled 39-year-old body upright, ambulatory and effective in the face of Carolina’s highly predatory defense.

Manning’s place in football history is already secure, even if he doesn’t catch up to brother Eli by winning a second Super Bowl ring. He has easily surpassed Little Bro, and every other quarterback ever, in every significant career statistical category, from yards to touchdowns to endorsements.

This year, though, Archie’s boy missed six games with plantar fasciitis and has admitted he has no feeling in the fingertips of his throwing hand, following neck surgery that caused him to miss the 2012 season and get bounced from Indianapolis, where he spent his first 14 NFL seasons. As a result, he produced the worst statistical regular season of any starting Super Bowl quarterback ever, according to FiveThirtyEight, the analysis site known for predicting electoral races with remarkable accuracy before transferring from the New York Times to ESPN in 2013.

Manning’s numbers—especially the 17 interceptions he threw, compared to just nine touchdown passes—and general feebleness are major reasons the Broncos are a consensus six-point underdog as of press time. In the NFC Championship game, the Panthers pressured and pummeled Arizona’s Carson Palmer into six turnovers in Carolina’s 49-15 curb-stomping of the Cardinals.

Tittle’s bludgeoning came in the second game of the 1964 season, his 17th as a professional. As a rookie with the Baltimore Colts of the old All-America Football Conference, which merged with the NFL in 1950, he was the losing quarterback in a playoff game against the original Buffalo Bills, who bear no resemblance other than name to the current edition. Except that those Bills, of course, went on to get smeared 49-7 in the AAFC title game by the Cleveland Browns.

After the merger with the NFL, Tittle wound up with the San Francisco 49ers, who he quarterbacked with little distinction until 1961, when he was traded to the New York Giants. Like Manning after his arrival in Denver, Tittle experienced a rebirth, leading the Giants of Frank Gifford and Sam Huff to three straight NFL Championship games.

Having lost all three, two of them to Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, Tittle and his Giants had just opened their campaign for a fourth when 6-foot-7, 280-pound Pittsburgh defensive end put his helmet into the ancient quarterback’s chest. The impact left Tittle without a helmet and with a concussion, cracked sternum and pulled rib muscles.

Berman’s image captured what is commonly, and incorrectly, remembered as the end of Tittle’s career, which earned him induction into the Hall of Fame. Somehow, in the days long before concussion protocols or, it seems, any other sort of medical oversight, ol’ Y.A. was taped up and sent back out to start again the next week. He wound up playing in every New York game that season, even though the Giants fell all the way from the sport’s biggest game during the pre-Super Bowl era to a 2-10-2 record. He even thought about coming back for the ’65 season before yielding to his wife’s pleading and finally hung it up.

Manning has hinted he plans to do the same after Sunday, according to multiple reports. If you’re the betting type, you can even place a wager on whether or not he will announce it during his inevitable post-game interview. Not that we encourage betting on sports, or anything, but if you bet $100 that he will, and he does, you win $500. But you have to bet $1,000 to win $100 that he won’t.

While there are also available bets on whether Manning throws at least one interception that gets returned for a touchdown or if he will be named Super Bowl MVP (he’s a distant second-favorite to his Carolina counterpart, Cam Newton, mainly because quarterbacks have won the award in 27 of the previous 49 Big Games), you can’t wager specifically on whether he finishes the game making a well-paid vow to visit a famous amusement park, on the sideline scowling under his trademark pink forehead, or under a doctor’s care.

Yes, it’s possible that—if Denver’s Wade Phillips-masterminded defense can somehow contain Newton, the game’s most dynamic quarterback—Manning can use his unquestioned mental mastery of the game, while mustering enough of his faded skills, to pull off the upset.

Given how he and his opponents look heading into Sunday, though, a more Tittle-like conclusion seems like a much better bet.

The author has written about the Buffalo Bills, among other topics, since 1990, and publishes We Want Marangi at You can also follow him on the Twitter at @DavidStaba.

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