Two things stick out when you see Peyton Manning in person: 1) He is surprisingly skinny, neither the frame of a frumpy old dad nor a world-class athlete, both things he has been accused of being, and 2) His personality is even more magnetic than it seems on television.
Manning is really good at working a room of reporters. He has mastered the art of not really saying anything, as all professional athletes have, but he does it in a way makes it seem like he appreciates the question. He pauses, he thinks and he comes off as genuine when he answers. He gave the umpteenth question about his future the same weight as he did the first.
To be in the conversation of Greatest of All Time, it's not enough to be preternaturally gifted. We can assume Manning had the same fierce competitive instincts as Tom Brady -- the other contemporary quarterback in the discussion -- except he was able to be likable off the field, too. Brady doesn't embody the life he exudes. He likes and endorses luxury products and married one of the most successful super models of all time, but he comes off less like a playboy and more as a guy who at some point chose his image like it was cereal off a grocery store shelf.
Manning embodied the everyman. There are people who believe there is a right way to play football, and those people tended to be Peyton Manning fans. He became that way during a time when curating an image required much less upkeep, and because in most ways he was that platonic ideal. Tall and stiff and classy, he played hard on the field, and, unlike Brady, was able to stop acting like a football player once he left it.
This made him marketable, and in a specific way. Manning hocked everyman leisure, from TV packages to Buicks to pizza. He would have posed for Lucky Strikes if he played in the 1960s. Instead he perpetuated the great American addiction of a different time and bedded himself with Papa John.
It's no easy feat that Manning was as well-liked as he was for as long as he was. Quarterbacks are easily football's most marketable stars, but they are also the most scrutinized. Robert Griffin III had star power, but it was conveniently decided that his charisma was phony right about the time he got hurt and stopped playing well. Cam Newton is somehow the most-liked and least-liked player in the league. Brady is hard to love. Russell Wilson needs a new script.
Manning is also one of the only and last megastars to bridge two eras: A time when newspapers could still dictate the pace and content of news and the social media age when no one's foibles are safe from swift exploitation -- or if they seem foible-less, their virtuosity becomes overexposed and grating (see: Watt, J.J.).
I doubt Manning factored any of this into his decision, but he is conveniently leaving football just as his own shield is cracking. Whatever the result of Al Jazeera's HGH allegations, they don't much matter now that he can't actually be punished on the field next season. Old allegations of sexual assault from his time at Tennessee have taken on new life, but they were mostly forgotten once and may soon be mostly forgotten again.
But, regardless of whether the scandals stick, they're a fair reminder that people are more than who they appear to be when we see them on the field, in commercials and at podiums. We know that better now than we did before the prevalence of social media, back when athletes and observers of athletes didn't have a direct line to fans.
The fact that Manning pulled off his character so easily implies that it was largely genuine -- Manning is probably a lot of fun to hang out with. Still, he often struggled to maintain his aw gosh composure. Manning could be a terrible loser, like when he blamed his offensive line after the Colts lost to the Steelers in the 2006 playoffs.
"I'm trying to be a good teammate here," Manning said, choosing his words carefully. "Let's just say we had some problems in protection. I'll give Pittsburgh credit for the blitzes and their rush. Those guys rushed. But we did have some protection problems."
Manning was given more control over his offenses than perhaps any quarterback ever because he was so smart and almost always right. To Manning, that seemed to mean he couldn't be wrong, and he came off as an ass on the sideline.
And to be clear, that's not the worst thing in the world. His prolific talent -- which led to countless records and two championships -- bought him some leeway to be kind of an ass to his teammates, and more often he was charming in interviews, commercials and SNL skits. If you wanted to make him a messiah, it was easy enough to ignore certain aspects of who he was and glom on to others. He was the perfect good ol' boy quarterback, if not all the time.
Now that Manning is retiring, we're losing that platonic ideal he represented to so many people, and it's unclear if we'll ever again see a player so good, so sheltered and so capable of playing along with what people thought of him. Maybe it's Aaron Rodgers' turn, but he became a football phenom in Manning's wake and still has a long way to go to leave the same impact. Rodgers has yet to come back from multiple neck surgeries, for example.
As different as Manning as Quarterback and Manning as Pitchman seem, there may be a unifying trait that Spencer Hall pinned down as cussedness, a macho form of determination that made Manning the most relentlessly poised, likable, mean and excellent player in the NFL for nearly 20 years. Manning never was exactly what anyone thought, but likely something between the best and worst impressions of him.
Where exactly Manning fell on the spectrum is hard to say. It'll be debated in the coming days in light of his recent accomplishments and recent accusations against him. He'll answer any questions, of course, but we won't be any wiser for it. Just like a smoothly run presser, Manning is getting out before we really got to know him.