Friday, February 29, 2008

The King of the NFL

He didn't look like a king. He was usually scrambling for his life from salivating, hungry defensive linemen who always knew it was feast day. Though they tried hard, his offensive linemen were always outmatched, like boys playing against men. They couldn't help him, they couldn't keep his safe.

All the land he really asked for was a three-foot square chunk of turf in the pocket to pass from, but he rarely found it; and never could he stay there for long. He was sacked more times than Carthage.

When he came out of college, he was the Matt Leinart or Vince Young of his day. He was The Franchise. Trouble was, he played on a franchise team just a few years out of the gate in the NFL and the learning curve for a new team was steep. Impossibly steep.

Instead of shining like the star everyone knew he was, on a weekly basis he was battered and beat up like he lived in a cage with Mike Tyson. Hardly able to put his team in the playoffs alone, it took everything he had to put his feet on the floor on Monday mornings.

It was troubling to watch. Here was this hero with so much potential but week after miserable week he was always at the bottom of an avalanche. It was sad. Many people said, "Poor fella. What a waste."

And such was his career. No opportunities to showcase his real talent because his teams could never contend. Every year ended with disappointment; certainly discouragement and disillusion also must have raised their voices. Though the man plodded on, there never was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; in fact, there was never even a rainbow, just a hurricane every Sunday for many torturous years. And then the man limped away.

Sometimes life offers you surprises in ways you didn't expect them. You put your efforts and energies into a purpose but the by-product of your work ends up being more rewarding. I mean, when you are digging a hole, aren't you also building a hill?

Well, the king was building a hill, though he did not know it. He knew his three skinny boys liked to play in the dirt, but he didn't recognize it as a hill that his efforts had created. Those boys, the princes, loved the things their dad loved. They emulated him. They looked up to him. Though he was everybody else's punching bag, and nobody knew he was a king, he was always a hero to the princes. He patiently taught them his craft. He worked with them, encouraged them.

When they got knocked down, he told them to get back up; after all, wasn't that really his own true specialty? Perhaps no one had been knocked down more.

And up they got. And up, and up. It wasn't long and the king was starting to forget about some of the disappointment of the NFL, the success of his boys was easing some pain. As the boys got older and the game got more intense, the king realized that it was not about him any more, it was about them; his heart was renewed.

All three princes were spectacular. They had the king's genes. He lived through them at their games in other ways as well. The victories were sweeter than ones he could remember from when he played high school and college ball, they were somehow more fulfilling.

Of course, any father can tell you that the success of his son is a richer drink than success himself. Perhaps that is because the success of the son says that not only was the son successful, but the son was able to be successful because the father was successful at enabling the son. So, it's doubled; or something.

But in the king's case, it was doubled, and doubled again, and doubled a third time. The boys were great, just like their dad. Then one went down with an injury, he would not play again. But the trend was already established, he, too was a chip off the old block.

The second prince carried on and would eventually be named the greatest player in the greatest game. That game was vindication for the king. It was sweeter than all the bitterness from all the years of his own career. It washed away every collision, every bruise, every loss, every failure. He was clean again, rejuvenated, and he finally realized that he had totally misinterpreted his life's purpose. He wasn't meant to find success in the NFL, he was meant to find success as a dad.

So this past month, the New York Giants fans were happy for their team, and rightly so, for the Giants played with lion-hearts. But for the king, this was deja-vu all over again; it was abundant, bountiful joy; doubled, and then doubled once more.

In fact, not only did his third son follow the second to the greatest of heights, but it was the king's coronation as well. It revealed and announced that indeed he was a king because his boys were the princes. The hill of dirt had become a mountain and they were all standing on its top, three boys and a king.

Giants fans were proud that day.

But nobody, nobody on this planet was more proud or more deserving than the King of the NFL, Archie Manning.

Archie Manning with his sons, Cooper, Eli and Peyton.
(Photo courtesy of ESPN)

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