Let's start with a drive, on this Monday morning with spring on its breath.
Let's start out driving west and south from Fort Wayne on U.S. 24, west and south toward Roanoke and Huntington. Turn right at the yellow blinker, the one sends you arrowing due west on Indiana 114. Motor on between the sleeping farm fields past the turnoffs for Goblesville and Tunker, past the four-way stops at Indiana 9 and Indiana 5, on into North Manchester.
I make this drive three mornings a week these days in my capacity as a marketing writer at Manchester University. It's about 35 miles from downtown Fort Wayne, give or take a smidge. Takes me about 45 minutes.
Six more miles, and I'd be where Peyton Manning stands today.
Six more miles would add up to 41, which is what 72,000 yards computes to. That's almost exactly how many yards Peyton Manning passed for in 18 impeccable seasons as an NFL quarterback.
For the rigidly exact, the actual number is 71,940. Plus 539 touchdowns.
Context is sometimes a slippery handle when legends decide to hang 'em up, which is what Manning will announce today he's doing. But Peyton Manning throwing a football from Fort Wayne to North Manchester, plus six more miles, gives you some. It gives you at least some idea of the enormity of his achievement, at least some notion of just how indelible is his footprint on America's game.
That footprint will be officially notarized five years from now, when Peyton Manning goes to Canton. But it's already as deep and as wide as any footprint ever, and it extends far beyond the bloodless and largely irrelevant specs of a football field. There is a children's hospital in Indianapolis that is part of that footprint. There are a million small kindnesses that have largely gone unnoticed. There is Peyton Manning's impact on two cities and two fan bases that goes far beyond his ability to change plays at the line or sling the football into tight spaces or confound defenses with the sheer intensity of his preparation and matchless capacity to think on his feet.
There were times, across the years, when Peyton Manning played the quarterback position so sublimely you wondered if he were indeed human, times when you wondered if he were some advanced scout for the Age of the Terminators. But then you read about the small kindnesses and the children's hospital with his name on it, or watched him tormenting little kids in that bogus United Way ad on "Saturday Night Live." And you realized that he was Archie and Olivia's boy, not Skynet's.
Human, in other words. A bit devilish. And not altogether admirable, if we are to believe the stories about sexually harassing a respected trainer at the University of Tennessee, and then trashing her reputation in a book when she had the courage to lodge a complaint.
The act remains in dispute. The trashing does not, and is a deserved black mark on his reputation.
But if so, it's pretty much the only one, and that overwhelmingly speaks well of him, considering how long and how inescapably he has lived in the national spotlight. Good men do stupid things sometimes. They just don't do them very often -- and if Manning has often been as calculating about his public image as he has been on the football field, it's a measure of who he is that the calculation has been so unnecessary so much of the time.
Is he the best quarterback of all time? I don't know. He's definitely in the Blob's top five. If we're making lists on a day made for it, I say it's Elway, Brady, Manning, Montana and Marino, in that order. Ask me tomorrow, however, and the order might change.
I might put Manning ahead of Brady. I might swap out Marino for Johnny Unitas. Depends on my mood.
What I do know is this: That footprint is huge. And it will be as fresh and as deep two or three or five decades from now as it is today.
Who wouldn't take that legacy?