Greg Cote

Peyton Manning’s greatness overwhelms small controversies as he retires

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning waves to spectators following the AFC Championship game between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, in Denver.
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning waves to spectators following the AFC Championship game between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, in Denver. AP

No sports figure of his stature — and there haven’t been many — has ever retired quite like Peyton Manning just did: On top, but not entirely. With a perfect ending, but not quite.

He goes out a champion, the Broncos’ Super Bowl victory parade still echoing in Denver. That alone should be the perfect ending, the perfect timing every athlete wishes when envisioning his or her career’s end.

You get the sense, though, that the NFL retired Manning more than he retired on his own. He wanted to keep playing, even at age 40, but times had changed. Only four years earlier, Manning was highly sought when he became available as a free agent. At least half a dozen teams including the Dolphins went hard after Manning. Now, only the newly relocated Los Angeles Rams showed any interest at all, and offered Manning no assurances, only the indignity of having to compete for the starting job with lightweight Case Keenum.

Dan Marino can relate. He felt like he wasn’t done yet when Miami gently nudged him into its past tense at age 38 after the 1999 season. Marino’s arm remained strong but his knees were close to shot. The Minnesota Vikings and his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers put out feelers but Miami’s No. 13 reluctantly retired instead, convincing himself it was time.

Manning, unlike Marino, gets to go out brandishing a second Super Bowl ring, albeit one at the end of an injury-married season full of interceptions. And yet even that element of his perfect ending is sullied by controversy.

His final season was marred by the allegation, reported by Al Jazeera, that Manning had human growth hormone delivered in his wife’s name. He has strongly and repeatedly denied the report.

More recently a 20-year-old incident while Manning was at the University of Tennessee has resurfaced, unearthed in the media — fresh enough fodder that he was called upon to answer for it at his retirement news conference Monday in Denver.

“I did not do what has been alleged,” he said. “And I’m not interested in re-litigating something that happened when I was 19 years old.”

Manning admitted he “mooned” another male athlete for laughs in the athletic facility while in the company of a female athletic trainer, who filed a complaint and claimed Manning’s buttocks and genitals had made contact with her face. Monday was the first time Manning specifically has denied that happened. It made you feel sad he even had to, two decades later, on this day.

The NFL continues to investigate the HGH report. The training-room incident never was investigated by police and the university long ago reached a financial settlement with the trainer.

Neither allegation nor the two combined should amount to more than grains of sand on the beachhead of his monumental career. And I don’t just mean the two championships and the all-time NFL records for most touchdown passes and most passing yards.

I mean the comportment, the class, the humor, his being a wonderful teammate and in many ways the face of the NFL.

Even if the two allegations are true, that he dabbled in HGH to help get his health back, or that he did something stupid he regrets at age 19, I don’t think either rises to a level of permanent scandal that would override the good or weigh more than an obligatory mention in the assessing of his legacy.

He does not leave the game, en route to a certain role in broadcasting or as a football executive, as a perfect human being unflawed.

He does leave the game as arguably the greatest quarterback ever to play it, and with the overriding reputation as a good guy.

Well beyond Indianapolis and Denver, the popular Manning was an integral, intense yet affable part of America’s NFL fixation for 18 seasons, and we’ll miss him. It’ll be awhile before I see any quarterback crouch at the line of scrimmage without imagining Manning yelling, “Omaha!”

For me the only greater QB, and he’s still going strong, is Tom Brady. I have not forgotten Marino, Brett Favre, Joe Montana, Drew Brees or what Aaron Rodgers may yet become. I have not discounted earlier greats from Otto Graham to Johnny Unitas to John Elway.

Of them all only the whole of Brady’s résumé might be bigger than Manning’s.

Their rivalry was epic, too, and the NFL is poorer for the end of it.

“I’ll miss that handshake with Tom Brady,” Manning said eloquently on Monday.

Brady in turn said of Manning, to Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback website: “Who has lived up to expectations year after year after year as well as Peyton? He’s done it so gracefully, so admirably. He set the standard for how to play the quarterback position.”

We’ll leave it at that, because who would know better than Brady?

Read Greg’s Random Evidence blog daily at MiamiHerald.com and follow on Twitter @gregcote.

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