JERSEY CITY, N.J. — OK, let's bury the No. 1 myth about Peyton Manning. He is the NFL's brainiac quarterback. But not 24/7. Behind the very serious and demanding frown of Manning Face, there's a regular guy who drinks beer and never misses an episode of “Boardwalk Empire.” Honest.
“I am not a robot,” Manning said Wednesday.
Really? C'mon, now.
Does he expect us to believe Manning 2.0 is made of flesh and blood rather than computer circuitry?
A natural-born grinder so obsessed with asking one more question that Archie Manning long ago dubbed his middle son “The Riddler,” the 37-year-old leader of the Broncos goes home after NFL games to watch video.
But the video Peyton Manning watches is not what you might think. On Sunday night, Manning turns off football and tunes in Nucky Thompson.
To chill out, the brainiac quarterback religiously watches “Boardwalk Empire,” the HBO drama that stars Steve Buscemi as the Prohibition era kingpin of Atlantic City, N.J.
“I was a 'Sopranos' guy. I loved 'The Sopranos.' I was devastated when that screen went blank. I liked the ending, personally. But it was a tough moment, because I knew the series was over,” said Manning, who likes to veg in front of the television as much as any red-blooded American. “Sunday night is my night to watch a show ... So when 'Boardwalk' came out, that was big for me.”
In Super Bowl XLVIII, Manning can win his second NFL championship and stake a claim as the best quarterback in league history. When Manning came to Denver after being fired by the Indianapolis Colts, all he wanted was this opportunity. Well, to quote Nucky Thompson: “This is America, ain't it? Who the (expletive) is stopping you?”
It might sound odd, but if the Broncos win the game, one of the celebratory toasts should be raised to Nucky Thompson.
Why? It was a pain in the neck, but Manning finally has discovered how to get out of his own way late in his brilliant NFL career. Yes, Manning still works harder and burns brighter than the sun. But he also has learned to relax. Manning can be a couch potato, without feeling guilty. And that's a good thing.
We tend to draw our sports heroes in crayon to make it easy to distinguish heroes from villains. The quick sketch of Manning is: quarterback as automaton. You've read the comic book version. Manning is harder to solve than Chinese algebra during the regular season, then melts down in the playoffs. He's a perfectionist too uptight for his own good.
Manning acknowledges: That's the robot he used to be.
“There was a time when I would come home from practice and I would stay up until 1 to 1:30 in the morning, because I had to watch all four of (an upcoming foe's) preseason games that night. I thought that if I didn't watch all four of those games, the world might come to an end the next day. I felt like I had to do it. I didn't need to sleep as much, and I was a younger player,” said Manning, who became the father of twins slightly less than a year before he joined the Broncos in 2012. “My preparation has changed. I come home after practice, and I love spending time with the kids and putting them to bed. I don't stay up as late. I need to get my rest more. Maybe I was a robot early on. I think now maybe I am a little more human.”
As long as he had to relearn how to throw a spiral again before joining the Broncos, Manning figured: Why let the reinvention end with his playing style? Manning dialed back the intensity and dialed up the absurdity in his personality. It wasn't a big stretch. The teacher's pet always had a mischievous alter ego; teammates well know Manning is an unrepentant practical joker.
“No one's more intense than Peyton when we're in a team meeting or at practice. But nobody's more of a prankster when we're done working,” Denver tight end Jacob Tamme said. “I shouldn't tell you this, because Peyton will get mad at me if I let the word get out. But I will give you a clue: If he offers you sunscreen on the golf course, don't take it. When you put it on your body, it will not protect you from the sun. It will actually make you feel as if your body is on fire.”
Maybe the real kick of watching Manning this season has been observing a very buttoned-down quarterback let down his hair a little, before male pattern baldness begins in earnest. During the course of his most remarkable MVP season, Manning has committed some very un-Manning like acts. He told doubters to stick it where the sun don't shine. He insisted more interest in wrapping his mouth around a cold brew than contemplating how many throws were left in his arm before retirement.
“At 37 years old, and in my 16th season, especially in a week like this, I think it's healthy to take some time to reflect and smell the roses,” said Manning, sitting on a cruise ship in the Hudson River, doing one more Super Bowl interview while allowing himself to think: Man, this has been one strange and wonderful trip.
“The legacy question keeps popping up, and I guess I had a little more time to think about it. If I had my choice what my legacy would be, it would be I played my butt off for every team I ever played on, I was a really good teammate and I did everything I could to win. Whatever else comes along in that time is fine with me.”
A great paradox of the human condition is how a man's strength can also be his weakness. If anything, maybe the young and earnest Manning cared too much about football. He pressed too hard.
Long ago, he mastered the quarterback's art.
But the secret of being Manning is an insatiable desire to expand his knowledge.
At age 37, before his legs give out and he must take a seat on the porch, Manning is learning to dance as if nobody's watching.
Mark Kiszla is a columnist for Digital First Media at The Denver Post. Follow him on Twitter @markkiszla.