The nineteenth century American writer and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, left behind a great quote about being great: “A great man is always willing to be little.”
On Monday, March 7th, 2016, the greatest quarterback in National Football League history announced his retirement and did so with class, humor, and a heavy dose of the one trait that can keep the mighty among us “little”—humility.
After eighteen remarkable seasons, Peyton Williams Manning called it quits at a tearful, heartfelt press conference in Denver, Colorado. Known for the thoughtful, meticulous way he approached the game he loved, Manning read from a pre-written speech for nearly fifteen minutes. It was a retrospective of his youth, college and professional careers, and the relationships along the way that brought deeper meaning to his life outside of the football stadium.
I highly recommend that you watch the this memorable retirement speech in its entirety:
But will this really be the end for Manning? Will he be able to stay away from the limelight and practice field?
From Yahoo Sports:
Manning talked about missing the game, the team dinners, the great defenders he went against and the great coaches he matched wits with. He said he’d miss recapping the game with his dad, Archie, and calling his brother Eli from the team bus after games to discuss their respective games that day.
“I revere football. I love the game,” Manning said. “You don’t have to wonder if I’ll miss the game. Absolutely. Absolutely, I will.”
We have seen celebrated athletes—from Michael Jordan to Brett Favre—find it difficult to walk away (and stay away) from the games they love. Mere mortals can only imagine what it must be like to dominate a sport from the time you can walk until the age of 40 and then be forced by Father Time to step away from the spotlight. But one gets the feeling that Peyton Manning, someone who has always conducted himself with an air of a guy who “gets it”—will not succumb to the same temptation of making a return to the game.
While no one is perfect—and it must be stated that there were, at the very least, rumors about him using performance-enhancing drugs while rehabbing a neck injury in 2011—Peyton Manning has done things the right way throughout his career. He stayed all four years at the University of Tennessee and got his degree. He played and stayed with the same NFL franchise (Indianapolis Colts) for 14 of his 18 years in football, and only left when the Colts asked him to leave so that they could draft a younger player. He did not complain, he simply moved on (and won another Super Bowl).
His TV commercials, unlike recent examples such as James Harden’s self-indulgent Adidas ad campaign, were always funny and self-deprecating. He was the first to poke fun at his own turn at hosting Saturday Night Live. He answered the questions that reporters asked him after games and always treated the media with respect. It was almost as if Peyton Manning genuinely understood that he was, in large part, a cog in the wheel of the entertainment industry and that this was okay with him. He always seemed in on the joke and appreciated the fact that fame is fleeting and so he would be wise to enjoy the good times while they lasted.
This brings us back to the virtue of humility and how a true sign of greatness in a man is his willingness to be “little.” Gratitude is the foundation of humility and everything we heard from Peyton Manning at his final curtain call reflected gratitude. He even went so far as to thank his opponents and on-the-field adversaries for pushing him to be better.
Class act. Prolific career. He’s the best that’s ever played the sport, and he went out this week on top of more than just a game.
Hopefully Kanye West (and the rest of the NFL) was watching.