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Starkey: Peyton Manning's tangled legacy

| Monday, March 7, 2016, 9:27 p.m.
Peyton Manning retires as the NFL's all-time leader with 539 passing touchdowns and 71,940 passing yards.
Peyton Manning retires as the NFL's all-time leader with 539 passing touchdowns and 71,940 passing yards.

When I think of Peyton Manning, canonized Monday in a made-for-TV special, powerful thoughts and images arise. Some flattering. Some not so much.

First, I think of Saint Peyton as a top-five, all-time quarterback, behind John Elway, Tom Brady, Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana.

I think of tall and lean No. 18 standing in the shotgun, waving his arms like a frantic condor, calling out odd words and phrases, including “Todd Haley!” which I still swear he shouted during the Steelers-Broncos playoff game.

I think of one of the great late-career, second acts in sports history. Go back to 2012, when Manning returned from what some thought was career-ending neck surgery. He sat out a year, signed with a new team at age 36 and threw for 37 touchdowns.

Outside of Mario Lemieux and Michael Jordan, where else have you seen such a thing in our four major sports?

Manning followed that in 2013 by orchestrating the highest-scoring offense in NFL history. The lasting image is his horrid Super Bowl, but he delivered a season for the ages. And for the aged. He threw a league-record 55 touchdown passes.

I think of all those indoor fireworks shows in Indianapolis, the memorable showdowns with Brady. And I think of Manning becoming the first quarterback I know of who made the defensible but eye-opening choice to repeatedly sack himself when a play seemed doomed. He'd go down like a tranquilized giraffe (to his credit, though, he never ran away from a fumble in the Super Bowl).

I certainly think of the Steelers mauling Manning in the 2005 playoffs.

As for Peyton the personality, I think of this: the “unknowability” of superstar athletes. We think we know them, the same way we think we know rock stars, movie actors and politicians. We think so, because of how they come off on television.

Television isn't real.

Manning is the ultimate aw-shucks pitchman, maybe the greatest athlete pitchman of all-time. He comes off as a naturally funny, down-to-earth, nicest-man-on-earth kind of guy. Nationwide is on his side. He “Cut That Beef!” for MasterCard, shilled for Budweiser and charmed on “Saturday Night Live.” All in good fun, undoubtedly for good cash.

But there is another side to the Manning story that makes him seem like something less than the nicest man on earth. A side that needs to see light, even on such a “joyous day,” as Manning termed it.

I can't un-see “pharmacist” Charles David Sly telling an undercover Al-Jazeera Network reporter about Manning's alleged HGH use. Sly, who didn't know he was being taped, has since recanted his story and been branded a know-nothing idiot. So how did he know enough to recite a piece of information that must have been highly classified?

Namely, that Manning's wife, Ashley, allegedly received shipments of HGH from The Guyer Institute in Indianapolis, where Peyton Manning was a patient in 2011?

The Manning camp did not deny the allegation. It did, however, go into a hurry-up defense. Manning hired Ari Fleisher to clean up the mess and sent two investigators to the home of Sly's parents. The visit prompted a 911 call from Sly's sister, who said the investigators falsely represented themselves as law-enforcement officers but refused to present badges.

Would the nicest man on earth send a pair of goons to intimidate somebody's parents?

I wonder.

The NFL says it will investigate the HGH allegations.

I also can't unread stories of Manning's alleged boorish behavior at Tennessee. There are differing accounts of what went on when a female trainer accused him of sexual harassment. We know Manning and the trainer settled on confidential terms and that Manning broke confidentiality when he referred to the incident in his early 2000s book. He called the trainer a “vulgar woman” who should have laughed off the incident.

Manning also wrote, “Women in the men's locker room is one of the most misbegotten concessions to equal rights ever made.”

Does that sound like the “Saturday Night Live” charmer?

A reporter Monday asked Manning about the Tennessee allegations.

“I think it's sad that some people don't understand the truth and the facts,” Manning said. “I did not do what has been alleged. I'm not interested in re-litigating something that happened when I was 19 years old. … Like Forrest Gump said, ‘That's all I have to say about that.' ”

That line drew laughter. His overall performance was spectacular. He was emotional, poignant and funny.

I wanted to believe every bit of it. With Peyton Manning, though, I don't know what to believe, other than this: He is an all-time great quarterback.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

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