Everything about the two of them enraged me.
Part of the beauty of sports, and being a fan, is how they stir the emotions inside. From the joy of seeing a team win a championship, to the agony of seeing them fall, and everything in between, sports deliver some moments that you will never forget.
As a Boston sports fan, two athletes that always had a powerful impact on me were Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera.
With Jeter there were so many things that gnawed at me, almost to my soul. The fist pump. The leaping throws to first after digging out a grounder deep in the hole near third base. The infuriating inside-out swing where he somehow would manage to fight off an inside fastball, loop a liner over the second baseman’s head (often Dustin Pedroia) and somehow turn that into an early-inning double. Death, taxes and Jeter standing on second base in the first inning.
With Rivera it was simple. “Enter Sandman.” The feeling of hopelessness when hitter after hitter would flail at the cutter. The mystique over his “gait.” (Thank you very much Tim McCarver). Something like seeing the Grim Reaper enter the room, point at you, and just wait. The inevitability of defeat.
Perhaps there was another factor that ate away at me, watching so many Red Sox/Yankees games over the years and seeing those moments play out over and over and over again:
These guys are damn good.
Fandom provides indelible moments. Bits of history that will live with you forever. Sometimes they are moments that everyone will remember, or has at least heard of, such as Game Six in 1986, or Aaron Boone in 2003. But then there are other moments, moments that fly underneath the radar, that live with you individually.
One for me is the 2008 NFC Championship Game. New York Giants at Green Bay Packers. A frigid Tom Coughlin and company somehow go into a frosted Lambeau Field and continue their magical postseason run, knocking off Brett Favre and the Packers. I knew then, as a New England Patriots fan, something bad was coming. I remember sitting in the living room of my childhood home and turning to my parents: “This isn’t good.”
A few weeks later that dread was confirmed, when Eli Manning delivered one of those indelible moments, wriggling himself free from the clutches of Patriots’ pass rushers and somehow connecting with David Tyree. The Patriots had left too much time on the clock, and Manning came through in the clutch.
We tend to love underdogs as a nation, perhaps because our story as a collective began as a group of underdogs, setting out to carve our own place in the face of long, almost insurmountable odds. Super Bowl XLII is a prime example of how that love for the long-shot plays out in the national collective. On one side the Patriots, unbeaten and looking to set history.
On the other? A wildcard team who needed three road victories just to get there.
It is the ultimate David versus Goliath story.
In a cruel twist of fate (or not, depending on your perspective) that storyline would be renewed a few seasons later. Again the Giants come into a Super Bowl as an underdog, needing to win three games just to get to the Super Bowl.
And again, the Patriots leave Manning too much time and he produces another indelible moment. A deep strike to Mario Manningham that is somehow completed out of the heavens, and a play that (similar to the Tyree catch) I still do not know to this day how he completed. The ending was foretold from that point…
A few seasons later, in Super Bowl XLIX, Russell Wilson lofted a pass along the right sideline, and somehow Jermaine Kearse caught it off a deflection to give the Seattle Seahawks a huge scoring opportunity late against the Patriots. Like many New England fans, I found myself holding my head between my hands in that moment, muttering to no one in particular: “It’s [bleeping] Manning all over again.”
Part of the angst I would feel seeing Jeter stride to the plate, or hearing “Enter Sandman” come over the speakers at Yankee Stadium was not anger, but terror. The sheer terror of knowing what was coming next. Failure for your team, the sadness of a brutal defeat.
Another sleepless night wondering what could have been.
As a Patriots fan, Eli Manning always provided that same level of terror. Sure, you can debate his entire career. Sure, there have been mistakes along the way. Yes, even with a win last week his lifetime record as a starting quarterback is .500, at 117-117. But he struck fear in my heart, and the heart of every Patriots fan, dating back to that meeting in Super Bowl XLII, and a moment that no football fan will ever forget.
I did not miss Jeter and Rivera when they retired. I sure as hell respected what they could do on the field. I sure as hell realized they were among the best to ever do it at their respective positions. But I sure as hell did not miss the terror they struck in my heart.
With Manning’s time in New York coming to a close, I feel nearly the same way about him.
Some may ask, and perhaps rightly so, whether this translates to a Hall of Fame spot for Manning. Does he belong in Canton or not, Mark?
That’s a debate for another time. But I will say this. I do not have a vote, but if I did, he would get one from me.
Perhaps that terror clouds my judgment, but on two nights he was the best quarterback on the planet, and he tore my heart out. That counts for something.