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Hartnett: Peyton shines on and off the field (March 7)

By Brian Hartnett | Thursday, March 7, 2013

He was born into football royalty, the son of a prominent quarterback. He grew up tossing the pigskin in the backyard with his younger brother, now a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback.

But it’s what Peyton Manning has done on his own accord that truly sets him apart from the all-time great quarterbacks and best players to ever suit up in the NFL.

From the beginning, Manning seemed destined to be a quarterback. He grew up in New Orleans under the watchful eye of his father Archie, a former star for Ole Miss and the Saints. Although he rebelled against his pop by choosing to attend Tennessee, he had a stellar college career and followed it up by being selected first in the 1998 NFL draft by the Indianapolis Colts.

Few teams have ever made a better pick. In just a few years, Manning transformed the Colts, a team best known for sneaking away from Baltimore, into one of the NFL’s powerhouses.

He did it through his explosive arm and his precise command of the team’s no-huddle offense. He did it by forming a strong rapport with receivers like Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, who he helped make into household names. He did it by being an ironman and starting his first 227 career games, which puts him behind only Brett Favre’s incredible streak of 321 consecutive starts.

While helping transform the Colts, Manning put up stats most NFL quarterbacks could only dream of. He’s thrown for more than 4,000 yards in all but two of his 14 seasons, never thrown fewer than 26 touchdowns in a season, passed for a then-record 49 touchdown passes in 2004 and has a career completion percentage of 65.2%. He has plenty of hardware to show for these efforts – he’s won four MVPs, more than any other player in NFL history.

Yes, critics will gripe about Manning’s lack of other hardware, most notably multiple Super Bowl rings. Despite playing for several excellent Indianapolis teams, he’s only won one Super Bowl and has struggled in several important playoff games over the years.

But people tend to forget that without Manning, the Colts would probably be about as relevant as, say, the Jaguars. In 2006, he won the Super Bowl despite playing on a team that allowed 5.33 rushing yards-per-attempt, the seventh-worst figure in NFL history.

For further evidence, look at how drastically Indy’s fortunes turned when Manning sat out the 2011 season with a severe neck injury. The Colts went from a 10-6 playoff squad the year before to a 2-14 team that finished with the worst record in the league.

Although Manning departed Indianapolis after that season, he moved out to Denver and helped lift the Broncos to the top spot in the AFC, silencing any doubts about his potentially career-threatening neck injury with a campaign that earned him the title of Comeback Player of the Year. Even at the age of 36, Manning still has enough infectious enthusiasm and energy to convince everyone he is nowhere close to finished.

But, as good as Manning is on the field, it is his actions off the field that help earn him the title of a true “sportsman.”

He has set the bar for other athletes in terms of marketing and promotion. Manning is one of the few athletes who could just as easily find a home on the big screen and actually seems to enjoy being a pitchman – he’s been in some memorable spots for DirecTV, MasterCard and Buick, among others.

Equally important, he’s also managed to remain scandal-free in an era during which nearly all the top athletes seem to make the tabloid pages as often as the sports pages. Married to his college sweetheart since the early days of his career, he’s gained notice for his classy gestures. Manning supported his younger brother Eli as the Giants won two Super Bowls and he congratulated Ray Lewis after the Ravens topped the Broncos in last season’s NFL playoffs.

Whether you support him or not, it’s hard not to admire how Manning goes about his business and achieves success while still remaining down-to-earth. With his combination of immense skill and endearing personality, he’s exemplified the best sports has to offer. For that, he is worthy of the title “defining sportsman.”