I stopped blogging about sports a couple of years ago when I realized that I was starting to repeat myself. There are only a limited number of sports stories—the promising rookie, the heroic underdog, the squandered talent, the aging veteran, etc.—and I wasn’t discovering anything new when I applied literary works to the various figures.
This makes today’s post on the Broncos-Panthers Super Bowl contest easy to write, however. I have simply combined and updated three previous posts, two of them written leading up to Peyton’s last Super Bowl. They seem just as relevant applied to Sunday’s contest as they did to the Broncos-Seahawks contest.
Manning has strongly hinted that Sunday’s game will be his “last rodeo.” Many find the story compelling because the contest invokes the archetype of the aging king. Will he be able to reclaim his throne after all these years.
The sublime Cam Newton represents a new generation of quarterbacks who, like the suitors, appear to have taken over the hall. Many sports commentators have declared that Newton is the future, Manning the past. This seems particularly true this season when Manning struggled with interceptions and injury and missed several games. At times it appeared that Manning would never play again. It was as though, half dead, he had washed up on Calypso’s island, never to leave again.
That’s not how the story goes, however. The Odyssey opens with Zeus sending a messenger to remind “the great tactician” that he is still king of Ithaca and has a responsibility to venture out on treacherous seas to reclaim his throne. As Zeus puts it,
Could I forget that kingly man, Odysseus?
There is no mortal half so wise; no mortal
gave so much to the lords of open sky.
Read psychologically, Zeus represents the internal sense of higher ambition that spurs Odysseus to heroic heights. In Manning’s case, it is the drive to keep coming back to compete, even as his body fails him.
Odysseus ventures out upon the seas with a self-constructed raft and barely makes it to Ithaca. This pretty much sums up Manning’s season, which was the worst of any Super Bowl quarterback in the history of the NFL. Early in the season he was throwing more interceptions than touchdowns. Then he missed a number of games with planter fasciitis, and he relied on his defense and unspectacular, error-free ball to get through the playoffs.
Virtually all the experts are predicting a Carolina win, and Odysseus’s odds for success aren’t much greater. After all, he will be facing 108 suitors, all of them in their prime.
Even if one accepts the narrative of Peyton as an aging king, however, that doesn’t automatically make him the hero. Yes, one story is that of Odysseus, King Arthur, Richard the Lion-Hearted, and Tolkien’s Aragorn. We can all feel good about that one. But there’s another one.
This is the story of the tyrannical king who holds on to power for too long, suffocating new growth. The archetype for such kings is the dragon in Beowulf. Killing or otherwise displacing such kings is, of course, the story of Oedipus, not to mention numerous other myths and fairy tales.
So perhaps you see Manning as beloved monarch and Cam Newton as a usurper. Or perhaps you see Manning as a dragon and Newton as regenerative hope. What you see undoubtedly may depends on your prior rooting interests.\
Or if you are a neutral observer with no dog in the fight, maybe you’ll root for whichever of the two narratives you find most compelling.
I won’t predict who will win but I will note how a later literary incarnation of Odysseus, Tennyson’s Ulysses, sets forth the possibilities. I’ve applied this passage in the past to both Manning and Roger Federer, his tennis equivalent, and it’s even more relevant now.
Ulysses finds himself restless in Ithaca and not ready to retire. He therefore rounds up his old comrades (not that any are still alive in Homer’s version) and sets out for one last journey. Or rodeo.
In this case, Ulysses is not reclaiming his throne but reaching outward for immortality. It is a heroic journey:
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
The end could end in cataclysm, a version Manning’s thrashing at the hands of the Seahawks in 2014. Ulysses admits this is a possibility:
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down…
But it’s also possible that he will achieve Super Bowl glory one last time:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
And then, regardless of what happens, we must celebrate that he is making one last shot:
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
On to Sunday!