Maybe the Gulfs Will Wash Us Down

Peyton Manning

Sports Saturday

I’m still digging out of the emotional shock of the Seattle Seahawks obliterating Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. In one of the lead-up posts to the game, I had speculated (somewhat pridefully) that Manning was Odysseus, returning home to oust the upstart Seahawks.  Now, however, I’m thinking that he’s closer to Tennyson’s Ulysses. This Odysseus is an aging hero who refuses to retire, even though it could be argued that his time has come.

A year and a half ago I applied the poem to both Manning and Roger Federer, who had won Wimbledon earlier in the summer and, against all predictions, had regained the world’s number one ranking. At the time, Manning was returning from four serious neck surgeries and no one knew how well he would perform.

Well, these two classy athletes, both nearing the end of their careers, performed beyond all expectations. No one had thought that Federer would ever regain the top ranking and certainly no one thought that Manning would go on to break  major single season passing records. As I wrote on September, 2012,

I’ve been feeling a bit like Tennyson’s Ulysses recently when it comes to sports. That is to say, as I enter my sixties I’m rooting particularly hard for players in their twilight years. Substitute “retirement” for “death” in the following passage and you can understand why I have felt rejuvenated by Roger Federer’s performance this summer and why I am eagerly anticipating Peyton Manning as he returns from a neck injury that could easily have ended his career:

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.

Thinking of the lines, “It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,/And see the great Achilles, whom we knew,” I wrote,

But if [Manning] is able to take the Broncos to a Super Bowl, it will be his version of Ulysses “touch[ing] the Happy Isles and see[ing] the great Achilles.”

Well, Manning made it to the Super Bowl. But then the other possibility mentioned in Tennyson’s poem kicks in:

 It may be that the gulfs will wash us down.

The gulfs certainly washed Manning down last Sunday. For that matter, they also washed Federer down at this year’s Australian Open: after impressively reaching the semi-finals, he was thrashed by his nemesis Rafael Nadal in straight sets.

But according to Sally Jenkins in a fine Washington Post article that preceded the Super Bowl, win or lose Manning (and, I would add, Federer) should not walk away from the game yet:

Peyton Manning doesn’t need to go out on top. He needs to go out when he’s done, when he’s too slack-armed to salt his food much less complete a pass, and not a moment before. He shouldn’t let anyone push him toward that placid, empty vale called retirement.

Then Jenkins echoes phrases from (of all things!) T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, who, like Manning, is also aging. Prufrock, however, openly expresses his self-doubts whereas Manning does not. Kudos to you if you can identify the allusions, which I’ve noted at the end of the post:

 But there is something captivating about the dying fall of Manning’s passes, and the faint graying in his short lick of taupe-colored hair. What drives the retirement conversation is the combination of his age, 37, and the unlikeliness of his comeback from a fourth neck surgery, which sidelined him for all of 2011 and left him with a nerve-damaged arm. In fact, he’s in the most riveting phase of his career: working with a compromised body for unforeseen rewards, a paradoxical peak in which his numbers have never been better, while his arm has been noticeably weaker…

Whether Manning ever sets another record or makes another Super Bowl, to quit with something left would be a betrayal of his basic nature. Retirement and living indolently on money might sound appealing to a bored accountant, or a footsore nurse.

But the attitudes of athletes, who are in the business of exhausting themselves, are different. Competition for them is a form of inquisitiveness, a compulsive questioning of how much they have in them. To be a bystander with something unspent is torture.

Jenkins sounds as though she is drawing inspiration from the final lines of “Ulysses”:

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
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. 

Manning, who has been made weak by time and fate, may not get back to another Super Bowl. But what a noble fight he is having with Father Time!

Extra credit:

The direct phrase Jenkins borrows from Prufrock is “dying fall”:

I know the voices dying with a dying fall 
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

There is also an indirect reference to Prufrock’s thinning hair:

And indeed there will be time 
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]

Aging is about all the two figures have in common, however.

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