Two and a half years after undergoing a neck surgery that destroyed his ability to throw a football, Peyton Manning is on the brink of one of the best individual seasons in NFL history.
Manning has been so good, for so long that his comeback from injury in 2011 always seemed inevitable.
But in reality, Manning’s comeback was never a foregone conclusion. He had to re-teach himself to throw, holding clandestine practices so no one would ever realise just how bad he looked.
Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post wrote a great article on Manning’s comeback back in October.
She talked about how Manning’s arm atrophied after a succession of neck and spine surgeries in the spring and summers of 2011.
Some of the details are incredible.
He tried throwing a football for the first time after his second surgery with Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton in the summer of 2011. They did it in a batting cage under the Rockies stadium so no one could see.
Helton took up a position about 10 yards away and held out his hands. Manning reared back, and threw.
“The ball nose-dived after about five yards,” Manning says.
It didn’t even make it halfway to Helton before it hit the ground. Helton burst out laughing — he thought Manning was joking.
“C’mon, quit kidding,” he said.
“Man, I wish I was,” Manning said.
Manning told Jenkins that he had to start with the most basic throwing drills and work himself up. He explained:
“It’s hard to explain but I kind of lost awareness of my arm in space. When you had the same throwing motion for so long — golfers talk about repeating their swing, well, quarterbacks repeat too. But I couldn’t repeat. That was scary. Just discouraging.”
He went to Duke University and worked with coach David Cutcliffe in November of 2011. They held early morning and late-night rehab sessions so no one would monitor them. Eventually, after weeks and weeks of painstaking work, he began to improve.
“You hear and read about people who overcome things they shouldn’t,” Cutcliffe told Sports Illustrated. “I saw it with my own eyes.”
His final exam in February of 2012 was a simulated game.
Manning flew in center Jeff Saturday, wide receiver Austin Collie, tight end Dallas Clark, and wide receiver Brandon Stokley and recreated every single play of the 2009 AFC Championship Game. There was no defence on the field. He just wanted to feel himself make the same exact throws he made in 2009.
Two years after that simulated game, Manning is in the Super Bowl.
At his age, no one would have faulted Manning if he simply retired two years ago. But instead he made one of the more remarkable comebacks we’ve seen from an athlete of his stature.
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