No Sport For Old Men

Louis A. Ruprecht Jr., Georgia State University 

The Super Bowl continues to be one of the most visible and influential cultural events in the United States. For that very reason, it always warrants a closer look. This year was no exception, but what the look reveals is unexpected. 

Two years ago, the big story was not about the game, but rather about the advertising. The family of Tim Tebow was alleged to be involved in an anti-abortion advertisement that would suggest that they had considered aborting Tebow, in order to put a face on the loss of potential represented by abortion. The ad proved to be pretty benign, but the controversy lingered. The whole debate was shot through with religion.

Last year, the main story was the epic battle between two quarterbacks and two styles of quarterbacking. Aaron Rodgers won that contest with Ben Roethlisberger, securing the victory for his team and the MVP award. I read this story mythologically, suggesting that Rodgers played Odysseus to Roethlisberger’s Achilles and that what we saw was cleverness and elusiveness beat out brute strength. The religious valence was there (it always is, where myth is involved), but you had to dig for it.

This year, unsurprisingly, all the hype was about politics and regionalism; it is an electoral year after all. Governor Chris Christie offered the pithy observation on the Sunday talk shows that “the Giants train in New Jersey, they play in New Jersey, and most of their players live in New Jersey. The only thing New York about them is the NY on their helmets.” That being said, the Giants, whether belonging to New York or New Jersey, and the Patriots, belonging emphatically to Boston, are both identified with one of the two historic centers of American Independence, the Boston to Philadelphia corridor (northern Virginia was the other, but none of their teams went far this year). So it was figuratively as well as literally a contest between patriots and giants. 

Political pundits before the game reveled in the predictive symbolics of Super Bowl championships: the Patriots beat the Carolina Panthers in 2004, and the Republicans took the White House (Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was a vocal Bush-supporter that year).  The Giants beat the Patriots in 2008, and the Democrats took the White House (Giants quarterback Eli Manning did not weigh in publicly on that presidential campaign).

Yet the real story in the pre-Super Bowl build-up this year concerned Eli’s brother, Peyton Manning. The Super Bowl was played in Indianapolis, in the home stadium of the elder Manning’s Indianapolis Colts. Speculation continues as to whether Peyton Manning’s storied career (four times named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, as well as the MVP in his team’s 2007 Super Bowl victory) is now over. Manning was sidelined for the entire 2011 season with a neck injury that required several surgeries and the fusing of some vertebrae; his rehabilitation has been agonizingly slow. 

Some fear that he will be unable to return to the game, and others fear that he will be traded from the Colts organization in the off-season, so that the team can begin to re-fashion itself for the post-Peyton era. Peyton Manning will be 36 years old on March 24th

Football is not for the faint-hearted, and it is rarely a game for those older than Peyton Manning is now. The average career for a professional football player is roughly six years (not three as commonly reported). Quarterbacks can last quite a bit longer than that (who can forget Brett Favre’s decision to return to the game he loved for one season too many?). But football simply is not a game for old men.

The half-time show—fully one half hour long now, and an entirely independent ritual feature of the Big Game—tells another story. The Super Bowl organizers regularly select older singers/performers for their half-time theatrics: the Rolling Stones, the Who, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. When the organizers did go for youth, in the guise of Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson, a notorious wardrobe malfunction and FEC sanction were the results. 

This year it was Madonna, who performed admirably, and played artfully with religious forms. She entered the stage as Cleopatra, a priestess surrounded by her male court, in an explicit inversion of the gender stereotypes of most Super Bowl advertising. And she ended the performance with a rousing rendition of “Like a Prayer.” But she was wearing four inch heels, and has lost a half step over the years; her demanding choreography was awkward and she had trouble with the stairs. It took a moment, but you gradually came to realize that this timeless rock diva is now 53 years old. And so in the half time show, we were watching her gradual transformation into an elder priestess of sorts. Cleopatra with experience; the good don’t all die young.

Something similar happened in the second half of the game, after Madonna’s departure. Like last year’s Super Bowl, the game was billed as another epic contest between two quarterbacks and two quarterbacking styles. Tom Brady is cool, almost aloof at times, utterly unflappable under pressure, and possessing balletic grace and surgical precision. He shattered Joe Montana’s record for the most consecutive completions in a Super Bowl (16 in all).

Eli Manning is quite different, flashier when he is on, but far more inconsistent. Unlike Brady, he emotes, frowning shakes of the head at each at every three and out. His boyish face makes him look like a high schooler at times; his mind seems to wander, and when it does, his passes fall short. But then there come the flashes of real brilliance. Manning can be admirably self-deprecating, possessing an endearing aw-shucks quality evident in his repeated reference to his teammates as a family. He just turned 31 years old in January, and does not look it. Tom Brady, who will be 35 in August, does.

Every great quarterback is only as great as the receivers who help make him so. Both teams had assembled extraordinarily gifted receivers, bruising tight ends and wickedly fast wide receivers. But several of the Patriot receivers were playing hurt, and that arguably is what lost them the game. But so, too, did age. 

The game seesawed back and forth all night, neither team able to get separation on the scoreboard. As anticipated, the game would go down to the last play. 

But how it did so was instructive. With time running out and the Giants well within field goal range, the plan was to take the clock down to near zero, to keep Tom Brady off the field. But running back Ahmad Bradshaw could not counter his habitual drive to score, failed to stop himself, and tumbled ass-backwards into the end zone with just under one minute left in regulation. Manning was yelling at him not to cross the line as he fell. Ahmad Bradshaw is just 25 years old.

It had all the makings of a typical Patriot comeback, born of vast experience and a seasoned general leading the way—the long march down the field with precision passing and nonpareil management of the clock. And it might have worked out, had two receivers in a row not dropped balls thrown to them. Wes Welker’s drop was almost shocking, given how sure-handed he has been. He is just 29 years old. 

So it all came down to a last “hail Mary” pass (think Madonna) to the end zone as time expired. Brady’s pass was true, the ball tipped in and out of one receiver’s hands, and arguably the most talented of all the Patriot receivers, tight end Rob Gronkowski, might have snagged it before it hit the ground. But he was playing with a badly sprained ankle that visibly hampered his running all night long.  He is just 22 years old.

In the end, the evening belonged to Eli Manning, who was named the MVP of the game. He was asked how it felt to win this game in the stadium that was symbolically his brother’s house. Eli was not having it; he deflected the question by noting that it feels good to win this one anywhere. He was not going to talk about his brother, nor about Tom Brady, this evening. He has one more Super Bowl victory than his brother now, and one less than Tom Brady. He is mature, seasoned, a man. He has entered that rarified window in the world of professional sports where his intelligence, experience and emotional maturity are married to physical gifts that have not begun to taper off. The window from ages 30 to 36, say, when certain supremely gifted souls come into their own. 

Something happens then. Many religious traditions speak to that fact. Aristotle suggested that a person was incapable of serenity, the real goal of the philosophical life, until he has reached that significant spiritual age. We watched young men compete with mature men, in order to play out life lessons better understood by the elders. And in so doing, we celebrated what all rituals, religious and otherwise celebrate: that we are all links in a sacred chain of meaning, whose significance must be explained to us by those who have gone before.

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