One day after the Indianapolis Colts released him, Peyton Manning finds himself at a crossroads in his career that will determine whether his legacy more closely resembles that of John Elway or Brett Favre.
Both are Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks who experienced untold successes at the professional level. But mention either in conversation and be prepared to be met with two very polarizing responses.
Elway is forever a hero, the guy who rode off into the sunset at the peak of his game, someone who was a big enough man to realize it was time to let go while he still had his wits about him and his knees holding steady beneath him. The court of public opinion has been quite kind to Mr. Elway since he hung up his cleats.
Favre on the other hand? Favre almost instantaneously became that guy, the guy who can't seem to stop reliving his glory days no matter how silly he looks in the process.
Anyone who ever grew up in a small town knows that guy.
If you were lucky enough to escape the confines of wherever you grew up, chances are you see him every time your family goes out to the local TGI Fridays for a very special dinner, one where mom doesn't have to cook and you don't have to help clean up. He's still wearing his varsity letter jacket even though it's now two sizes two small and the years have faded the colors to the point where they bear only a passing resemblance to the jock who once bore them so proudly, not unlike the overgrown child currently inhabiting said jacket.
My hometown of Lake Zurich has plenty of guys like that. Chances are, regardless of where you grew up, you know someone who can't seem to let go of the glory days of their youth, someone who still only hangs out with the "cool" kids and reminisces about that one homecoming game where they rushed for five touchdowns against your biggest rival.
Brett Favre is the manifestation of that guy as a professional athlete. He also represents the fork in the road Peyton Manning should, under no circumstances, take.
Favre hung on to the dream entirely too long. He alienated a fan base in Green Bay that would have, at one point, forgiven just about anything else he would have done. And at what cost?
Manning has a choice: retire as one of the most commercially and professionally beloved professional athletes of our generation. He can move into a cushy front office job while his body is still well enough to heal knowing he lived up to the ridiculous amount of hype lavished upon him throughout his career and that there's an entire pot of gold's worth of endorsement deals awaiting him at the end of the retirement rainbow. Or he could be that guy.
Nobody likes that guy, Peyton. Not even that guy likes that guy. Walk away with your head held high and your body still intact. For America.
Matt Lindner is a RedEye special contributor.