I never spent much time actively learning sports or following athletes, but there are two athletes I hero worship. One is Tim Duncan and the other is Peyton Manning. Everyone in the sports world except these two are subject to analysis and itemization of good and bad qualities in my books, to the extent of my knowledge.

Little wonder, then, that I turned up at a high school friend’s house on Super Bowl Sunday evening last month, not so much to watch the game, but to cheer for my favorite athlete Peyton Manning, and enjoy the ads (the Helen Mirren one was the best – “(if you drink too much) you are an oxygen-wasting human form of pollution. If your brain was donated to science, science would return it”). I went to sleep that night feeling like a winner because my man Manning won the Super Bowl.

My moment of awakening to ‘American football’ (every immigrant calls it so for a few years before calling the game football) came in the form of a Ziploc bag with some dried lawn grass. I was visiting my brother in Ohio and as any bored sister normally does, I cleaned his apartment and threw this bag in trash. My brother came home, cried out as he picked it out of the trash bin and dusted it off – “Oh my God – this is sacred grass. This is the turf on which Ohio State University beat University of Michigan.” After this incident over fifteen years ago, I mainly watched football on Super Bowl days, mostly for the ads, and occasionally to cheer for a team I have an ‘emotional attachment’ with (I made cookies the shape of the New Orleans Saints logo when they played in the Super Bowl). My fascination with Peyton started right after Katrina happened and the Manning family was deeply involved in the restoration and rehabilitation work in New Orleans. The funny Peyton Manning ads started playing shortly after that. My favorite is the one where he says: “Hey Jesse. Bummed about that gut? Wish you had rock hard abs? Look – I’m going to be honest. You are not under the age of 23 or a professional football player. It’s probably not going to happen. If I were you, I’d just buy bigger shirts.” My fascination just deepened.

My second memorable football moment was a celebrity encounter with Dick Vermeil in the DFW airport seven or eight years ago. I had no idea who he was until the moment my husband pulled me aside while we were waiting at our gate in the airport and said, “You know who that man in the suit sitting over there is? He is Dick Vermeil, one of the best coaches in football. The St. Louis Rams won the Super Bowl when he was coach. I think he is wearing the Super Bowl ring.” I was thoroughly impressed. I had never seen a Super Bowl winning coach before. My husband was shy about going over to say hello to him, but not me. I tiptoed right up to him, sat next to him, introduced myself, and told him what I just learned from my husband. He said yes, and asked me what I did in Dallas, with a very sweet unassuming smile. I told him what I did and went on to ask him if he would be kind enough to show his ring. “I’m going to the drafts in Philadelphia. That’s why I’m wearing the ring. I don’t normally wear it. This center diamond is the ball. This is XXXIV, the Super Bowl we won and this is our team name RAMS written in small diamonds around the center diamond. My last name Vermeil, is written in right below it.” I thanked him profusely for showing me his ring, left in sheer awe and then it was time for us to board our plane. If I had a smartphone at that time, I would have requested for a picture and probably a selfie with him. I mentally calculated that the ring might cost about fifty thousand dollars, but I reminded myself immediately that it’s not a ring fifty thousand dollars can buy. Any number of dollars for that matter.

I know. I haven’t said a lot about Peyton Manning yet. But I shared my thoughts about football and to me, Peyton Manning represents all of football. I don’t know about the controversy about his high school incident, but I am encouraged by the fact that he hasn’t yet announced what he plans to do with the rest of his life. I have a strong recommendation. Work for, and advocate for football safety. Not just the players but the cheerleaders as well. One of my friends takes care of a young girl who is back under her care after her third injury while cheerleading in the same season. Concussion is not a small thing. No sports injury for that matter. Not at such a young age. The players and cheerleaders have a long life ahead of them. There has to be a way to play the game safely, and cheer for the team safely.

If Peyton advocates for safety of the sport, the world will listen. I hope Peyton considers the idea. Or better, I hope he is already planning to do it.

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