Peytongate places Manning under seige

A year ago it was Deflategate. This time it’s what, Peytongate? The NFL’s biggest stage, the Super Bowl. The NFL’s biggest nightmare, an intruding, negative story, a distraction, a question about a man who has been the sport’s ambassador, and until now without a hint of scandal.

It seems so perfect, Peyton Manning, 39, about to head through that one-way door toward retirement, receiving the chance of which every athlete dreams, to go out at the top. And yet, as the Broncos quarterback prepares for Super Bowl 50 next week at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, where he’ll be under siege by the Carolina Panthers, Manning also is facing an investigation by the NFL and U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

On Thursday, the USADA confirmed it is helping the league in its review of a report from the since-shuttered Al Jazeera TV network that linked Manning to an Indianapolis anti-aging clinic. The report claimed that the clinic delivered human growth hormone to Manning’s Florida home in 2011 while he was recovering from neck surgery.

Al Jazeera, based in Doha, said an intern at the clinic was secretly recorded and suggesting that Manning’s wife received the deliveries of HGH, a banned substance. The intern subsequently recanted the story.

At the time, before the playoffs were to start, Manning called the report “complete garbage.”  Thursday, he repeated that word and also said he supports the NFL investigation. “I do welcome it,” he insisted at Broncos headquarters. “It’s no news to me. I still stand by what I said then that it’s garbage from the first day that it came out, garbage today.”

To imagine Peyton Manning, so proper, so elegant, always wearing a tie in post-game interviews, polite in defeat, humble in victory. A sportsman as well as an athlete, would be accused of a form of cheating is hard to comprehend. What do they tell us next? That Santa Claus hides vodka in his North Pole workshop? That Little Red Riding Hood was a harlot?

If Manning had a fault it was overexposure. You couldn’t watch an NFL game, hell, almost any sporting event, especially fall or winter, without seeing Manning selling pizzas (Papa John’s), insurance (Nationwide) sports drinks (Gatorade), cars (Buick) or satellite linkage (DirectTV). The ad agencies love the guy.

He has a father, Archie, who was so popular a quarterback at Mississippi in the late ’60s and 1970 there was a song about him, “The Ballad of Archie Who.” He has a brother, Eli, who has won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants, as compared to the one Peyton has won of the four he played.

Peyton was the first pick in the 1998 draft, was a five-time league MVP and has, despite missing 2011 because of a spinal fusion, has made it through 18 seasons, which if nothing else proves his dependability. After 14 years with the team that drafted him, the Indianapolis Colts, he became a free agent and cleverly was signed by John Elway of the Broncos, who decades earlier knew all the pain and pleasure of growing old as a brilliant quarterback.

Elway, as Manning, was the No. 1 overall pick, in 1983 from Stanford, somebody who had lost three Super Bowls with Denver then, finally, won two, back to back. Now, as general manager, Elway saw a man who could throw and lead as he once did. That Manning couldn’t run like Elway ran — well, Tom Brady can’t run either.

“My goal,” Elway said when he signed Manning in March 2012, “is to make Peyton Manning the best quarterback ever to play the game. If he wins two more championships, he’ll be without a doubt the greatest.” He hasn’t won any more, and if you suggest Brady, Joe Montana, Bart Starr or Terry Bradshaw is the greatest, that is legitimate.

Still, assuming Manning will be cleared of the HGH nonsense, he’ll be in any conversation.

Down Under, Roger Federer, 34, failed to reach the Australian Open final. Tiger Woods may be done. Kobe Bryant is done and Peyton Manning could be playing his last NFL game.  Time moves on, and the curtain is falling for a very special group, champions all.

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