You know it’s a big deal when an athlete and team part ways when people in other towns get emotional, and that’s what we saw Wednesday when the Colts made it official and released Peyton Manning.
His name appeared on a waiver wire one spot above that of Marcus Trufant, cut by the Seahawks.
And like that, the player who spent 14 years with the Colts, who lifted the franchise into the NFL’s elite and whose image is affixed to the stadium that just hosted the Super Bowl, in large part because Manning put Indianapolis back on the football map, was officially gone, free to find a new place to ply his trade.
It will be jarring once we see him in a new uniform, wearing burgundy or aqua or red or green or anything other than the traditional, clean-cut blue and white Colts jersey and helmet that looks just like the one the team wore in the 1950s. But it won’t be the first instance of a superstar moving away from a place where our memories would prefer to freeze him in time.
Only five years ago the Packers traded Brett Favre to the Jets. The 49ers dealt Joe Montana to the Chiefs. Johnny Unitas finished his career in San Diego. Joe Namath played for the Rams.
Eagles fans saw Donovan McNabb move to the rival Redskins. McNabb wasn’t on the same level as the Hall of Famers mentioned above, but he was one of the defining figures of his franchise for more than a decade, a player who came up with one team and helped lift it from the depths into the league’s upper crust. He got 11 years, fair compensation, and a ticket out of town when the time came.
Michael Jordan finished his career as a Washington Wizard. Wayne Gretzky was traded from the Oilers and Ray Bourque left Boston. Albert Pujols just walked away from St. Louis. We could go on and on. Even the greatest players can be forced to move on, or choose to, no matter how deep his roots in a particular city.
Still, in the moment it arrives, some changes retain the power to shock. For the sake of discussion, here’s one man’s take on the current NFL names who would be the most difficult to picture in another city, along with some younger players who have a chance to one day fit the same category.
Feel free to fire away with your own thoughts on iconic NFL players or examples from other sports in the comments.
Current franchise icons in the NFL:
Tom Brady: Like Peyton, he’s been with one team his whole career, and his success is innately tied to the team’s rise into the elite. He embodies “The Patriot Way.” It’s hard to imagine Bill Belichick without Brady, but then again, the hooded coach doesn’t show much emotion when it comes to business decisions.
Drew Brees: Here’s an unusual case of a player who moved teams and became indelibly associated with his new city, rather than the one that he started with. But Brees, like the other quarterbacks mentioned, elevated his team’s profile and brough t home a championship while serving as the face of a franchise. Throw in the emotional impact the Saints, with Brees as their leader, have had in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. How tied is he to the Big Easy? Heck, the guy did an ESPN commercial in a Mardi Gras float. He’s currently in tough negotiations with the Saints, but emotion says he has to stay in New Orleans long-term. Right?
Ray Lewis: He absolutely embodies his organization. Lewis delivered a Super Bowl and has been at the heart of a competitive Ravens team since 1996. Just try picturing him doing his pre-game dance in another uniform. Doesn’t quite work, does it?
Younger players who could one day reach that status:
Cam Newton: As a quarterback with immense skill and magnetism, and the only real star in Carolina and could be a Panthers hero if he elevates that struggling team.
Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson: They’re both incredible talents on long-suffering franchises. If the Cardinals or Lions can manage sustained success, they will be remembered as guys who led a revival. Problem is receivers and running backs, even great ones, can be highly disposable.
Eli Manning: Quarterback a team to two championships and you can be remembered as an all-time franchise great. But Eli is still early in his career and for all of his success, he isn’t the singular presence on the Giants that other QBs are on other championship teams. When I think of the Giants’ recent runs I picture Manning, but Michael Strahan and Justin Tuck figure just as prominently. Maybe in time Eli will get there.
Not quite there:
I thought about what current Eagle might fit this category, and the closest I could come up with was LeSean McCoy, but running backs tend to wear down quickly and so they don't have the longevity of most figures who become synonymous with a team and an era. Also, McCoy is one part of an explosive offense rather than the sole face of the unit. (McNabb, Brian Dawkins and Reggie White might have fit the "icon" category in recent years, though White's long run and success in Green Bay muddies the equation).
Ben Roethlisberger might fit the bill, but he’s on a team where defense comes first and the Steelers reportedly thought about ditching him amid his legal problems, so perhaps an eventual break up wouldn’t be so surprising. Brian Urlacher has long been known as the heart of the Bears, but in my mind he hasn’t quite reached the level of sustained excellence as other franchise legends.
For most all-time greats, it’s easy to figure out the one team they should automatically be associated with. Manning, moving on, will always be remembered as a Colt, and Montana in our minds will forever be a 49er.
Then there’s the polar opposite: Deion Sanders. When I close my eyes and think of Sanders, I still see the Hammer-era Atlanta Falcon. But he proved to be quite the mercenary, single-handedly tipping the balance of power in the NFC by helping the 49ers usurp the Cowboys, then bolting for Dallas to get the ‘Boys one more championship. He’s also one of the game’s iconic figures, but will be remembered more for his individual talent and stylings than his associations with any team or city. He always did it his own way.