For over 45 minutes last Monday afternoon, I watched my childhood come to an end.
I saw it coming, and yet I never thought it would happen. I knew it was inevitable, and yet, after watching you week in and week out on Sundays for my ten years as a fan, this day seemed impossible.
But it was happening: my favorite athlete–past, present and future–was walking away from the game.
Eighteen illustrious years under center–over. This was one last day in the National Football League. This was one last press conference. This was it, and as I watched you tell the rest of the world just that, I wished so desperately that I could meet you in person to tell you what I’m sure every other coach, player, reporter and fan already has:
Thank you for introducing me to, quite literally, a whole new world. As a first-generation American girl, the only football I knew was what we call soccer. It wasn’t until I picked up a Sports Illustrated magazine in third grade, one that had your face on it and story in it, that I got pulled into the NFL. You’re the reason people are shocked that a girl could know so much about a sport dominated by males, the reason I knew my dream of sitting up in the Lucas Oil press box wasn’t too far out of reach.
Thank you for being the first to indirectly teach me what it meant to be proud of being yourself. In a city just 45 minutes out from Chicago, everyone was a Bears fan. My cobalt blue jersey stood out in a sea of orange and navy, but if wearing your name and number made me an outcast, I’d take it. I found confidence, found a voice, and as superficial as football seems in the grand scheme of reasons to be proud as a Muslim American, that push in elementary school was what I needed. You provided that without even trying.
Thank you for being the nudge my parents needed to purchase cable TV. It’s a shame America didn’t know that not everyone had CBS back in 2007. I remember searching desperately on my antenna TV for that coveted Channel 2–CBS here in the Chicago-land area–only to realize that grainy picture was you under center in the rain in Miami, strategically navigating through Brian Urlacher’s presence in the middle of the field and marching your way to a 29-17 Super Bowl victory. That was the first and last time I’d ever have to squint through an entire football game, the last time I’d have to suffer through a Chicago Bears or Minnesota Vikings game on FOX because the Colts played on CBS.
Thank you for your resiliency. Not everyone would bounce back after losing to the Patriots as many times and in the ugly fashions that you did. The AFC Championship game in 2007 will forever be my favorite moment as a Colts fan, and your touchdown to Reggie Wayne after the Patriots failed on 4th-and-2 in 2009 will continue to be my favorite Sunday Night Football recollection.
And even when things were ugly–your two Super Bowl losses, your departure from Indianapolis, your four neck surgeries, your less-than-stellar last season in Denver–thank you for staying gracious, for recognizing that there’s more to life than football, for continuing to breed a culture of class and courtesy in a league that so desperately needed it. You taught my brother what it meant to be a good sport. You taught me what it meant to be a leader even in defeat. And in the process, you truly did prove all the haters wrong.
Because it doesn’t matter how many Super Bowls you ended up winning. It never did. People will try to write off your career with statistics–which, if they really wanted to, prove you’re the best to ever play the game–and with championship rings, but that’s not what those who truly love the game will appreciate. It’s the lessons you taught through your time on the field that stick out to us, the way you used your position in the game to change the lives of those away from it. It’s because of that I know you’ll miss the game.
And it’s because of that I know it’ll miss you, too.
For over 45 minutes last Monday afternoon, I watched my childhood come to an end. I watched you announce your final day as a quarterback, watched you close this chapter of your life. It’s been one heck of a career, Peyton, and I wish so desperately that I could meet you in person to tell you what I’m sure every other coach, player, reporter and fan already has:
Thank you for letting me be a part of it.