It's a common cliche that being a fan comes from the root word fanatic. Color me fanatic then.
I blame my parents, really. I grew up mostly in Knoxville, Tennessee, home of the University of Tennessee, also my alma mater. My mom graduated from there. Both my sisters graduated from there. So I'll pass some of that blame to my sisters too. On top of that, my dad was always a huge sports fan. Ever since I can remember, I was wearing orange and rooting for the Vols.
Some things just always seemed constant: the Vols had a great quarterback, we always beat Kentucky, and I always told every other elementary school kid that Tennessee was better than their school (especially when I lived in Ohio for a while).
My journey with Peyton (for he only needs one name to be known in my parts) began when I was in fifth grade. Already being fanatical about the men in Orange and White, I was at the very first college football game that Peyton ever started, against Washington State in 1994. I remind you, fifth grade.
I suppose it's rare that someone's boyhood sports hero grows all the way into adulthood with you. I mean, I'm a father now, and Peyton is still playing football. And I'm still fanatical. I went to the Broncos-Colts game 2 seasons ago with a close friend. Did I wear a Broncos shirt? Yes. Yes I did. Under my #16 Peyton Manning jersey from the University of Tennessee. Some loves seem to only grow with the sweet passage of time.
And now my boyhood hero "follows" me to Denver to play his remaining days of professional football. Truly, I love the Broncos. They were the first and easiest team to rally behind once I moved here. Loving this city meant loving it's teams. But some loves have a ceiling when the one you really want is so far away. But no longer. Now I really love the Broncos.
I'm not sure if I can get to the place in my sports-fan experience to truly comprehend the day when Peyton Manning will no longer play football. It's an emotional place I'm probably not prepared for. So, I'll enjoy these waning days like there is no end. I'll just be naive about the deeper things.
The deeper things: what an odd phenomenon sports and sports heroes are.
I used to never understand the concept of idolatry. All over the Old Testament people find wooden poles or golden things and they worship them. Always seemed bizarre to me. A wooden pole isn't that exciting, after all.
So when I read the passage in Exodus about Moses and his people, I'm confused. Moses is hanging out on the top of a mountain with God. It's quite the thunderous experience as Moses receives the law with which to give his people from his God- the exclusive, the God. God tells Moses to go down though, because the people are practicing wickedness. They collected everyone's gold and decided it'd be a good idea to melt it and make a golden calf and talk about how awesome it is.
Over 400 years of slavery, and the golden calf they just made gets all the credit for the miraculous events they've witnessed. That story used to make no sense to me. That is, until I understood sports in my life. Until I came up close and personal with my emotions and with my boyhood idol.
When my beloved Volunteers won or when Manning won, my heart was filled with glee. When they won. Oh, when they won. Joy. Inexpressible joy. But, when my beloved Volunteers used to lose or when Manning lost, I'd be sad. I'd be angry. There wouldn't be words. I wouldn't want to talk to anybody about it. But since when did the outcome of a game have to affect my whole sense of contentment? How did that happen?
Consider Aaron. He responds to Moses about the whole calf deal:
"Do not be angry, my lord...You know how prone these people are to evil. They said to me, 'Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him.' So I told them, 'Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.' Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!"
I'm not sure if my sense of contentedness, as it's so connected to Manning, is so different from people throwing some gold into a fire.
We humans will worship anything. We all worship. My temptation is to not make Peyton Manning god, but just let him be a guy that throws an oblong ball to other people, and to enjoy it as mildly as possible. That's so hard for me.
There are other gods afoot, most of them of my own creation, you see.