Next week, in Seattle, 12,000 people will gather for an event called “AWP,” the annual conference and bookfair of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. It’s a big deal for scribblers, “the largest literary conference in North America,” and it’ll be my first time attending. But I know that as soon as I step off the plane at Sea-Tac, my mind won’t be on books, let alone my little essays, eager as they are to prove themselves. Nope, I’ll be thinking about football. NFL football and Peyton Manning.

After all, the Seahawks stomped the Broncos in the Super Bowl two weeks ago, and if my Facebook feed is any indicator of the atmosphere in the Emerald City, The 12th Man is still celebrating, still strutting, still yakking. And why not? They won 43-8.

The thing is, the Broncos were my pick to win, and when they collapsed, I took it personally. I took it personally because I root for Manning, always have, in part because I grew up in Indianapolis, and he … well, you know the story. While I admire him for the ball player he is, I admire him more for the man he’s become, the way he works so hard and studies so much yet still pokes fun at himself. The way he helped build a hospital in my hometown. The way he sends notes of support to countless people, or makes phone calls on their behalf. The way he came back from four neck surgeries. The way he seems to elevate everyone around him, helping them believe anything is possible, that hard work pays off, that it wins.

But it doesn’t, not all the time. Even Peyton Manning realizes that.

Which was painfully clear during the Super Bowl. The Seahawks were the better team by far, and part of me is thrilled for my second home, the Pacific Northwest, where I’ve tried to make a go of it on several occasions, each time fizzling out, failing like the Broncos, collapsing, getting stomped. Seattle deserves every decibel of its celebration right now, and Denver—the team, the fans, the ethos—they’ve got a lot of work to do. To get healthier, hungrier, tougher. I think Manning knew that on the very first play, when the crowd noise caused an ill-timed snap, then suddenly a safety. Twelve seconds into the game!

From there it got worse, much worse, and my mood along with it.

And I figured out what Manning must’ve known, that throwing a record 55 touchdown passes during the regular season doesn’t carry much weight in the playoffs, when you play a healthier, hungrier, tougher team, when its defensive linemen get a hand in your face all night, when its linebackers chase down your fastest players, when its cornerbacks and safeties leave your receivers uncovered for less time than it takes for me to write this sentence. Actually, less time than that. It was an ass kicking, instantly, constantly.

So here’s what I’m asking: How do you get over that kind of failure, whether you’re the Broncos or Manning himself? Will he come back for another season—his seventeenth—this time winning it all? Or will doubt settle in and take root? Will Denver stumble? Will Peyton quit?

~

I admit that I hate losing, be it in competitive sports or in life, or even in writing, and considering that I’m almost 45, all I’ve really got these days is the latter two, what can feel like a backpedaling, anonymous grind. Losing gets under your skin, toys with your DNA, makes you question the eyes staring back at you in the mirror. Losing isn’t the guy walking off the field, hanging his head, his chest burning. It’s what comes later, when you’re alone, after failure has had time to settle in. When doubt takes root. If it takes root.

So as I’ve grown older, more aware of my own struggles and setbacks, more aware that life, like writing, is just-really-damn-hard, I care less about victory than I do about the game itself—the way I play it, that I keep playing it. And this includes the character of the people playing it with me, whether they be NFL fans or AWP scribblers or anyone tied to an acronym, any acronym denoting who’s who, who the winners are, who’s the best. I’m sure in Seattle I’ll see plenty of the best—authors yakking, yakking, yakking.

And it helps me remember that if I can’t be the best myself, the best-I-can-be still matters. Maybe that’s why I admire Peyton: he tries and tries and tries. Never quits.

~

Let me take a stab at this from a different angle: I was a football player in college, as well as a psychology major. And psychology, like any science, means studying something systematically, be it my brain or someone else’s, my juicy chemicals or yours. And especially our behavior. Why do we act the way we do? Is it nature or nurture, as the saying goes, what we’re born with or how we’re bred?

Is that why I admire Peyton Manning—the way he acts, win or lose?

For instance, this season he was not only the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, but perhaps it’s most embarrassed (though he wouldn’t dare say that). He tossed merely one touchdown during the Super Bowl, and it came after trailing 36-0. That had to burn down deep, deep in his chest to new territory. His playoff record is now 11-12. He’s 1-2 in the Big Game.

But then he did this after the loss, as recounted by the Seahawks’ Richard Sherman:

“After the game when I was crutches someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and it was Peyton Manning. He had his hand out and asked me how I was doing. It takes an incredible amount of class to do that. He has the utmost respect from me and my teammates. He’s a Hall of Famer, Super Bowl champ, and Super Bowl MVP [in 2006]. That was really one of the most incredible moments of my life to see that kind of class.”

This from the trash-talking cornerback who’d teased Manning before the game, saying he threw passes that wobbled like “ducks.” Of course, Manning agreed in his inimitable way: “I do throw ducks. I throw a lot of yards and touchdowns ducks. So actually I’m quite proud of it.” Too bad Sherman and his teammates got the best of him, forcing two interceptions and a subpar performance.

But I am left wondering: What’s behind the Peyton Manning handshake? That is, what kind of man faces defeat and all that comes with it not by saying “good game” and simply walking away after the clock has stopped, but instead waiting long after the confetti shower, after the stage-top ceremony, after the Lombardi Trophy has been awarded to the other team, then walking over to his opponent’s locker room to express congratulations and to ask about the severity of his injury? And what if more of us knew how to do that, if our juicy chemicals could conspire to dissipate shame or rage or fear, whatever rises in our flesh whenever we’re feeling at our worst, whenever someone plays music too loudly in the car next to ours, or texts annoyingly in a movie theater, or causes some unknown offense, big or small? Could sportsmanship teach us that? Could Peyton Manning?

I think of the much-maligned, 37-year-old quarterback after he lost—what he must’ve felt, how he could’ve acted, having had millions of eyes on his team, on him, on his failure—and I marvel at his ability to stand his ground, to be a man, undaunted. It’s not humiliation that comes to mind. No, it’s humility. Humility and maturity. And I realize that watching him win has always been a gift, but watching him lose has taught me more.

Better luck next year, Peyton. Go Broncos!

—–

“Stand Your Ground, Peyton Manning” originally appeared in Hothouse: A Place of InquiryCopyright 2014, Jeff Darren Muse.

Photo: A football from one of my high school games in October 1986—a victory! Mt. Vernon beat Triton Central 62-14. JEFF DARREN MUSE