Saturday, February 11, 2012

Titans of the throwing industry

Among the many strange criticisms of Eli Manning is that he looks like a 12-year old. Even David Letterman was taken aback by the Super Bowl champ's fresh faced appearance last week. 

"It seems to me you've gotten younger since the last time I saw you," Letterman said.

"I have," Eli quipped. 

That Eli appeared stiffly in a blue blazer and maroon tie, his hair parted to one side like a Lego man, should not be an indictment of his personality - and yet, for many people it continues to be. An inordinate number of media and fans just don't to like the younger Manning, or at least, see him as an easy target. He's not accurate enough: that comes up, doesn't it? And sure, he's about a 58 per cent career passer. (But then again, he's thrown for 27, 579 yards and 185 touchdowns). Other people like to call Eli lucky, as if to say, his industrious and determined nature have nothing to do with his success. Aren't lucky athletes, simply quick-thinking, inventive and opportunistic?

The bottom line is that Eli isn't really cool. He's nice. He's the guy you'd like your sister to bring home. He's the opposite of Tom Brady, whose sharp looks and contemplated hair, perfect passes and cool nature, and broad shoulders and leggy wife, are all so fantastical that most people can't stomach hearing about his success. As fans, we can certainly be pedantic can't we? We don't like the goofy, and we tear down the  fashionable. What's the middle ground, Aaron Rodgers? Maybe. He's not perfect either, you know.     

Part of the problem is that the quarterback-jock icon is embedded in our minds, mostly due to Seventies and Eighties coming-of-age movies. He’s the guy with the delicate mane of hair, the Cruise-esque smile that looks hinged by screws, and obviously, the busty blonde cheerleader girlfriend on his arm. Life is charmed for the high school QB: consider that nobody else can wear painfully tight stone-washed jeans and still claim the respect of his friends.

It’s not until a QB hits the pro ranks, however, that he's personality is truly tested, that he earns his strips. He’s no longer dating the head cheerleader but rather, a supermodel; he’s paid in millions of dollars instead of cafeteria hamburgers on-the-house; and most importantly, he competes in a world that offers immortal status to those who excel - the Hall of Fame. It's high pressure, relentless scrutiny and a position that requires constant off-field maintenance along with on-field results. Just imagine having to cope with that in your own career.

When thinking about the coolest quarterback cats ever, the men whom somehow dodged the critical rush and thrived in all facets of modern athletic superstardom, Jim McMahon springs to mind. McMahon, a wise-cracking, showboating prankster, who had a penchant for headbands and big sunglasses, was also a skilled signal-caller who didn't care about what you thought. Boasting a strong arm and an uncanny knack for reading the game, McMahon was of that rare breed who could impact a contest with larger than life presence. He  took things into his own hands, seemingly in retaliation to the regimented and stern regime of Head Bear, Mike Ditka, and because he seemed unfazed by consequence. This deliberate bravado, and perhaps angst, helped him conquer the NFL, even when he appeared wildly out of control. At Super Bowl XX, for instance, when asked by reporters about a buttock injury, McMahon dropped his pants and mooned them. And on his own Letterman appearance in 1986, McMahon slouched and grinned behind oversized sunglasses like he was trying to impress the other kids in class. It was frigging awesome.

While McMahon was loose and aloof, Brett Favre was everyman tough - and that made him likable, or at least "relatable". Off the field, their were some misgivings, to be sure. But before all that, Favre defined "gunslinger" and in turn, built a persona based on heroics and hi-jinks. After all, he ripped a locker room towel whip with as much fervor as a 40-yard Hail Mary. That's the sort of teammate everybody wants. He performed the immaculate, and still always felt so mortal.

There are of course so many popular quarterbacks, from Unitas to Montana, Staubach to Elway, and perhaps the NFL's smoothest all-time operator, Joe Namath (GQ magazine included Namath in its 25 Coolest Athletes of All Time in 2011). But in this pantheon of football poster men, a guy whose name surprisingly logs less Google or YouTube searches than others, is Warren Moon. Some pundits say Moon went undrafted in the NFL because he was black. Others simply question his suitability as a quarterback. Without trivializing the situation, it was perhaps a blessing that Moon ended up in the Canadian Football League anyway, firstly to improve his game, and secondly, to stick it to the doubters. Resilience and defiance, too, have been known to motivate people in the bleachers.

During six seasons with the Edmonton Eskimos, Moon commandeered an unprecedented five consecutive Grey Cup championship runs and threw for 21,288 yards and 144 touchdown passes. After proving his wares, it was of little surprise that the NFL finally came calling. Moon moved to Houston and instantly restored pride to the pastel blue. Among his many achievements in the American game, he joined the Dans - Marino and Fouts - as the only quarterbacks to post back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons. And if you're still unconvinced that Moon deserves to be in this conversation, just remember that he is the only player ever to be inducted into both the CFL and NFL Halls of Fame. That's at least astounding, if not cool. 

While so many football writers and commentators fawn over the feats of Rodgers and Brees, Moon cooly, calmly and without event, threw 70,613 yards in the CFL and NFL combined. He was one of the purest, most elegant passers ever, who spiraled the ball as if it was on a spindle. And he did it repeatedly. If that doesn't steal the head cheerleader's attention, I don't know what will.

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