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A thank-you letter to Peyton Manning, from a grateful daughter

Watching Peyton Manning for what might have been the last time unearthed more than just feelings of victory during the big game. It’s been a long road for him, and knowing that the Super Bowl may have been the end of his journey as a player was an especially bittersweet feeling for me.

I’m obsessed with all things football, always have been. I realize I’m not the only woman on the planet who loves the game. There are a lot of us out there who watch the game for reasons other than halftime shows, and I’m thankful to have befriended quite a few of them. I’m not the only one who yells at the TV or practices strange rituals for good luck, and I highly doubt I’m the only one who considered naming my children after my favorite quarterback.

But then again, there are those people out there who think I’m a total nut job for loving a sport as deeply as I do. They think I’m crazy for getting so emotionally involved in this game and question my sobriety as a result of my profanity-laced rants pertaining to bad calls or missed catches. And I guess I get it. From the outside looking in, I might appear to be an emotionally unstable person while watching football, but as with many aspects of life, there is more to my story than what meets the eye.

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I moved in with my dad when I was 10 years old, after my mom lost her battle with breast cancer. The majority of my life has been spent trying to find common ground with this single, Southern, God-fearing, military man that is my dad. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t some trying times between us, but we got through it thanks in part to finding some very unexpected common ground.

My dad loves four things: America, motorcycles, family and football. I myself have always been a tomboy and have never met a sport I didn’t immediately love — especially football. What my dad and I lacked in the basic understanding of each other, we gained in a mutual love of the game.

I grew up in an orange euphoria of football. Game days were always at our house. My dad grilled steaks and invited everyone over to watch the Tennessee games. Being from Tennessee, we bleed orange and sing “Rocky Top” every chance we get. We named our pets Rocky and Smokey, and we painted the waterslide of our pool in Tennessee orange. To true fans, this was not at all strange but rather a sign of the devout love we harbored for Tennessee football.

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This weekend tradition began during Peyton Manning’s era at the University of Tennessee. Watching him play served as a buffer between my dad and me as we recovered from the tragedy of losing my mom and dipped our toes into the unfamiliar territory of our new relationship. Peyton’s games proved to be the common ground we so desperately needed to acquaint ourselves with our new normal.

There was just something about Peyton Manning that had us enthralled. Not only was he insanely talented, but he was also humble and kind. He’s as great a person off the field as he is on it, and watching him play throughout the years gifted my dad and me with a bond we might not have had if it weren’t for him.

It’s been more than a decade since I’ve lived with my dad. In that time I have graduated college, gotten married and had two children of my own (yes, I considered naming them Peyton), but not a single weekend has gone by without my dad and me recapping all of Peyton’s games. To this day, the love of watching Manning play is a tie we continue to share. It has gotten us through many trying times and has posed as a light during some of our darkest days.

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Last night I watched what might have been Peyton Manning’s last game as a quarterback in the NFL. I’d be lying if I said this didn’t have me choked up for the better part of the day. I, as many others, have been watching Manning throw the perfect spiral for the last 20 years of my life. Hearing him shout “Omaha” has become an integral part of my life, and witnessing him claim record after record has been a true pleasure.

Elated with the Super Bowl win, I took to social media to profess my unending admiration for this man whom I’ve never even met. While my words mostly garnered support, they also brought about the typical bewilderment of the people who just don’t share the same love of the game.

“Why do you care so much?” some of them asked. “It’s just a game.”

Yes, football is a game, and there are certainly more pressing issues in the world than Deflategate. Our world is at war. People die at the hands of bullets and illness and famine every day. There’s more than enough material on the news to jerk a few tears out of me, and though I’m beyond thankful for my freedoms and my rights, that doesn’t mean I don’t also bear a few burdens.

More than a few, actually, and it is for that very reason football isn’t just a game for me.

My dad was recently diagnosed with cancer, and we have slowly but steadily watched the deterioration of our other loved ones’ health in the past several years. We’ve lost some of the people who were most dear to us, and said goodbye to people long before we were prepared to do so. We have met more than our fair share of tragedy throughout our lives, and as cheesy as it may sound, football has helped us to heal from our many wounds.

For me at least, this healing all started with watching Peyton Manning. For a few hours every weekend, my mind wandered from the dark corner that housed the loss of my mom to the excitement of watching Peyton perfect the game. And last night, for a few hours, my dad didn’t have to think about the fact that he has cancer. Instead he got to watch his favorite player work his magic and go out in the most perfect way possible.

So to Peyton Manning, I’ve got to say, thank you. Thank you for getting my dad and me through some of the toughest of times. Thank you for being the light during the darkest of days. Thank you for all you have done for my family, for the game, for the fans, and thank you for being a true example of kindness and integrity.

Thank you for bringing all of us on this incredible journey with you, and thank you for being an example that all of us can aspire to be. There will never be another like you.

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