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Amy Donaldson: Peyton Manning helped me see that enjoying the journey is what being a sports fan is all about

Published: Sunday, Jan. 13 2013 6:44 p.m. MST

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) reacts after throwing a touchdown pass to Denver Broncos defensive tackle Mitch Unrein (96) against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)

Joe Mahoney, AP

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Intelligent adults blaming themselves for the failure of people they've never met, people who are competing in games most us have never played?

We must be talking about fans.

Only in the world of sports would people berate themselves for wearing the wrong shirt, washing their lucky socks, or failing to eat the same meal they consumed the last time their team won.

The life of a genuine sports fan is painfully frustrating.

They have no control, although they try desperately to do something that will make a difference — including adhering to superstitions, buying overpriced tickets, painting their faces, and screaming and yelling like someone on the field (or the TV) can actually hear them.

When the outcome favors their team, they are elated, buoyed and emboldened. They gloat, brag, and, on occasion, graciously offer praise for the efforts of the players bested by their team.

And yet, when the game ends badly, fans are heartbroken, emotionally spent and mired in depression that can last for weeks — just as if it was them vying for a spot on that million-dollar roster.

If examined from afar, it has to seem like one of the most futile investments of time possible.

So why do we invest so much time and energy into cheering for — and getting crushed because of — the performances of athletes?

Luckily, my job has squashed most of the fan that used to move me to buy jerseys, spend a year's savings on playoff tickets and actually pray for one team to win over another. It was difficult caring so much about the successes and defeats of others.

However, 14 years ago, changing assignments at the Deseret News saved me from myself. Moving to the sports department, I hung up my John Elway jersey and told myself I no longer cared about the Broncos.

Growing up in Alaska had forced me to adopt teams from other cities when I was kid, so I told myself it wasn't that hard to look away. Most of the time I managed by choosing to focus instead on great players, great plays and great moments. It's easy to admire what the much-maligned Joe Flacco just did for Baltimore if you aren't heartbroken for the team you've loved most of your life.

I reserved just one loyalty from my pre-sportswriting days — Peyton Manning. At first, I think it was because he looked a little like my brother and had that Southern charm. But over and over he's the one athlete I cheer for — on and off the field.

And then he signed with Denver. I was, of course, thinking like a fan when I considered this might be divine intervention. And while I've made no secret of my affection and admiration for him, as a player and a person, I refused to get sucked into the drama of his comeback season.

It was the win streak of the last two-and-a-half months that did it.

I let down my guard and I began to slip back into my old ways. In the week leading up to Saturday's game against Baltimore, I couldn't be objective when analysts discussed Manning's losing playoff game record. I was even offended when someone joked about him being unable to win when the temperature dipped below freezing.

I was free falling, and it ended, as all fans fear it will, with the most bitter disappointment possible — a double-overtime loss.

I was listening to the final minutes on the radio and my daughter had asked to change the dial to music. At first I obliged, hoping that if I pretended not to care, fate would favor the Broncos.

But 15 seconds into her favorite new song, I freaked out. I switched back to the game. I listened as Manning threw an interception, and then a guy named Justin Tucker kicked a 47-yard field goal that broke my heart.

I turned off the radio and sharply suggested my daughter not make any noise. When I got home my husband was eager to discuss the game and I warned him not to go there. I could not consider what might have been; I could not discuss what went wrong.

As my family moved on around me, I was sinking.

Everything was painful, especially watching San Francisco run away from Green Bay.

And then I saw a picture on Twitter that reminded me why fans subject themselves to the long-distance disappointment of loving a sports team — year in and year out.

It was a picture of Manning talking to Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis more than an hour after the game had ended. Manning, his wife and son had waited until Lewis finished his lengthy media interviews so they could congratulate Lewis, who will be retiring at the end of this season.

Being a fan offers us a break from reality (sometimes too much so). But for a few hours, even the most unathletic among us can be part of something special. We can watch athletes do things no one thought they could and feel an appreciation, a connection. It inspires and moves us to do a little better in our own lives.

In watching something special, we feel like our lives are enriched, even just for a few minutes.

Intellectually, we know we really don't have an impact on what happens on the field of play. But emotionally, we wonder, we hope and, just in case, we believe.

And the smartest fans learn something from the games, from the players, from the wins and from the losses. As I looked at that picture, I felt silly for refusing to talk to my family after Denver's loss. If the man threw that interception could muster sincere congratulations for one of the men responsible for his crushing disappointment, certainly I could keep the game in proper perspective.

Life is full of big disappointments mitigated by small victories. We win more than we lose. Some of us hurt more than we smile. We all make mistakes; we all fail.

But if we just keep playing, continue learning and find a way to see the blessings in the bleakest moments, we can, on occasion, feel the exhilaration of some magical moments.

Twitter: adonsports

Email: adonaldson@desnews.com

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