News and Tribune

October 21, 2013

HOWEY: Heroes and leaders through the Peyton prism

By BRIAN HOWEY
Indiana columnist

When I scan the Washington horizon, I see few, if any heroes, at least in their current stations.

There are good people who go there to change the world, then go native once they're in the club. They fail to accomplish the peoples' business.

Heroes are often presidents and generals. But in World War II, it was the grunts and captains who kept the destroyers running or took out the Nazi artillery. I remember the shoe store owner on my paper route in Peru, Ind., who had a limp. I later learned he did so because of the frostbite he sustained near Bastogne. I had a grade school classmate in Michigan City 50 years ago who told me harrowing, seemingly unbelievable tales that her family had endured. I later discovered she was a daughter of the Holocaust.

I watch members of the General Assembly name highways and bridges for their "heroic" members, when it's the troopers, deputies and EMTs who save lives on those berms and in the ditches.

I scanned the horizon for heroes as Peyton Manning came back to Indiana this weekend.

How can I compare a football quarterback to a Medal of Honor winner? Or to Rick Genth, the Elkhart firefighter who lost his life a generation ago trying to save people from a flash flood?

I do so when I ponder the other continents on our little planet. In many of these lands, the flesh and soil are torn by artillery and bomb-laden vests that sneak into crowded bazaars. Innocents are showered with sarin and mustard gas. 

In 2011, I had the rare opportunity of coming face-to-face with "Victory," the beautiful statute that stands atop the Soldiers & Sailors Monument in the heart of Indiana. She was disassembled at Stout Field, as artisans repaired the cracks in her bronze castings after standing over our state for 117 years.

It's appropriate that Victory stands astride a star-adorned ball while her flanks are guarded by statuary of Union soldiers. At about the time Victory was hoisted over Indianapolis' emerging industrial skyline, the wars on the North American continent drew to a close. Americans were to take up their domestic quarrels and settle issues of pride on Big Ten gridirons and basketball courts. The war between the states became New Years Day dramas between Notre Dame and Alabama, or Butler and Duke as March Madness churned into April. Indiana and Illinois don't shoot howitzers at each other. We shoot treys at our assembly halls. Our bombers are named Mount, Skiles, Alford and Macy.

The stars on the ball underneath Victory's foot in the minds of Hoosiers could be sports heroes named Robertson, Wooden, Bird and Miller. Or our patriots in the foreign battles we fight, Medal of Honor recipients named Antrim, Biddle, Shoup, Sterling and de la Garza, or a reporter named Pyle.

We project our values in our arenas where our athletes emerge from places like Plymouth, Bedford and French Lick.

On our benign fields of battle, individuals emerge who inspire us. Or agitate us. 

Some become transformative figures. Drew Brees left Purdue University only to rally a city and bring triumph a few years after the New Orleans Katrina catastrophe. There's Evansville native and Purdue grad Bob Griese, who suffered a broken leg and dislocated ankle in the fifth game of what would be an undefeated season for the Miami Dolphins. He would return that January and lead them to a Super Bowl.

 Knute Rockne still inspires legions of young athletes more than eight decades after a plane crash took him from Notre Dame. Bob Knight revived the glory at old IU, Brad Stevens brought the echoes of Tony Hinkle back to Butler.

The kids on the sandlots still imagine that bottom-of-the-ninth homer by Ron Kittle. Larry Bird epitomes the small town kid who found the Big 10 too big, then captured the heart of an entire nation . . .for decades. You can still go to Broad Ripple and have a beer with Bobby Plump.

We love the pugnacity of Tony Stewart, who not only toils at the legendary speedways at Daytona and Indy, but on the dirt tracks from Ohio to Iowa mid-week.

Those of us who were born and raised in the Region and across Northern Indiana know that NFL highlight reels of Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers, Walter Payton and Mike Ditka define the essence of toughness, speed, flexibility and true grit.

And then there's Peyton Manning. 

I walk out of my backdoor in Indianapolis and a block away stands Lucas Oil Stadium. Babe Ruth built Yankee Stadium, and Manning built the home of the Colts. Without him, Jimmy Irsay might well be tweeting from Los Angeles. Manning transformed Indiana from a basketball state, to one of a formidable gridiron stature that transcends all levels.  Just a few weeks ago, the Brown County Eagles played on a Friday night at Lucas Oil.

In Manning, we find a man who is focused, prepared and intellectually superior. And we love how he bends the minds of those who oppose him. We name hospitals in his honor. Some day his statue will stand outside this stadium.

With luck (pun intended), perhaps this generation of Hoosier leaders will borrow these attributes from those who inspire us on these fields of dreams .