INDIANAPOLIS — Peyton Manning’s passion for football runs through his veins.
His dad played, his older brother played, his younger brother still plays and now Peyton is working feverishly to return to the family business.
There’s no doubt Manning wants to come back in 2012, the question is whether it’s too risky for a 35-year-old quarterback with three neck surgeries in less than two years to keep playing such a violent sport.
“If he is healthy and he is pain free, I’d let him play, knowing there’s a slightly elevated risk (of a different disk injury),” said Dr. Anders Cohen, chief of neurosurgery and spine surgery at The Brooklyn Hospital Center. “Even a person off the street with this type of surgery has an elevated risk of an adjacent disk injury. He (Manning) might have a slightly higher risk than the person off the street, but you have to offset that against the fact that he’s a superior athlete.”
Cohen has not treated Manning but knows the procedure and recovery process well. The surgeon makes an incision in the front of the neck, removes the soft disk tissue between two vertebrae and fuses the bones together with a graft. Normally, it takes three to four months for the bones to firmly heal.
Manning needed the surgery to fix a damaged nerve that was causing weakness in his throwing arm.
Why would Manning give up his football career?
He doesn’t need money. Since entering the league as the No. 1 overall pick in the 1998 draft, Manning has signed three contracts with the Colts worth a total of $236 million and earned millions more in endorsements.
He doesn’t crave fame. Manning doesn’t even use the popular social networking sites and has increasingly done his charity work behind the scenes.
He doesn’t have to build a Hall of Fame resume. Manning already owns one Super Bowl ring more than inductees such as Dan Fouts, Dan Marino and Fran Tarkenton, and Manning ranks third all-time in touchdown passes and yards passing.
Plus, he has two more reasons to worry: being healthy enough to play with his new twins.
“Last week’s decision on my CT scan and the X-rays, the doctors’ interpretation, was a good sign for my overall health and that was important to me,” Manning said recently. “Ashley and I have new twins, have 8-month-old twins, and it’s important for me to be in good health to play with them, to roll around on the floor and have some fun, so that was encouraging to me. The football thing will answer itself in the next few months.”
It’s clear the Colts still want to keep their franchise quarterback, too.
Indy holds a $28 million option that must be paid to Manning in early March or he could become a free agent. The team could also redo the contract to make it more salary-cap friendly and perhaps keep some of Manning’s pals around in 2012.
On Thursday, team owner Jim Irsay said health, not money, will dictate whether Manning is still playing with the Colts in 2012.
“I don’t see (money) being the issue. I paid him $26 million this year, and he didn’t play,” Irsay told NFL Network. “I knew it was an iffy situation going (into the season). In terms of if he’s healthy and if he’s ready to play, I see him back with us.”
Still, there are risks.
Over his lifetime, Manning runs a 15 to 20 percent chance of injuring a disk directly above or below the two that were fused in September, Cohen said.
Dr. Andrew Hecht, director of spine surgery at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, concurs with Cohen’s assessment though he said Manning runs no greater risk of injury than any other player on the field. Hecht has not treated Manning either, but has worked with Jets players.
“I have no concerns at all,” Hecht said. “There are numerous players playing in the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NHL and professional basketball that have had successful one-level fusions in the neck. If it’s solidly fused, there’s no risk. Any (player) can have an injury at another level, but so can anybody else.”
But finding comparisons to Manning’s case is tough. Few athletes rely exclusively on throwing a ball and even fewer have performed at such a high level for more than a decade.
Until this injury, it didn’t seem anything could slow Indy’s franchise quarterback.
Two years ago, he led the Colts to a 14-0 start, the second Super Bowl appearance of the Indianapolis era and collected his record fourth Most Valuable Player award. Last season, with injured players going down all around him, Manning essentially willed the Colts to a seventh AFC South title in eight years and within one defensive stop of advancing in the playoffs.
This year, without Manning, it took 14 games just to get a win, but there has been promising news in recent weeks.
On Dec. 1, Manning was told the bones had healed and he could begin increasing his workout activity. On Dec. 14, he pulled on his pads, strapped on a helmet and walked onto the practice field for a workout. He took snaps from center Jeff Saturday and threw passes to running back Joseph Addai, receiver Anthony Gonzalez and another receiver as team vice chairman Bill Polian and coach Jim Caldwell watched.
Polian and Addai both gave good reviews.
Those who know Manning best have few doubts he’ll be back in a No. 18 jersey in 2012.
“Yeah, I think he’ll play if he’s healthy,” said Saturday, one of Manning’s closest friends. “The guy loves the game.”