Irk them at your own risk.
Both Manning and Lewis are champions. The Pro Football Hall of Fame has space reserved for both players. Both men are so fiercely intense competitors, their stares alone can melt a teammate’s soul.
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Take your pick: Lewis or Manning. Which guy would you be smarter to tick off?
“Well … I don’t know,” Denver wide receiver Brandon Stokley said. “I think I wouldn’t want to make either one of them mad. On the football field, they’re both the type of player that seems like the madder they get, the better they play.”
Consider yourself warned from a man with first-hand experience. When Stokley entered the league in 1999, he joined Lewis in Baltimore. From 2003-2006, Stokley caught passes from Manning in Indianapolis.
The NFL casting department portrays quarterbacks as brainier than Stephen Hawking and linebackers as tougher than Dirty Harry.
Lewis, however, is one smart football player. And, when irritated, Manning can flash such an intimidating yippee-ki-yay glare that you know he watched “Die Hard” growing up.
Is it really fair to compare a linebacker to a quarterback?
“He reminds me of Peyton,” Stokley said. “He raises the level of everybody’s play up.”
And heaven help the teammate who doesn’t meet the requirements of Manning or Lewis.
“You won’t be on that team very long,” Stokley said.
Time and again this week, Denver players have uttered the word “physical” when paying respect to the Ravens. It’s a Baltimore calling card, established nearly two decades ago by Lewis, whose intensity is contagious.
“Put your hands on ’em and let’s play!” Lewis growls to a defensive teammate before kickoff in a classic NFL video. “Let’s see if they can play physical football!”
Across sports, from Michael Jordan to Patrick Roy to Lance Armstrong, there seems to be one trait shared among superstars more often than any single physical attribute. It’s an almost unhealthy obsession with winning.
What Manning and Lewis share is respect born of an intensity that’s rare even among that prime cut of athletes in the 99.9 percentile at the top of their game.
“His intensity and passion, it’s real. I’ve always kind of kidded: Ray is just as intense and passionate in the fourth quarter of the fourth preseason game as he is in the first quarter of a playoff game,” Manning said. “It’s real. That’s pretty special and that’s pretty unique. Some guys can turn it on in big games. He always has it on.”
Lewis is 37 years old. You know he’s heard the whispers. One of the greatest linebackers of all time is done. After tearing a triceps in late October, he is desperately trying to get back on the field for this game against the Broncos, with playoff seeding on the line.
At age 36, Manning has returned Denver to relevancy in the Super Bowl discussion and made a strong argument as a MVP candidate. His pain from being cut by the Colts was a real as anything endured through four neck surgeries that put his playing career at risk.
The NFL star with whom Manning seems forever linked is Tom Brady. They have instigated a million barstool debates: Which quarterback would you take?
But maybe the real rivalry here is offense against defense.
Manning vs. Lewis.
I pity the fool who steps between them.
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