Peyton Manning is a genius. He's also a pain in the ass.

The stadium scene.
Feb. 4 2010 4:20 PM

Peyton Manning Is a Genius

The Super Bowl quarterback is also a huge pain in the ass.

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Peyton Manning. Click image to expand.
Peyton Manning

A common theme in virtually every profile of Peyton Manning is the Super Bowl quarterback's legendary devotion to football. At age 12, he exhorted his pee-wee linemen to block harder. He started deconstructing NFL game video in high school. He arrived at college six weeks early to work out with upperclassmen. A few days after the Indianapolis Colts made him the first pick of the 1998 draft, he had the team playbook memorized. He orders rookies to meet him on the field at 8 a.m. the Monday after they are drafted. He falls asleep watching tape in the basement of his Indianapolis home; his wife slips the remote from his hand. Isn't that sweet?

Then there's Manning's line-of-scrimmage foot-stomping, finger-pointing, signal-shouting choreography. It looks like an act, a bluff, deliberate misdirection—and it often is. It also looks like a twitch that jibes with the nonfootball personality quirks Manning is said to possess. Manning doesn't know how to work a can opener. Manning needs to look at Polaroids of shirt-slacks-and-tie combos in order to get dressed. And there's this, from a 2001 interview with Dan Patrick, who asked Manning for a "trivia question" about himself:

Manning: Why does Peyton Manning lick his fingers after every play or throw?

Patrick: Yeah, I've noticed. What's that, a signal or a good luck thing?

Manning: Nope. The finger lick is just a really bad habit—I do it all the time. My wife, Ashley, is going to kill me if I do it at dinner one more time. I look like an animal about to dig in.

Patrick: Wait, you do it at dinner?

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Paging Dr. Sacks! If Manning weren't a star athlete, you might tally his social foibles and physical tics, lay them beside his 3.0 GHz mind, and conclude that the dude has obsessive-compulsive disorder. A more plausible lay diagnosis is obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. The difference? People with OCD want to stop a particular behavior; people with OCPD don't. "With Peyton Manning, he clearly doesn't want to stop doing what he wants to do," says Lennard Davis, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of Obsession: A History.

And neither do football fans. After a tenth 4,000-yard passing season, a career-best 68.8 completion percentage, and a chance to win his second Super Bowl ring this Sunday in Miami, it's time to state the obvious: Yes, Peyton Manning is obsessive. But he's also a genius.

The two go throwing-hand in football-glove. It's understood that extraordinary athletes like Manning and Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods are freaks. But they're respected freaks because they do something valued by society. As opposed to, say, David Gibson, a South Carolina math teacher who studied word lists four hours a day every day for 12 years to become a champion Scrabble player. If Manning did that—or stomped his feet and licked his fingers while watching Jersey Shore all day—we might not be so interested.

Like those other elite jocks, Manning has the attributes of what Malcolm Gladwell has called the popular definition of genius: obsession (notebooks filled with observations on offenses and defenses), isolation (a darkened video room), and insight (a second-half evisceration of the New York Jets' defense in the AFC Championship Game). The 18th-century writer and naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, quoted in Nobel-winning neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal's 1916 book Advice for a Young Investigator, put it even more neatly: "Genius is simply patience carried to the extreme."

As the privileged son of an NFL quarterback, Manning the genius is no "outlier." But his genius isn't innate, either; with his Opie face and boyishly parted, short, brown hair, Manning looks more like a dentist than an NFL superstar at first glance. In his forthcoming book The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong, David Shenk tells the story of how Ted Williams would use his lunch money to pay friends to shag baseballs so he could keep hitting. The point: Like other brilliant obsessives from Mozart to Newton to Darwin to Bird to Manning, Williams worked harder than everyone else. He hated when people described him as a natural. "Why wouldn't he?" Shenk says.

Of course, Williams, like most geniuses, was a pain in the ass, forever yammering about the science of hitting and interrogating great hitters about technique. Teammates grew weary of him, and fans resented his obvious disdain for them. Manning isn't a public grump like Williams, cultivating as he has—to the tune of $13 million a year in endorsement income—an image as a self-deprecating dork. But that doesn't mean he's any easier to work with (or for) than the curmudgeonly Teddy Ballgame.

"He lives, eats, breathes, smokes, snorts, chews football," says Adam Meadows, a starter on the Colts' offensive line during Manning's first five pro seasons. "He's just a machine. That's all he wants to do. I think he expects other people to approach it the way he does. It's not always a good thing."

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