The subject, bleary-eyed and squinting, rubs at his considerable brow and sits upright. Looking around, he sees nothing but a glinting white. He reaches into his pocket and applies dabs of eye black to his cheeks and monolithic forehead.
“Hello,” says a voice, far-off but intimate, powerful yet soothingly gentle.
“Howdy,” says Peyton, reflexively turning on his corporate-spokesman tone, the very timbre of his voice itself offering a handshake and 50 percent off qualifying Papa John’s orders with a Broncos win. But the disembodied speaker is not starstruck by Peyton like most Americans or his brother Eli, and cannot be manipulated by elementary social cues.
“I don’t need pizza, Peyton,” the voice advises.
“Well that’s just silly, everyone needs delicious Papa John’s pizza,” Peyton rebukes him or her with a slight upturn of a smile, patting at his pockets to check the new balance in his account. “After all, Better Ingredients, Better…”
The voice booms like Vince Wilfork’s ass clapping together. “I am not here to buy your urinal-trough pizza, nor do I even experience the sensation of hunger. Do you know where you are, Peyton?”
For the first time, Manning considers his surroundings. Shimmering, sterile white fills a dimensionless void in every direction. There is no sign of life, nor anything other than a smothering, core-deep whiteness.
“No, Peyton. You’ve died.”
“I’m dead?” Peyton screams.
“Yes. But you’re not ready yet to ascend or…ahem, get sacked, as it were.”
“So then, that means…”
“That this is…”
“That’s right. Welcome to Nebraska. It’s busier than you expected, huh?” Peyton gazes around him, suddenly feeling dizzy at the staggering audit of his life’s worth and significance being presented to him. Infinity is a hard defense to read.
“How did I die?” he finally manages.
“Really? You had neck surgery, then rejoined a sport definitively linked to head trauma.”
“God! So, who…-”
Peyton considers all this, then begins to panic.
“But what about the Super Bowl next month? What about my legacy, and my teammates, and my unfinished work! There were at least a half-dozen other endorsements I could have crammed in! Summer’s Eve and Subaru were both knocking on my door, and I was working on a cross-promotional tagline! Something about not letting your ‘Outback’ be your ‘Legacy…’”
“Peyton, there is no need for endorsements any longer. I have brought you here to tell you something very important.”
“Eli’s not elite, I know.”
“Well, duh. But that’s not it. It concerns the future of football itself, and the safety of all those who play it.”
“Seriously, I don’t know why I’m here instead of Vontaze Burfict.”
“No!” the voice roars, its infinite patience beginning to fray. “I have a message for you to deliver to the world, and I fear you may be the only one to whom they will listen.”
“Nationwide said the same thing.”
Suddenly, the voice begins to transmute planes of existence and states of matter themselves to become a shining light, filling Peyton’s vision with a ring of incomprehensible beauty and unconditional peace. Peyton tries to audible out of the encounter, but it is too late. Glowing light overtakes his whole consciousness with a blinding flash.
Peyton awakens, sputtering and bewildered, feverish and clammy, white and old. He looks around to gather his bearings and finds himself standing at a podium, microphones held out before him like so many omnidirectional trout. Defaulting to standard reboot procedure, he searches his brain for the name of the product he is surely meant to be shilling, but no Brand™ comes to mind. Instead, he feels his lips beginning to quiver of their own wiggly accord, forming something that, God help him, sounds like words. Babbling like an infant behind the wheel of a vehicle he can no longer control, Peyton does the only thing he can do: he leans in, places his lips mere millimeters from the microphone, and in a sort of prayer, says:
“Cam Newton is a badass and the Panthers jerseys are cool.”
Jason Rogers is a writer specializing in athlete near-death experiences. You should follow him on Twitter.