This is a story of sibling rivalry, and it begins with a confession: I’m an NFL junkie. This surprises people. Let’s face it, I’m supposed to be a bookish sort of guy. A writer – and not even a sportswriter. Moreover, I’m a stage dad of an only daughter. There are not a lot of guys whose presets on their car’s Sirius radio are the National Football League station and the Broadway channel. But that is indeed the case in my car.
How profound is my football addiction? I’ll even watch those Thursday night games with the Jacksonville Jaguars. For a long litany of reasons, I’m not proud of this obsession. The most important one, certainly, is the connection between the sport and traumatic brain injuries. But there are others: Football’s gladiatorial self-importance. Its needless sideline sexism. Its celebration of violence.
Now, I happen to be a diehard New York Giants fan. That means I’m spoiled. Two Super Bowl victories in the last six seasons. Most years, the Giants are in contention. This fall? Not so much. It’s almost November and they haven’t won a single game. So, if there has been a silver lining in the unwatchable ineptitude that has marked the current Giants’ season, it is this: I am no longer as tightly tethered to my television set most autumn Sunday afternoons.
As a result, my home will be winterized before Christmas. This old house’s old windows are already caulked, the storms yanked and tugged into place. The hoses have been brought inside and the gardens have been put to bed. The piles of dead cluster flies in the attic have been vacuumed.
Yup, these days it’s more pleasant to vacuum up cluster flies than it is to watch the Giants.
But here is why this season has been particularly frustrating for me and here is that sibling story that vexes me like a hangnail: Many of the Giants’ failings have been the fault of their quarterback, Eli Manning. He might shatter the barometer of quarterbacking ineptitude by setting a new record for interceptions. Now, unless you have been living on Mars, you know that Eli is the younger brother of Broncos quarterback, Peyton Manning. While Eli is having the kind of year that gets a person parodied in the “The New York Post,” Peyton is savoring the sort of season that athletes have in Xbox videogame recreations. He is unstoppable.
Peyton is roughly five years older than Eli. My brother is five years older than me. Consequently, I have always had a younger brother’s loyalty to Eli. I won’t burden you with all of my sibling demons, but when I am staring up at a shadowy bedroom ceiling at three in the morning, I see all sorts of parallels between these two brotherly relationships. I contemplate the inexorable brisance of birth order, subjecting my personality flaws and professional failures to the sort of armchair psychology that makes sense only to an insomniac. I hear once more in my mind my mother’s voice when she would call my brother, “Perfect Person.” She was, in all fairness, being sarcastic. But the truth is I spent the first quarter-century of my life trying to be him.
I know lots of little brothers who, like me, love their older brothers so very, very much that they wobble like those weighted, inflatable toy clowns between abject veneration and lionesque competition. It’s Shakespearean. The younger brother may win the occasional battle, but he never wins the war. Never. Even if he takes a tennis match (which I never did against my brother), there remain all those comparisons from when one of you was five and one was ten. Moreover, toppling the king brings its own tectonic tremors.
And so this autumn I have watched the Nascar flameout that is Eli and the Formula One perfection that is Peyton.
Meanwhile, my brother? As the older sibling, he is all but oblivious to the parallel. The other day he sent me a short text when we were talking about Eli and Peyton that exuded wisdom and decency and perspective – and that zeroed in on the family dynamic that as the little brother I’d conveniently managed to disregard: “How’d you like to be the Manning parents watching two sons this season?”
Trust me: The next Manning family reunion will be filled with love. But it will also be awkward.
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on October 20, 2013. Chris’s new novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” was published in July.)