This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Aug. 20 College Football 2018 Issue. Subscribe today!
Forty years after his death, Ulysses S. Grant, the former Union Army general and two-term POTUS, was immortalized with a statue on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning? He got his statue outside Lucas Oil Stadium less than two years after retiring.
First, though, he had to pose. And so in August 2016, five months into his post-NFL life, the quarterback was in Nashville, Tennessee, standing for sculptor Ryan Feeney inside a small office at a private airport. After joking about his vital signs -- "Thought you had to be dead to get a statue," Manning mumbled -- the former Colts QB, already memorialized at Tennessee with a road named after him, tugged on his full NFL uniform one last time. Knowing the image would be captured in bronze forever, Manning made sure it was perfect, down to the tiniest detail.
The jersey came straight from the Colts museum. The wristbands were game-ready. And when Feeney told him that the knee brace probably wasn't necessary, that he was in no danger of getting sacked by one of his assistants, Manning knelt down and strapped it on anyway. "I've always worn it," he said, looking up. "It's a part of me."
Over the next hour, inside the cramped space, Manning posed for a series of photos and measurements -- while dropping back, throwing the ball to a Colts equipment manager and re-creating his revolutionary work at the line by pointing at an office plant in the corner. "52's the Mike," he yelled at the dracaena as Feeney studied him. Calling audibles, Manning even yelled "apple" instead of the trademark "Omaha!" call he used in Denver, because that was the terminology he used as a Colt.
In return for his diligence, the quarterback requested two favors of artistic license. He wanted the statue to capture his 25-year-old self, and he preferred to keep his helmet on. More authentic and aesthetically pleasing, he thought.
After their session, Feeney, who doubles as an Indianapolis firefighter, toiled for the next 16 months on the piece, making adjustments as small as half an inch while hiding the statue in a brewery next to his studio.
He worked around the clock, not wanting to add to the rapidly growing pantheon of awful sports sculptures that make New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz's proclamation that "95 percent of all public sculpture is crap" seem rather generous.
"No pressure at all," he'd laugh. "A statue's only forever, right?"
THE ART STUDIO of sculptors Omri Amrany and Julie Rotblatt Amrany is situated just north of Chicago, inside what used to be the theater of the old Fort Sheridan army base. Since the 1994 unveiling of The Spirit, their iconic, gravity-defying Michael Jordan statue at the United Center, the Amranys have been one of the main forces behind the spread of sports statues, having completed more than 250 commissioned works. In their studio, among the smell of damp clay and the sizzling sounds of an acetylene torch, you'll find remnants from the Jordan project stacked scattershot next to half-finished busts, molds and various parts of Shaq, Vince Lombardi, Pat Tillman, Gordie Howe, Ty Cobb, Harry Caray and many others.
"We are making the future history of the country," says Omri, walking through a maze of his creations that haunt the space like a cold storage room from Westworld. "To study a culture, you study the statues. So I want to create artwork that people will come back to in the future to study what happened to us, just like we study Leonardo da Vinci today."
There's no lack of source material. Once statues were commissioned only to recognize the iconic. Today's era of hero worship has turned the civic art form into a kind of Oprah-esque exercise. You get a statue! You get a statue! You get a statue!
Perhaps no sport rivals college football for its rapid anointment of heroes. Sure, MLB has gone from nine statues in 1998 to 105 two decades later, and the NFL has recently immortalized Manning, Ray Lewis' pregame dance, Steve Gleason's blocked punt and Tillman's iconic Sports Illustrated cover. But college football is in the midst of a historic bust boom. Since 2006, the SEC alone has thrown up 31 monuments, ranging from Nick Saban to E. King Gill (he's the original 12th man at Texas A&M). Two years ago, TCU put up a monument for coach Gary Patterson, whose résumé for immortality includes a 2002 Conference USA title and, it seems, a willingness to stay put in Fort Worth. In Austin, there are as many monuments to honor megadonors (two) as Heisman Trophy winners. At the University of Houston, there's even a 1,400-pound sculpture celebrating Shasta I, the school's first live cougar mascot. In Texas, major universities and professional sports teams have, in the past 15 years, commissioned, forged and dedicated 21 statues, which works out to a "once-in-a-lifetime" kind of honor every eight months or so.
All of these sports statues, especially those honoring the living, exist at a tricky intersection of athletic achievement, idolatry and artistic values-a combination that often produces controversy. Just ask Portugal's Ronaldo. In 2014, Funchal, Madeira, unveiled a monument to its hometown hero that featured what Cosmopolitan magazine bluntly described as, well, a "massive penis bulge." A few years later, Portugal tried again with a bronzed bust that somehow managed to make the handsome soccer star look more like an old Wii avatar suffering from life-threatening gingivitis and an engorged snood. It was the strangest statue ever seen ... until a few months later when the Carolina Panthers dedicated a Siegfried & Roy-inspired sculpture of then-owner (and now-disgraced) Jerry Richardson vamping between two snarling cartoon-muscled cats.
"If I had to use one word, I would tell you: hate. It just made my job harder." TCU coach Gary Patterson, about his own statue, unveiled in 2016
But questionable artistic choices aren't nearly as problematic as a more fundamental choice: who is statue-worthy to begin with. In the same way that Confederate monuments have exposed ugly truths about what was once considered heroic, the proliferation of sports statues has uncovered deep-seated biases that remain in sports.
A shockingly small number of statues, for example, honor African-Americans -- of the 165 (and rising) statues in MLB, the SEC and Texas mentioned above, less than 20 percent honor black athletes or coaches. And one of the most important of all the statues, of tennis legend and civil rights pioneer Arthur Ashe, has a controversial backdrop. In 1996, Ashe became the first African-American to be enshrined on Monument Avenue in his native Richmond, Virginia. The artwork depicts Ashe, who grew up in the segregated South, presenting books to children, but it is noticeably smaller and out of the way of the monuments dedicated to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and other Civil War figures.
Women have even worse representation than African-Americans. In fact, Tennessee Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt, Olympian Wilma Rudolph and tennis pioneer Althea Gibson are some of the only known sports statues of women in America. To cite one of many slights: The University of Florida has a statue of a cartoon alligator in a cheerleader outfit as well as ones immortalizing its Heisman Trophy winners, including Danny Wuerffel, who would go on to win a total of four NFL games. Fellow Gator and five-time Olympian Dara Torres? She has yet to be considered.
Then there's this dilemma: When you're working with materials that last forever and the trend is to build more statues of living subjects, mistakes can happen. Consider State College, Pennsylvania. Just before dawn on July 22, 2012, under heavy police presence, a crew of Penn State workers tore down the 7-foot, 900-pound statue of longtime coach Joe Paterno and moved it to a still-secret hiding place. In the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and an investigation that classified Paterno's response to Sandusky's crimes as "callous indifference," the 11-year-old statue had become the flashpoint of national outrage.
The debate over the statue reached a fever pitch just five days before its removal when an airplane flew over campus carrying the ominous banner: "Take the statue down or we will." JoePa's supporters still considered it a shrine and a point of support for Paterno, who died a few months after being fired in late 2011. But one of the homemade signs left at the statue offered an argument about the dangers of rushing to immortalize.
He was a man, not a god!!! the note read.
Charlotte, North Carolina, is also struggling with this distinction. Now that Richardson has been forced to sell the team and pay a $2.75 million fine for sexual and racial misconduct while running the Panthers, there is increasing public pressure to tear down his towering likeness. When the sale of the team was finalized on July 9, the Panthers posted a farewell letter (with no apology or reference to the scandal) from Richardson on Twitter. Fans immediately responded with memes of Saddam Hussein's statue being yanked down. New owner David Tepper later said that part of the sales agreement prohibits the removal of the Richardson statue. But even if a groundswell succeeds in pressuring Tepper to take down the monument, Richardson is still covered: He has another statue of himself just an hour west of Charlotte, on the campus of his alma mater, Wofford College, the Panthers' training camp site.
"After Paterno, the Panthers, Michigan State, it could be, moving forward, that there will be a reluctance to put statues up of living people until people can make sure they know who exactly they are honoring," says Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association.
Many of those living honorees are well aware of their own fallibility. At TCU, Patterson was immortalized before his 16th year as head coach -- while being mentioned as a candidate for nearly every major head-coaching vacancy. It was done as a favor to a prominent donor in poor health who wanted to see the completion of a monument garden outside Amon G. Carter Stadium. In fact, Patterson says, he's happy that his office is on the opposite side of the stadium so he doesn't have to walk by it every day. "If I had to use one word, I would tell you: hate," Patterson said after the unveiling in 2016. "People might say, 'Well, you've got a statue, you're accomplished.' To me, it just made my job harder. Now I have to live up to the statue."
Hall of Fame Georgia coach Vince Dooley has been feeling the same since 2008, when the school dedicated a garden and a bronze statue to commemorate Dooley's six SEC titles, the 1980 national title and 25 years as the school's athletic director. The sculpture of Dooley being carried off the field by his players stands about a mile from his home in Athens, across the street from his church. "A statue is a responsibility," says Dooley, 85. "At least I was retired. I would not have liked that if I was still coaching."
Seated inside his spacious den, packed with a lifetime's collection of honors, trinkets from around the world, degrees he's earned and books he's written, Dooley has been defending the importance of sports statues for the better part of an hour when, in midsentence, he slowly pushes himself out of his chair to help illustrate his point.
Growing up in Mobile, Alabama, Dooley would sneak into the back of a gambling parlor near his home on Jackson Street and eavesdrop on updates of the St. Louis Cardinals and their star Stan Musial as they were read aloud off the ticker tape. "Musial was the ideal person for me in the way that he balanced his life," Dooley says. "In studying him and admiring him from afar, he became a role model and a hero to me."
Dooley picks up an imaginary baseball bat, and his movements suddenly become light and effortless, childlike even. Eyes half-closed in a kind of euphoric dream state, Dooley collapses his right knee ever so slightly inward and tucks his chin so deep into his front shoulder that his eyes are the only visible part of his face. He holds the pose, waiting for the lesson to sink in about the significance of sports statues. It's Musial's batting stance, captured in a renowned work of bronze that has stood in St. Louis for more than half a century with an inscription Dooley recites with the reverence of a proverb: Here stands baseball's perfect warrior ... Here stands baseball's perfect knight. "It was always a dream of mine to go to St. Louis and see the Musial statue and connect with him, my hero, in that way," Dooley says. "And to this very day that statue reminds me and reconnects me to all of that. I'm emotional, just remembering it. That, to me, is what a statue should be."
AFTER THE UNVEILING in Indianapolis in October 2017, Feeney had an excruciating hourlong wait before getting the official word from the Manning family on his piece. During the ceremony, while thanking everyone involved in the project, Manning referred to the artist as "Ryan Freeney." Feeney had hoped no one noticed, but then a giggling Jeff Saturday, a former Colts center, poked his arm and mouthed "Freeney?" to him. Saturday told him not to read anything into the slight. Manning had, after all, played alongside the unforgettable Dwight Freeney for a decade.
Other signs seemed to indicate that Manning approved. After his speech, he stepped off the stage to take a slow, panoramic view of his likeness. The level of detail was stunning: the veins in his forearms, the wrinkle of his jersey, even the rivets in the Colts horseshoe logo were perfect. More impressive, still, was how Feeney was able to capture the midthrow coil of kinetic energy of Manning's motion in a way that felt like the statue might at any second hit Marvin Harrison streaking toward the state capitol.
Feeney knew that he made the right call to change the composition from "Peyton audibling" to "Peyton throwing" midway through the project -- and to stick with the helmet, which keeps pigeons from pooping on his prodigious forehead. The empty cast used to mold Manning's massive clay melon ended up weighing 91 pounds by itself and to this day sits on a shelf behind Feeney's studio desk. If nothing else, Feeney told himself as he prepared to leave the stadium, at least he had a great icebreaker for future clients: "Hey, I've got Peyton Manning's giant head in my office, wanna see it?"
After saying his goodbyes, Feeney was making his way toward his car when he felt a familiar hand on his shoulder. After studying those digits intensely every day for more than a year, the artist knew exactly whom they belonged to. It was a still-beaming Manning, asking for one more favor. His mom, Olivia, loved the statue and wanted to meet the artist.
"She said to me, 'Even if it was nighttime and totally dark and I couldn't see the name, I would know just by looking at it, that was my Peyton,'" Feeney says. "It's art, so it's going to be different in everyone's eyes. But mom's approval is about as good as you can get on a statue."