Proprioception: What I Owe Peyton Manning

Here’s the math. A guitarist playing a four-set gig in an instrumental trio will perform more than 100 precise clamping motions with the left hand every minute, and a total of maybe 30,000 before it’s time to pack up for the night.

That was part of a sales pitch to my neurologists a while ago. For the second time, I had dramatic loss of strength and coordination in the fretboard hand. For all I knew, I was staring down the prospect of losing my ability to play guitar forever.

I’d learned to suspect the nerves that operate the hand and fingers. Before it was over, I’d met with five doctors – neurologists and orthopedic surgeons–and a roster of nurses and technicians. The diagnosis: a rare condition called Multifocal Motor Neuropathy. I had surgery the first time and a string of seven-hour days at an infusion center the second time. It was getting depressing.

Then, one night in 2014, I saw Peyton Manning on The Late Show with David Letterman. Let’s get one thing straight right now. I am not a big enough fool to compare myself to Peyton Manning. I just want to thank him for what he did in that interview.

Describing his recovery from surgeries, Manning told Letterman, “I’m not 100% compared to what I was before. These nerves just go at their own pace. People who had nerve surgery told me, ‘any day you could wake up and that could be the day.’ So, you wake up excited every morning at 7 a.m., and you’re depressed about noon. Today’s not the day.”

When he first returned to practice after surgery, Manning trusted only his father, NFL Hall of Famer Archie Manning, to watch his throwing motion. “My dad always said I could throw a pass sort of naturally. Here I am, 35 years old, and I couldn’t pick it up and throw it like I used to. It was weak. I’d lost my awareness of my arm in space, kinda proprioception issues. I used to sit in front of a mirror and go through my throwing motion, trying to get the feel back, the way I’d always thrown before.”

Peyton got it from the patient’s point of view, at a time when nothing my doctors said had come close to capturing the experience of having fingers that suddenly wouldn’t work. Now look–if I play a clanker chord in the B section of the bridge, third tune in the second set, it’s a few million miles away from Manning throwing a fourth-quarter interception to Tajuan Law of the Patriots.  But that didn’t matter to me at the moment. I was watching an elite athlete talk about a significant setback in coordination and capability, and handle it with determination and frankness.

Manning also mentioned that when proprioception fails because of nerve damage, the brain can use visual inputs to get the information it needs to tell the nerve what to do. I got out a magic marker and made a sign for the inside cover of my band book: Watch The Fretboard.

I’m still covering four-set gigs as a bandleader in the downtown San Jose, California jazz scene, and my band mates say it sounds ok. Not too different from before.

What do I say? I liked the analogy that Peyton Manning gave Dave Letterman.

“I’m like an experienced major league pitcher. Maybe I can’t throw the hundred-mile-an-hour fastball any more. But, I can still strike you out!”