In the spring of 1997 I was a sophomore at Alcoa High School taking honors English with Dr. Clark, who if she was reading this would probably comment on my questionable usage of commas. You know how some high schools have the one teacher who's supposed to prepare you for college? Meet Dr. Clark, whose reputation alone put the fear of God into young minds who only thought they were smart. She had a to-the-point way of letting you know you were wrong, and it probably wouldn't be the last time it would happen. And she made us all better writers.
She was also absolutely not going to let us watch a press conference during her class, despite our pleas for historical value and relevance (This same argument also failed us in a different class during the reading of the O.J. verdict. If you were a teacher, don't you think you'd let your kids watch the O.J. verdict?). There was historical value because there was no way the guaranteed number one overall pick in the NFL Draft would stay in school, right? And there was relevance because Peyton Manning was Peyton Manning.
But he wasn't quite Peyton Manning. Not yet. He had all the tools and all the potential and all the reasons to leave. He did not have a small army of children throughout East Tennessee who share his name who are old enough to drive today. He had the chance to win the argument as the best quarterback to ever play at Tennessee. He did not have a ring. He was the man. But he was not the legend. Not yet.
Don't let anyone, including me, tell you they knew Manning was going to stay. They didn't. No one did. Peyton has always come across as a stand-up guy and you wanted to believe Tennessee meant something very special to him, but you couldn't be sure. You wanted to believe he would stay to get one more shot at the Gators, the SEC, and the national title. But he was without a doubt the best player on the board.
Making matters worse, Manning's early graduation gave him an extra two months beyond the early January declaration deadline. So we made it all the way to the first week of March trying to figure out which way #16 would go.
It's interesting to think about the what if's. The New York Jets had the #1 pick and Bill Parcells had just signed on, along with an assistant named Bill Belichick. Had Peyton come out in 1997, perhaps Parcells stays in New York longer than two seasons, and who knows what happens to Belichick. Then again, without all the offensive pieces that a young Manning was surrounded with in Indianapolis, who knows if his NFL career would have ascended as quickly (though I don't think any of us doubt it would have ascended ultimately). The what if's for Tennessee are less fun, but that's only because reality was such a good story in 1997 and 1998.
But the reality we were braced for in March 1997 was another junior quarterback leaving Knoxville to become a top pick in the NFL Draft, and hopefully it works out better for this guy than Heath Shuler.
The day of the press conference Dr. Clark's compromise was to send a student teacher to a television screen, who would only come back in the room at the end of class, long after the end of the press conference, to deliver Manning's fate to us and by proxy our own as Tennessee fans. But that wasn't good enough for us. So we went to the oldest trick in the book: send a kid out with the hall pass, because he conveniently has to use the bathroom.
It's funny the things you remember. I remember knowing the moment that kid walked back into the classroom a few minutes later, with a stunned, bewildered, and overjoyed look on his face. Because he saw this:
Because Peyton Manning is the gift that keeps on giving.
You know he said it exactly that way on purpose, talking about his time at Tennessee in the past tense just to build to the moment. I have no idea what percentage of those hollerin' on that video were media, but I bet it's north of zero. You couldn't help but be caught up in it. Everybody goes pro in that situation. But the Mannings aren't everybody.
So much ink has been spilled by the national media detailing Manning's inability to beat Florida and by us detailing all the ways we hate Charles Woodson. It can make you think Manning didn't get his money's worth, literally or figuratively, by coming back. But everyone wearing orange begs to differ. So does Peyton's ring finger, which picked up the hardware we had all so longed for when Manning finally led the Vols to the SEC Championship Game, then won it with one of his greatest performances ever.
And beyond the ring, in staying for his senior season Peyton became Peyton. He went from one of the best to the best. He went from one of us to our favorite son, even sixteen years later. One of the best compliments to Manning's legacy is the way the Vols won the National Championship the very next year...but no one forgot about Manning. His work in the NFL certainly has something to do with that. But even if Manning never played a down in the pros, so much of what we love about him was cemented on this day in March, when our junior quarterback commanded our attention once more, and once more gave us a dose of pure joy by becoming our senior quarterback. There's only one Peyton.
Where were you when this press conference happened?