I was originally going to write this story more than two-and-a-half years ago, back in January 2009. The Titans had the best record in the NFL, with the Colts just one game behind. The odds were better than ever that they would meet each other in the AFC Playoffs. But on consecutive weekends, the Colts lost in overtime to the Chargers and the Titans suffered one of the most difficult losses I've seen any of my sports teams take. And just like that, both were bounced from the playoffs.
I figured I'd wait until both teams were in the championship hunt again, but now the Titans are in massive transition. And Manning is back in post-op stealth mode at age 35; even if he maintains his form (and there's no reason to believe he won't) for the next few years, there's a chance he'll be retired by the time the Titans are truly in the hunt for the Super Bowl again.
These are the last few years of Manning's career, which is a sad thought for Tennessee Volunteer fans. It feels wrong to say at first, but then you realize that Dan Marino retired at 38, as did John Elway. As did Brett Favre the first time.
However many seasons he has left, Manning is a Tennessee treasure to be enjoyed as often as possible. There are plenty of words to be said about his legacy, his place among the all-time greats at quarterback or in general, and what he means to the people of Indianapolis. But fourteen years after graduation, Manning still means so very, very much to the people of Tennessee as well.
In the past few weeks, one team has made enough moves to become the clear favorite in terms of quality ex-Vols on their roster. Other teams may have multiple starters - Eric Berry and Dustin Colquitt with the Chiefs, a bunch of linemen with the Packers, Robert Meachem and Jabari Greer with the Saints - and there are individual stars like Jason Witten and Arian Foster that stand out with their teams. But now you have Shaun Ellis, Albert Haynesworth, and Jerod Mayo on the same team. Ellis, along with Deon Grant and Chad Clifton, is the oldest ex-Vol in the league behind Manning. Haynesworth was the most dominant defensive lineman in the league three years ago, but now won't be the most dominant player on this defense, because Mayo holds that spot. It's a unique situation to have three great defenders from the same college on the same NFL team.
But because that team is the New England Patriots - home of Peyton's chief rival Tom Brady - I doubt their presence moves the needle for UT fans at all. In fact, you could line up a defense of 11 ex-Vols, and if they played the Colts I'm still not sure most UT fans are pulling for anyone other than Manning.
Which continues to make for an unfortunate situation for the NFL team that resides in Nashville.
The Titans have always been the chief divisional rival of the Colts in the AFC South since its creation in 2002; Tennessee and Indianapolis are the only two teams to win it. Before then, the Titans and Colts squared off in the January 2000 AFC Divisional Playoffs.
I'll turn 30 in a couple months; growing up in East Tennessee there was really no one set NFL team to cheer for during my childhood. The Falcons were the closest option on a map, but they weren't very good and East Tennesseans didn't gravitate toward them the way most still cheer for the Atlanta Braves. Without a "local" team, you end up cheering for the good teams; the vast majority of the guys I went to school with were either Cowboys or 49ers fans during the early 90s. But I became a Titans fan the day the move from Houston was announced. And there was something specific about the team being called the Tennessee Titans - they were our team, even in Knoxville. If they were the Nashville Titans I'm not sure I would've felt the same; that may sound dumb, but sometimes that's the nature of sport.
My love for the Titans pales in comparison to my love for the Vols, but it has always been strong enough for me to cheer against the Colts when the two collide. In my mind, you get one team in each sport. There can be other teams you follow and enjoy - I've done that with Virginia Tech since moving to southwest VA five years ago - but when they play each other, you only have one favorite.
I remember watching that Colts-Titans playoff game with my Dad, who is among the legion of Vol fans who have also pulled for the Colts every week since Manning was drafted. And it quickly became apparent that it wasn't safe for us to be in the same room, particularly when I yelled for ex-Gator Jevon Kearse to get the quarterback. The Titans won that game 19-16 in Indianapolis the week after the Music City Miracle, en route to the Super Bowl.
Though they haven't faced each other in the playoffs since, they've had to go through each other in the AFC South since 2002. The Titans may have more postseason history and animosity with the Baltimore Ravens, but the Colts are the most important game(s) on the schedule every year. So while I enjoy watching Manning, obviously, and want to pull for them when they're not playing the Titans, it's always been true that it's always better for the Titans if the Colts don't do well.
Manning's arrival in the NFL in 1998 while the Titans were still the Tennessee Oilers probably robbed Nashville's franchise of a significant number of fans. As a result, it's always been my question to passionate Vol/Colt fans, "Who are you going to cheer for when Peyton retires?"
Had Manning gone to almost any other team, it would've been easy for said UT fans to become Titans fans upon his exit from the National Football League. But if you've really pulled for the Colts for the last thirteen years, odds are you don't like the Titans. And the love for Manning is so strong among Vol fans, I'm not sure many are going to put that animosity down as soon as #18 retires.
And because Manning is Manning, he gets love from UT fans that no other former Vol can match. Some of it is the position he plays - I remember getting a Heath Shuler Redskins jersey when I was in middle school and thinking I was about to become a Washington fan. Quarterbacks are visible and memorable in a way that overshadows every other position; Shuler entered the league when Reggie White, ex-Vol and greatest defensive end of all time, was still playing. If any former Vol, other than Manning, deserved a legion of UT fans pulling for his professional team, it should've been The Minister of Defense...but I don't recall many Eagles or Packers fans around East Tennessee. In the same way, if Manning retired tomorrow you wouldn't find all Colt fans becoming Kansas City fans (if you agree that Eric Berry is the second most popular ex-Vol). And you almost certainly won't find them becoming Arian Foster fans, right or wrong (shameless plug: I wrote about this dynamic in our Volunteers Kickoff 2011 annual, on shelves now!).
No, Vol fans love Manning in a very unique and very passionate way. And he's earned every bit of it. With both the Vols and the Titans still trying to get back to former glory, Manning could also serve as a wedge between the two: as an entire generation of Middle Tennesseans grows up with the Titans and not the Vols as the primary football influence, Manning has kept an entire generation of East Tennesseans from gravitating toward the NFL team in Nashville.
Are there more Titan or Colt fans in East Tennessee? I haven't lived there in more than five years, but I do know you still have better odds catching the Titans on your local affiliate every Sunday, for whatever that's worth.
I hope Manning stays healthy and has several good years left in him. If the Titans could go 16-0 and the Colts 14-2 every year and then play an epic AFC Championship Game that sent Tennessee to the Super Bowl, I'd take it. But while my greatest hope is that the Titans get back to being good sooner than later, I also hope that eventually the UT fans that love Manning so much will find their way to the NFL team that bears the name of the state we all share.