The more things change at the University of Tennessee, the more Peyton Manning remains our favorite and, we're happy to still say, our most successful son.
I'm a Boston Celtics fan because that's what tall blonde headed white kids who grew up in the 80s and played basketball were. Larry Bird will always be my favorite athlete because he's the one who dominated my childhood and played the sport I loved the most. But I was just barely too young for Bird in his prime; I know all about the '84 and '86 Celtic teams not because I saw them live, but because I watched the VHS highlight tapes two or three times a week while spending large portions of the summer on my grandparents' farm, who love the Celtics just as much as I do. I've seen Bird steal that inbounds pass against Detroit literally thousands of times and memorized Johnny Most's words.
The Bird I saw live was older, at the end. The Celtics of the late 80s and early 90s were too old, finally surpassed by the Pistons with Jordan soon to follow. And so the moments were smaller: Bird coming back from a faceplant on the parquet floor to outduel Chuck Person and the Pacers in Game 5 of the first round of the '91 Playoffs. 49 points and a ridiculous buzzer three to force overtime against Portland in '92. And finally, The Dream Team, the perfect farewell. I knew I had missed Bird and the Celtics at their best, but I still enjoyed getting to see him win something in Barcelona, and by the end with his back betraying him even 10 year old me knew you had to savor every chance you got.
So I have no doubt that somewhere right now there is a 10 year old Tennessee fan whose parents have raised him or her well. They may not have seen Peyton Manning in college, they may even have been too young to see him win the Super Bowl in early 2007. But they're behind him now in Denver, because that's the nature of fathers and sons, parents and their children. You don't need to be old enough to have seen it all; the stories, the present, and the bond they create are always enough.
At the start of this year we were writing stories like this one:
But with every tweet, every story, it's like we're forced to face the possible reality that no one wants: Manning could be finished. No really, he could be. We may never see him throw a football again.
And none of us wants to hear it, mostly because that's just not the way the story is supposed to end.
The Super Bowl is in Indianapolis, as I'm sure you know. If the soon-to-be 36 year old Manning was going to retire, it was supposed to be on that stage in Indianapolis, walking off with his second Vince Lombardi Trophy. Or a couple years from now when he could no longer perform at his very best...because when have we ever seen him at anything less?
Either way, it was supposed to be on his terms...and we were supposed to have the chance to experience the goodbye together.
And so what a joy it's been, especially in the midst of horrific football throughout the state of Tennessee this year, to find that not only did Manning not have to say goodbye...he didn't miss a beat. All he did was change clothes.
Heading into Week 17, Manning is second in the league in completion percentage, third in touchdown passes, and leads ESPN's fancy QBR statistic. Denver - whose only losses are to Atlanta, Houston, and New England - has won ten straight games. And he's delivered moments, most notably in a stunning comeback against San Diego, that remind you both who he still is and why he's so special.
I don't know what's going to happen in the playoffs, when he could face both Andrew Luck
for the first time and Tom Brady for the nth time; football fans deserve both and I hope we get them. But at this point even if Denver fails to advance in January, the 36 year old Manning's season and story are once again successful, and deserve to be celebrated.
Next year will be Manning's 20th year throwing footballs for the Vols, Colts, or Broncos. We will have watched him grow from sweaty palms at UCLA to the best of the best among quarterbacks all-time. For those of us who have been with him all the way - the night in Birmingham when he changed a rivalry, the way he defied logic with a sneak-turned-touchdown-pass in Athens, all the times we came up short against Florida, all the ways we still carry the Heisman angst for him, and his finest hour in the Georgia Dome when he finally got his ring - Manning has allowed us to be a fan of a winning football team even when the home team in Knoxville isn't getting it done. Even if you're a fan like me, with the Vols and Titans both stuck on five wins, #18 is ready and waiting to make the playoffs meaningful yet again.
Consider this: all the guys from the 1998 championship team that made it to the NFL are now out of the league. The Vols still have some elite talent playing on Sundays, but the best of the best? Eric Berry plays on a terrible team. Jason Witten plays a position that will probably always keep him from being thought of as highly as he deserves. We could be weeks away from the finest hours of Arian Foster's career, and it will be interesting to see how Vol fans react if the Texans make the Super Bowl.
But Manning is both the best and the last man standing from the 90s and the apex of Tennessee Football. He is our link to the past, and I shudder to face a football future without him. How many other college fanbases with maximum passion like ours still get to live through their greatest player fifteen years later? How lucky are we?
And that day will come for the 36 year old Manning. We rejoice that it now appears several years in the distance still. But it will come the way it does for everyone.
So after last year, we watch a little closer and appreciate him even more. It won't last forever, but it's still here now. And against all odds and wearing a new uniform, Manning again looks ready and able to lead his team to the Super Bowl. And I can't wait to watch him try.
And so for fans young and old, for those who have been there since Pasadena and the 10 year olds who were raised right, for all Tennessee fans looking for something good: Peyton Manning is our constant. And we wouldn't have it any other way.