100 Days of Vols #3 - The Great Peyton Manning

Doug Pensinger

Tennessee football fans knew Peyton Manning was special every time he laced up the cleats on Saturdays. We even believed he'd be an NFL Hall of Famer. But to become the ambassador he has been for the program and to turn into arguably the most beloved athlete in America? Well, that's orange icing on the cake.

Peyton Manning stands there in a brown wig and mustache on a Direct TV commercial, pointing at you in your living room chair. There he is on a faux United Way commercial, pelting kids in the backs of their heads and making you laugh out loud on Saturday Night Live. He's rapping with brother, Eli. He's barking to his car, "Papa Bear, hut! hut!" He's dissecting defenses every Sunday years after 16 years in the NFL. He's hosting his own camp for college quarterbacks, standing on the Tennessee sideline when he can, interviewing on basically every episode of SportsCenter.

He's everywhere.

Everybody knows Peyton Manning. He's a rock star. He's today's Michael Jordan, especially considering the disgrace that has befallen Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods in recent years. From Manning's "laser-rocket arm" to his cartoonish forehead, he's internationally beloved, revered, mimicked, desired by every entertainment forum in the free world.

But before he had the neck surgery that endangered his career, before he left the Indianapolis Colts for the Denver Broncos, before he became a mega star, before he won his Super Bowl against the Chicago Bears, he was slinging touchdowns, of course, for our Tennessee Volunteers.

Manning famously chose the Vols over Ole Miss, where his father Archie is a Hall of Famer. During a freshman campaign that saw UT starter Jerry Colquitt go down in the season-opener, Todd Helton fail to keep the seat warm and a battle with fellow freshman Branndon Stewart [one that once had Manning lock Stewart out of "his" film room], Manning would eventually make his first career start in a 10-9 win over Washington State. From there, he led UT back to a respectable 8-4 record that culminated with a 45-23 win over Jim Druckenmiller and Virginia Tech in teh Gator Bowl.

His career took off after that, and he ignited a frenzy when he elected to shun the NFL and return to UT for a senior season in which he was robbed of the Heisman Trophy by ESPN and the Downtown Athletic Club. Though he failed to beat Steve Spurrier and Florida during his career, Manning dominated Alabama -- and everybody else. He is still Tennessee's leading passer with 11,201 yards and 89 touchdowns and went 39-6 during his tenure as a starter.

He has an offseason home in Tennessee, could still run for office and win easily and refers to the state as "home." The 12-time Pro Bowler has been even better in the NFL, amassing nearly 60,000 passing yards, completing 65.2 percent of his passes for 436 touchdowns and 209 interceptions. He has won four Most Valuable Player awards and is quite simply an American icon.

Even still, Manning -- whose No. 16 is enshrined and retired, never to be worn again -- makes time every offseason to come back to Knoxville and work with/visit UT players. He also attends Tennessee football games during off weeks and constantly comments publicly on orange affairs. He's our Favorite Son, even if he is an adopted one. Want to know how big of an impact Manning had on our state and on our culture in general? Just think of how many little boys -- and girls -- named "Peyton" are running around. I've got a cousin who at least gives a nod to Manning for the decision to name her little girl Peyton.

Did we throw a fit when Peyton didn't get the Heisman? You're dang right we did. It was a good one, too. And justified. It was a laughable decision that has become even more impossible to believe through the years. But Manning had the last laugh. He'll be in the college football hall of fame, a first-ballot NFL hall of famer, he'll hold all kinds of records for college and the pros, and he has left a legacy greater than any trophy could bring.

I always lamented how unfair it seemed that Manning wasn't a part of the 1998 national championship team. That was his rookie year in the NFL, and Tee Martin -- a man who learned under the tutelage of Manning -- led the Vols to winning it all. But you could probably give Manning a ring, too, and nobody would complain. As good as Tennessee was during the Heath Shuler years, Manning is the one who really helped put the Vols on the national map. When he was here, UT was on television every week, was talked about constantly and put up HUGE numbers while in the spotlight. The number of players the Vols have landed in recruiting since then who refer to Peyton Manning is countless. Just the man's name, his face all over everything everywhere, was one of UT's best recruiting tools for years.

It has been 15 years since Manning wore the orange and white. But he is one of the players whose legacy transcends the sport and has paid dividends for years. Many UT fans still hold out hope -- albeit probably fruitless hope -- that one day, Manning will retire from the NFL, come back to Knoxville and coach again. Nevermind that he has so much money that the thoughts of it would be absurd to most.

But this is PEYTON MANNING. It's impossible to say that name without thinking about a football. And, for many of his fans, it's difficult to say his name without thinking of the Tennessee Volunteers.

If that isn't an icon, I don't know what is.

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