Ten months ago, I wrote this from a hotel room in Lexington, KY. I hadn't really thought about it or the emotions surrounding it in a long time. The Bruce Pearl situation was a mess, but thankfully Cuonzo Martin and these players have been good enough to help us move forward.
Even watching Tennessee continue to compete well in basketball under a different head coach, I think there's still a part of us that will always see Pearl in a special light. The Vols can still win big games - they've done so twice in this month - and the program can build on his success and hopefully one day achieve even greater accomplishments than the Elite Eight. But Pearl was unique. Something we had never seen before and won't see again. Something that will make us always remember. It's the same something that made last March so very, very hard.
I bring it up now because every day brings a new tweet or a new story about Peyton Manning never playing football again. I'm writing this at 12:43 AM from the comfort of my own home in Ceres, VA, but hearing John Clayton say Manning is likely headed for retirement, it feels an awful lot like that hotel room in Lexington the night before what would become Pearl's last game.
And when you start to think about it, the two stories are really very similar, Pearl and Manning. Or perhaps better said, the way Tennessee fans have reacted to them has been very similar.
It's in part because both made such a unique and lasting impact at this university, which allows for these feelings in the first place. Others associated with Tennessee have met much more tragic ends to their careers - Jerry Colquitt and Inky Johnson come to mind - but because Pearl and Manning were both so good and so unique, this sudden goodbye business feels so much worse.
We spent six months certain that Bruce Pearl would be okay. Not because we didn't understand the gravity of lying to the NCAA, but simply because he was Pearl. Those of us that didn't think Pearl was Tennessee Basketball at least believed he was the best thing that ever happened to it. The ride had been too great and had just peaked with the Elite Eight the previous year. He couldn't leave. No way.
And then, very quickly, with one ill-fated radio interview from Mike Hamilton and one horrific exit from the NCAA Tournament, it was all over. Looking back on it now, it was over the moment Pearl lied to the NCAA. But we never really saw it until the very end. In that hotel room, I remember the (thankfully irrational) fear that we were never going to be good at basketball again, at least not this good. Pearl was the best we had ever seen, and then just like that, he's gone.
I spent more than a quarter of my budget in my fantasy auction draft on Peyton Manning last August. Because I was sure he would play. Because he always plays.
And then he didn't. And then it became clear he wouldn't the rest of the season. I think it took me five or six weeks to drop him from my fantasy roster, because part of me just refused to believe it.
Still, he would play again. Even if it's not in Indianapolis, he'll play again. His medical issue that none of us really even understand but can't trace to a single play? He'll recover eventually. We just examined in great detail the best possible options for him in 2012 on our site four days ago.
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.
When Manning was a junior at UT, I was a sophomore in high school. I remember my parents had friends who hadn't been to a UT game in years, but they came to one that year. Not just because we were good, but because Manning was there. And you wanted to be able to tell your grandkids that you saw Manning play in person in Neyland Stadium.
Of course, Manning stayed another year. And there are thousands of other words to be said about him, what he meant to Tennessee and what he still means to us that we'll hold until the day he is officially done. And those words will include the fact that, in proper perspective, we shouldn't feel overly sorry for a man who made millions playing football, who became one of the best quarterbacks in the history of earth along the way, and who already got his ring.
I'd suspect Peyton is going to make himself scarce this week. This is Eli's week. I don't write this expecting some official confirmation today or anything like that. But the more we hear it, the more real it becomes. This isn't just Rob Lowe. It's Peter King and John Clayton. It's a fate that, like Pearl's, may have always been real...but we just choose not to see it because, hey, we love that guy too much.
I hope it's wrong. Above all, I hope Peyton Manning makes the right decision for Peyton Manning. But I hope his health allows that decision to be at least one more year of football. Because if we weren't already doing so, this entire situation will make us incredibly appreciative of the opportunity we had to be the generation that got to watch him play quarterback at the University of Tennessee, then go on to become one of the very best to ever play the game of football itself...and makes us hopeful that the opportunity isn't over just yet.