Peyton Manning's presence still could still be felt over the weekend at the NFL Draft, and will thankfully be felt in Big Orange Country for the rest of his days and beyond. Gatorade's Dear Peyton campaign is a great representation of football's love and respect for Manning, which have been going strong in Vol Nation for 22 years.
For 18 years that's meant Tennessee fans could find a home on Sundays with Indianapolis or Denver. Throughout the arrival, quick rise, and frustrating fall of an NFL franchise in Nashville, Manning's consistency meant Vol fans could pull for a winner regardless of what kind of year the Titans had with Peyton in the playoffs 15 times in 17 healthy seasons.
(And hey, if you resonate as a Vol fan with your NFL allegiance entering free agency, might I suggest the team in Nashville once more? Still got room to get in on the first floor with Mariota...)
Peyton's retirement also represents a further break from the golden era of Tennessee football (1989-2001) in the NFL. Everyone who played in Knoxville during that run is now retired with the exception of the guy at the top of this post (EDIT: as pointed out in the comments, Dustin Colquitt was also part of the 2001 Vols as a freshman). It isn't surprising that Manning was near the last of that bunch to go, both for his performance and his longevity at age 40.
What is surprising, however, is the vacuum after Manning as well. It's not just that almost no one remains from Tennessee's glory days. Almost everyone from the second half of Phillip Fulmer's tenure is now out of the league as well.
Eric Berry is Manning's spiritual successor on Rocky Top, another incredible talent and incredible story. Some ex-Denver fans will drift toward the Broncos' rivals in Kansas City. I wouldn't dispute Berry as the first choice for Vol fans, but it's shocking how few other choices there are.
Of the 67 Vols drafted between Peyton Manning and Eric Berry, only three are still in the NFL.
One, of course, is Jason Witten. Aside from being the final active link to Tennessee's prime, Witten holds the NFL records for single game and single season receptions by a tight end and is second in most career tight end categories behind Tony Gonzalez. He's still going strong at age 33 and should get a prestigious place in Tennessee history when he does choose to retire. But his career-long association with the Cowboys, a team most have strong pre-existing feelings toward, will continue to impact how many Vol fans flock to him.
One is Dustin Colquitt, which means if you're looking for another reason to cheer for the Chiefs, there you go. And the other is Robert Ayers, taken the year before Berry in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft. Jerod Mayo's retirement was, of course, overshadowed by Manning's, but he was another NFL success story from better days in Knoxville. This means the only Tennessee draftees still in the NFL who found any level of success in college are these three, Berry, and his 2010 draft-mates Dan Williams, Jacques McClendon, and Chris Scott (plus the undrafted Britton Colquitt and whatever happens with Arian Foster).
There have been a few bright spots in the space between - Cordarrelle Patterson is a two-time All-Pro kick returner, Malik Jackson just helped Denver win the Super Bowl in a huge way - but because there are so few positive memories of those players in college, it's harder for Tennessee fans to gravitate their way. The Vols have had just ten total players drafted in the last six years.
This means the biggest beneficiaries of Manning's absence (other than the Titans among Tennessee fans are the guys who are still on campus.
If Tennessee has the kind of year we're all hoping for, they will send a multitude of players to next April's NFL Draft with the love and gratitude of Vol Nation behind them, a group that has known mostly cheering for Manning and now finds few other options. I remember as a 10-or-11-year old kid how cool it was to suddenly have Alvin Harper, Dale Carter, Carl Pickens, and Chuck Smith in prominent NFL roles, the first group of guys I watched in college who went on to be successful in the NFL. Young Vol fans today need that connection, and Team 120 appears ready to give it to them.
There's no replacing Manning, not now or ever. But with all but Jason Witten from Tennessee's last successful run now into retirement, it is the new Vols who are most likely to join he and Eric Berry in carrying the VFL torch in the NFL for a new generation of Vol fans.