HOPING FOR A HAPPY ENDING FOR PEYTON
Some 22 years ago, on a September day in 1994, I drove to Starkville, Mississippi. There I met my friend Robert Moore, and we sat together in Scott Stadium and watched his Mississippi State Bulldogs play my Tennessee Volunteers in an SEC college football match-up.
The Vols’ starting quarterback that day was Todd Helton. That previous spring, he had been named the College Baseball Player of the Year, and he was going on to a fabulous MLB career with the Colorado Rockies. (His jersey—No. 17—is the only jersey ever retired by the Rockies.)
In the second quarter of the game, Helton hobbled off the field with a knee injury. At this point, a tall skinny 18 year old kid from New Orleans loped onto the field. His name was Peyton Manning, and on that day, he became my quarterback. He’s been my quarterback ever since, either as a Vol, a Colt or a Bronco.
For over a third of my life I have cheered Peyton Manning on the gridiron. I cheered him as he led the Volunteers to three consecutive victories over Alabama. (Yes, when Peyton was quarterback, Tennessee actually beat Alabama.)
I cheered him not only when he threw touchdown passes, but when he led the Pride of the Southland Band in playing “Rocky Top” after a win. (He really did that.)
I watched his press conference after his junior year at the University of Tennessee when many people believed he was going to forego his senior season and go directly to the NFL. And I cheered (yelled, actually) when I heard him announce, “I’ve made up my mind and I’m not looking back. I’m going to stay at the University of Tennessee!”
And then I cheered Peyton during his senior season, as he directed the Vols to an SEC championship in a thrilling 30 to 29 come from behind victory over the Auburn Tigers.
He was a class act, even in defeat. In 1996, the Memphis Tigers upset Peyton and the Volunteers in a game at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. After the game, Peyton stood outside the Tennessee locker room and signed autographs not only for disappointed Vol fans, but also for excited, celebrating Tiger fans. According to a story in the Commercial Appeal, he congratulated everyone of the autograph-seeking Tiger fans on their victory. One of those fans was young Scott Scheurer, the son of Tiger coach Rip Scheurer. Scott was a high school quarterback in Memphis at the time, and Peyton said to him, “I hear you are a very good quarterback.” (Can you imagine a high school quarterback being told by Peyton Manning that he heard he was a fine quarterback? And Peyton made this compliment to a kid who was wearing Memphis Tiger blue and celebrating what was then the biggest win in Tiger football history!)
I watched Peyton on TV at the Heisman Trophy presentation in 1997, ready to celebrate his well-deserved selection for what was then college football’s top award. The Heisman committee dissed Peyton that night, and I was furious. I’m still mad, and I haven’t watched a Heisman presentation since. I can’t even tell you who won the Heisman Trophy last year. I don’t want to know. In my eyes, the Heisman has been discredited since 1997.
When Peyton went to the NFL, I became a Colts fan, and I cheered him in 2007 when he led to Colts to a win in Super Bowl XLI.
And when Peyton became a Bronco, I threw away my Colts cap and bought and orange and blue Denver one. I am now a Denver Broncos fan, although I sometimes refer to them as “the Denver Vols.”
On Sunday night, I’ll be wearing my Broncos cap and pacing around my den as I watch Super Bowl 50. I’ll be pacing because I’ll be nervous … just as nervous as I was back when Peyton was leading the Vols, and as nervous as I was in 2007 during Super Bowl XLI.
Peyton has admitted that the game Sunday night may be his “last rodeo.” I desperately want it to be a happy ending for the Sheriff. I want him to hoist the Lombardi Trophy above his Bronco blue helmet and then ride off into the sunset.
But whatever happens, it’s been an incredible run for Peyton … and an incredible bunch of passes as well. 6,125 to be exact for a total of 71,940 yards!
So thank you, Peyton. Thanks for the memories. Thank you for being my quarterback for 22 wonderful years. Now go out there and beat those Panthers!