Somewhere in Knoxville and Indianapolis kids are asking their parents who is Peyton Manning, and why is he so important.
For the rest of us, Manning is a sports icon. Arguably the best quarterback to ever play football.
But before he became the face of the NFL as the 6-foot-5, 230-pound quarterback with a laser arm, Manning was a Tennessee football legend. Of course, his success as a pro has helped cement his legacy, but in reality, waiting a year to enter the NFL was enough for Vols fans.
He was already a UT all-time great after his junior season. Then, he passed up being the No. 1 pick if the 1997 NFL Draft to return for his senior campaign.
Manning became forever endured to the Big Orange Nation after making that announcement on March 6, 1997, even if he had never beat Florida or had the Heisman Trophy stolen away from him.
Sure, Manning was already the best quarterback in Tennessee history, and already one of the best to play in the SEC. But choosing to stay at UT four years put him at the top of an elite group of UT football legends, which includes Condredge Holloway, Reggie White, Gen. Robert Neyland, Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer.
When Manning finished his college career in ‘97, the question around Rocky Top was how it UT going to replace him? The Vols did just fine, with Tee Martin leading UT to a 13-0 season and the first-ever BCS national championship. The Colts won’t be so lucky next year.
On the other hand, Manning intends to play in 2012, and he’ll have the opportunity to pick which Super Bowl-contender to suit up for. If healthy -- still a big if – his future becomes a sure-fire playoff team, and one of the Super Bowl favorites.
Seeing Manning play without a blue horseshoe on his helmet will be different, but it was also an adjustment in 1998 when he wasn’t wearing an orange too.
But that’s sports. That’s what money does. Players and coaches change; universities and teams don’t. Sometimes the change is good, but most of the time it’s not.
One change that did work out in UT’s favor started in 1969 when the Vols played at Ole Miss. That year the Rebels had a quarterback UT fans mocked all week leading up to the game. The Vols lost 38-0.
That Ole Miss quarterback was later elected to the College Football Hall of Fame and played 14 years in the NFL. He also had three sons, two of whom are quarterbacks in the NFL. Two of the sons went followed their father’s footsteps and attended Ole Miss. The other, the middle son, didn’t and changed the futures of UT football, the Indianapolis Colts and a team to be determined forever.