I originally wrote this the weekend before the Super Bowl. Given his retirement this past week, I feel this is worthy of re-post for today’s prompt. 🙂
Every generation has a “Great”, someone who, when given the opportunity, rises above the rest to aspire to great heights. What makes them Great is not merely just their abilities, but the humility that comes with them.
Ask anyone here in the State of Tennessee who they would classify as one of the “Greats” from our State, and you might be surprised at the answer you receive.
Of course you are going to get the school book answers of Davy Crockett, Andrew Jackson, John Sevier, Alvin C. York, or even Dolly Parton.
However, many are going to answer with one simple first name.
While not a native Tennessean, we totally claim him as ours. When he came to the University of Tennessee we were still reeling over our star QB, Heath Shuler, leaving his junior year to join the NFL. This is SEC country, and we tend to take this whole football thing a little too seriously, so we were bitter and little ticked off.
Peyton was brought on as a third string Quarterback, who quickly earned his starting spot. He brought a heartbroken fan base new hope and renewed fire. He quickly shattered and set school and SEC records, many which nearly 20 years later, still stand. The nation was taking notice as well, and while that made us proud, it also made us nervous. Was he going to do what Heath Shuler had done just a few years prior?
On a March day in 1997 Peyton held a press conference. The state of Tennessee shut down for the event. People gathered around their TV’s and radios. Hands were held and prayers sent up. Smelling salts were at the ready. You could hear the drops of sweat pour off the media in the room as they sat in anticipation. There wasn’t much hope he would stay. The NFL was calling with big offers. Offers that were too big to turn down.
And then it happened….
HE WAS GOING TO STAY!
The people cheered. They wept. They danced. Billboards sprung up from nowhere thanking him personally. I am totally not being dramatic. It really happened that way.
Peyton played that final season and made us proud. He got nominated for the Heisman and we beamed with pride and a little sadness as he got drafted in the first round of the NFL draft. Though he was gone, he promised to make us proud, and that he did. Over a span of 18 years he has not only become a Tennessee legend, but a global one. He has created and crushed records left and right, and will undoubtedly be elected into the NFL Hall Of Fame.
With all of his fame, Peyton has never forgotten his adopted state. He has made a home here, and during football season it is not uncommon to look on the sidelines at Neyland Stadium and see him standing with the current team just like he is one of the guys. It would take all day to list all the ways Peyton has given back not just to the University of Tennessee, but to the state itself.
Now, this weekend, Peyton, or The Sherriff, as he is affectionately called, will possibly play in his final game. It is not just any game. It is THE game. The Big dance. The Super Bowl.
In the 18 years he has been in the NFL, he has once again shattered and re-sat records. It will be several years before any are reached or broken, while some are destined to stand until the end of time. The past few years have been rough. There have been the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. But through it all Peyton has met each moment with dignity and total humility.
We as Tennesseans tend to be a little protective of our favorite son. The chatter and junk spoken about him by NFL fans and broadcasters alike tends to get us fired up and angry. However, Peyton never seems to listen. He just continues to be Peyton.
So Peyton, if this is in fact your last game, I want to say it has been a pleasure. I am fortunate enough to have been a fan from the beginning. You have made football great. You embody what the true nature of the game is, and that is sportsmanship. Never once have you placed yourself higher then your teammates. Never once has your character been challenged (in a way that wasn’t laughable). You have defied the odds countless times and taught us what true grit and determination is.
Thank you for being humble not just in victory, but also in defeat. Thank you for being a man of character that children and young athletes can aspire too. Thank you for all the quiet ways you have made someone’s day by donating your time, your money, or support.
You once said you didn’t want your legacy to be remembered as #16 (his # at UT), but rather as a good person who happened to play football. Well Mr. Manning, I think you have succeeded. You have proven without a doubt that your legacy goes way beyond football. The integrity and humility with which you carry yourself far out weighs any championship trophy or ring. While you may leave the game, your legacy will live on forever.
Now go out there and win that game and come on home to Rocky Top. We are waiting with open arms.