THE FIRST start came in game five of Peyton Manning's freshman season, in 1994, and I was dispatched by SI to cover it. Tennessee was 1--3, and upperclass quarterbacks Todd Helton (one and the same) and Jerry Colquitt were both out with knee injuries. Manning had been inserted into the previous weekend's 24--21 loss to Mississippi State, and upon trying to juice the beaten-down Volunteers' huddle with a mouthful of rah-rah, received the following response from salty senior offensive tackle Jason Layman: "We've been here three years. We know what to do. Shut up and call the play."
The Vols beat a defensively rugged Washington State team 10--9. Manning threw only 14 passes but completed one for 41 yards on the winning drive. Tennessee's sports information director, Bud Ford, introduced me to Manning in the postgame interview room and we talked for a few minutes. Nothing memorable. What occurred 11 months later was: Upon catching up with Manning in his sophomore year, I mentioned that we had met briefly, and he shot back, "After the Washington State game."
This was College Manning: an old football soul lodged in a teenager's body. It was a delicate balance that Manning struck with a feathery touch. He carried himself with an unmistakable seriousness. When he told a joke, he did it with a banquet-circuit polish. When he was asked to talk to a school or civic group, he delivered a malleable speech that he had written and adapted for different audiences. He demanded that his teammates play at his level, even though most of them couldn't come close to matching his professionalism.
In September 1995, I shadowed Manning for a week as he prepared for a showdown at Florida. I went to English and calculus classes with him and listened as he explained the rudiments of tape study. At his roommates' urging, he used his name to get fast service on a pizza delivery. When it arrived, the driver asked him to a sign a Tennessee hat for his boss: Welcome to America, Amir.
December 23, 2013
What happened on that muggy Saturday in the Swamp was the first act in a recurring college nightmare for Manning—a 62--37 defeat. I was instructed to scrap the Manning diary and go all in on Florida for my story. Six months later I began work on a Manning cover story for the 1996 college football preview. He and his family could have understandably stonewalled me after I had abandoned the diary. They did not. In fact, Archie and Olivia welcomed me into their home in New Orleans and Peyton, just turned 20, proved a skilled narrator of his own life. It is a quality he would retain through his professional career. While he limits his exposure to the media to bland weekly press conferences, when there's a story that needs to be told, he takes it upon himself to see that it's told right.
Manning explained to me his passion for SEC football by rattling off the names of his father's Ole Miss teammates as they were described in radio broadcasts that he had memorized. He showed me the letter that his older brother, Cooper, left for him when Cooper learned that a congenital spinal condition had ended his career as an Ole Miss receiver. He talked about how badly he had wanted the two of them to play together. He answered every question that was asked, and because of that, I got the story right. Which is unquestionably what he and his family wanted.
When I arrived in Knoxville the following September for the annual Armageddon with Florida, I met with Manning on Thursday in the Vols' team lounge. He flipped open his own spiral pad and said, "I wrote down some stuff that you might be able to use in your article." Unfortunately, Tennessee trailed 35--0 in the second quarter of that game before ultimately losing 35--29. I squeezed a couple of Manning's details into a piece that was primarily, once again, about mighty Florida, which went on to win the national title.
In the spring of '97, following Manning's junior year at Tennessee, there was rampant speculation that he would enter the NFL draft, quite possibly as the No. 1 pick. Two days after announcing his decision to play a fourth college season, Manning met me at a Knoxville restaurant and explained his thought process. He had talked to a long list of people, from Michael Jordan to Tim Duncan to Phil Simms to Troy Aikman. The overwhelming majority voted in favor of his leaving Tennessee. Yet Manning demurred.
"I can't wait to get there, and I want the challenge," he said. "But I want it with every bit of ammunition I've got. I have the opportunity [to stay]. I'm entitled to play four years, so I'm going to." He was offended at suggestions that he wasn't paying heed to the possibility of injury, especially after what had happened to his brother. "I've counted every day of football since my junior year in high school as lucky," Manning said.
In his senior year Manning lost again to the Gators, but Tennessee unexpectedly reached the only SEC championship game of the Manning Era, where he earned the title that had eluded Archie. The last time I talked to Peyton in his college career came after that game. Here is what I wrote in SI:
The pile grew at Peyton Manning's feet, as jersey, pads, shoes, wristbands dropped into a pungent heap in front of his dressing stool. Then he paused and smiled crookedly. "I knew we would win," he said, long after Tennessee's 30--29 victory over Auburn in the SEC championship game last Saturday night in Atlanta and long after the celebration that followed. He knew when the Volunteers fell behind 20--7 in the second quarter, and 27--17 late in the third? "If we stayed calm, I knew we would win this game," Manning repeated.
There were no revelations that night, just the closing of a chapter. It was time for Manning to move on. But this was clear: Few players have fit better in a college football uniform, and fewer still have embraced wearing it more.
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