A Salute to Peyton: From Knoxville to Indianapolis, And Back

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    We knew the day would come.  It comes for all of us, no matter what our profession is.  A person I trust and respect with my career, gave me sage advice a few years back.  That person told me “really, when you get down to it, the best benefit of having an employment contract is to make sure you have the best deal possible when your employer believes that they don’t want you around anymore.”  Again, it’s a fact of life in the workplace, and it doesn’t discriminate…every one of us will be at that crossroads where, at some point, it’s time to call it a day, and ride off into the sunset.

    We’re about to see Peyton Manning ride off into that very sunset, and while it marks an end of an era that gives us all perspective to some degree, make no mistake about it:  this isn’t a sad occasion.  It’s a celebration of a sports and cultural icon who is arguably the greatest quarterback of all time.  And I’d like to celebrate “The Sheriff” from my own unique perspective as a Knoxvillian, who’s spent nearly 22 of my life here on Rocky Top, and as a native of Indianapolis, who has so many friends and family there, and is a place I still spend a fair amount of time in.  I could go on and on of course, but I’ll use a few press conferences as my baseline.

    Back in early 1997, I remember how Peyton was contemplating his professional future, and in doing so, he had all of Vol Nation on pins and needles.  We weren’t sure whether or not he was going to stay for his senior season or not, but of course we all know how that ended up playing out:

    “I’ve made up my mind, and I don’t ever expect to look back. I’m going to stay at the University of Tennessee”

    I still remember watching that press conference, hearing those words, and how the room erupted when everyone else heard those words from Peyton.  It gave us all hope.  One more season to roll with the best QB we’ve ever seen in Knoxville.  And he had a glorious final run.  Truly should have won the Heisman, but I digress.  Peyton’s time in Knoxville took a town and a fan base that prescribes to football excellence and elevated that level of sophistication even more during his four years on The Hill.

    It all led to becoming the first pick overall in the NFL draft, going to the Indianapolis Colts.  In 14 years with the Colts, they only missed the playoffs in his first and last seasons in Indy.  Sure there was the Super Bowl title, but from a Hoosiers perspective, what he did in Indianapolis in terms of educating a fan base on, say it with me again, football excellence, is what will stick with me the most.

    Since moving to Indianapolis from Baltimore, the Colts had only made a handful of playoff appearances prior to Peyton’s arrival.  By the time Peyton left, Colts fans will call for a coach’s head when the Blue doesn’t have a deep postseason run!  That’s what consistent success does to you…and let’s not forget the impact that Peyton had on the city of Indianapolis.

    The intensity of Colts football led to an accelerated rebirth of the downtown area.  There were always big plans for downtown Indy, but they were always slow moving as I recall.  They became real once the Colts started winning – new bars, restaurants and hotels.  Say goodbye to the old concrete mausoleum known as The RCA Dome, and say hello to Lucas Oil Stadium, an absolute football showplace which has a Super Bowl hosting gig under its belt.  None of this is coincidental…none of it!  Peyton didn’t build downtown, but without a doubt, his presence and commitment to making the Colts relevant made my hometown better…and relevant.  And by the way, this was a town and state that cared only about basketball when I was growing up and living there.  Now, high school football in Indiana is at an all-time high in terms of popularity, as well as in terms of the number of D-1 football players that come out of the metro Indy area.  Think there’s a correlation to Peyton Manning there?  Me too.

    Oh, and there’s a children’s hospital in Indianapolis that bears Peyton’s name.  No matter what anyone says, Indianapolis is home sweet home to #18.  There’s no better way to realize that than by watching his farewell press conference in Indianapolis five years ago.  It still tears me up to watch it, to see the sometimes android-esque Manning tear up and get choked up multiple times shows you what Indianapolis had meant to him:

    “Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart…I’ve truly enjoyed being your quarterback”

    I will never, ever forget those final words in his statement at that press conference.  He was essentially breaking up with a fan base that adored him.  But everyone knew it was for the best.  The best for him, the best for the franchise, and that’s exactly how it ended up playing out.  The Colts were able to draft another once-in-a-generation talent in Andrew Luck, and Peyton ended up in Denver, where he proved to the world that he still had game, enough to get to two more Super Bowls.

    This last season was different though, as we all began to see Father Time beginning to take its toll on Peyton.  I think we wouldn’t be honest if we didn’t admit to wondering at least once this past season if this would end horribly for this legend that we’ve grown to love and respect.  Thankfully, it didn’t as we all know, and now, I’ll watch another press conference that will no doubt have some words from Mr. Manning that I’ll never forget. It’s been an amazing run that has a personal connection to me due to the two cities that this journey ran through prior to Peyton’s time in Denver.

    In the end you have the NFL’s all-time leader in TD passes and passing yards, two Super Bowl titles, a ton of laugh- out-loud funny commercials and TV appearances, a whole new appreciation of “Omaha”, and likely thousands of people named Peyton who were given that name in the past 20 or so years when they were born, largely due to the name of a certain football legend.  Forget all of the crap we’ve heard in the past few weeks about this guy.  Whether that stuff is real or not, now’s not the time to debate it, and we should all use the here and now to recognize athletic greatness, and people, Peyton Manning personifies that!

    Not much more can be said that hasn’t been already by so many others.  This isn’t goodbye, but so long.  I know this much; it’s been a pleasure to watch so far, and I can’t wait to see what comes next for Peyton Manning.