Peyton Manning directs the Pride of the Southland in 1997

Peyton Manning: Back in Orange

By Woody Paige

Wearing his best Sunday-go-to-meeting suit and a smile, Peyton Manning walked out of the auditorium after the interminable press conference that introduced him as the Denver Broncos’ new quarterback. Carrying his new No. 18 orange jersey over the famous right arm, Manning emerged in the small adjoining hallway, came directly toward me and proclaimed: “Go, Big Orange!”

The only other person standing close by would suggest later: “He must be very happy to be joining the Broncos.”

I replied: “Peyton was talking about the Tennessee Vols.”

Way out here in the Wild West of Denver, Colo., hard by the Rocky Mountains, where I have lived for almost 40 years, and where, oddly enough, Manning now will end his football career, they associate the color “Orange”’ with the Broncos. If only they knew. There is only one “Big Orange.”

When Peyton made his declaration, I leaned in and whispered: “You finally beat Florida.”

He guffawed.

“First time I’ve laughed in a couple of weeks,” Peyton said.

He got our little secret.

During Manning’s four seasons at Tennessee (1994-97), the Volunteers never beat the Gators. When Peyton announced he was returning for his senior season (despite having graduated early), Florida coach Steve Spurrier — a good ol’ Tennessee son of a preacher man (and turncoat) — jabbed him with: “I’m glad Peyton’s coming back. He can become the first quarterback in history to play in four Citrus Bowls. . . . You can’t spell Citrus without UT.” (The Vols actually didn’t play in four Citrus Bowls.)

Peyton got the last laugh. He was voted to the Walter Camp All-Century Team at quarterback. He has won a Super Bowl and four NFL MVP awards and became one of the greatest quarterbacks in college and professional history.

When Peyton signed with Denver, quarterback Tim Tebow, the famous Florida graduate, was dumped. Tennessee finally beat Florida.And, when he signed with Denver, quarterback Tim Tebow, the famous Florida graduate, was dumped. Tennessee finally beat Florida. (Spurrier is coach at South Carolina, and you can’t spell Bowl without “SC.” Ha.)

Manning expected to play his entire NFL career with the Indianapolis Colts, but everybody is aware how that matter turned out because of four neck surgeries, a season on the sideline and a No. 1 draft pick named Andrew Luck. So, for the first time since he was a teenager, “I went through the recruiting process again. I didn’t think I’d have to do it again.”

Dozens of colleges drooled over Peyton, the son of another legendary Southern quarterback, one known at Tennessee, thanks to linebacker Jack Kiner, as “Archie Who?” (There are hundreds of stories about the Manning family, Ole Miss and Tennessee, but those are for another day.)

Peyton narrowed his list to a final four including, interestingly, Florida and, of course, the favorite Mississippi, where his father and mother went to school and where his older brother was in school then. He chose UT after waking up one morning and deciding because the school felt right and comfortable. Then, after his junior year, when he could have turned pro, Peyton woke up one day and decided to stay.

“Best decisions (in football) I ever made,” he told me a few months ago.

When Peyton became a free agent earlier this year, multiple NFL teams salivated over the possibility of signing him. He narrowed the list to a final four. Sound familiar?

The favorite seemed to be, uh, Tennessee. The Titans this time. “Favorite Son Returns Home?”  Like Volunteers Davy Crockett, Sgt. Alvin York and Johnny Majors.

The state legislature passed a groveling resolution, and the governor telephoned Peyton. Titans owner Bud Adams reportedly dangled a lifetime contract. People from Nashville (the Titans’ home) to Memphis (wife Ashley’s home) to Knoxville (the Vols’ home) to Chattanooga (where Peyton and Ashley have a home) were energized and anxious.

Peyton awoke one morning and decided Denver felt right and comfortable. Maybe it was working with John Elway, another renowned quarterback who is the franchises’ exec VP, or being near the Rocky Mountains after playing near the Smoky Mountains (“Rocky Top”) or being with another “Orange” team, or maybe because he wanted to beat Florida.

Maybe because he desired to live close to Todd Helton, who plays for the Colorado Rockies major league team and was Manning’s predecessor as the Vols’ quarterback. Shortly after he came to Denver, Peyton went out to watch Todd, who promptly hit a walk-off home run.

Or perhaps Peyton moved to Denver because of his resolve to win two or three more Super Bowls before he retires, and he believes his best opportunity is with the Broncos.

Peyton’s heart always is in Knoxville — which is true for all of us who once walked down Cumberland and up to The Hill.Peyton has one more home — Colorado — to add to Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida (yes, he and Ashley have a vacation condo on South Beach) and Tennessee. But his heart always is in Knoxville — which is true for all of us who once walked down Cumberland and up to The Hill.

As Peyton and I talked, a young man approached and told him he needed to go upstairs at the Broncos headquarters and settle a small issue. “You have to sign your contract (worth almost $100 million),” the public relations assistant said.

Soon after, Peyton flew back to Knoxville to participate in fundraising activities for UT. He has added money for a second student to benefit annually from the Peyton Manning Scholarship. (Fifteen already have.) He has donated millions of dollars — and his time and efforts — for other causes at the university. He is the school’s most famous alum. He was the essence of student-athlete.

When Pat Summitt, the winningest basketball coach in NCAA history (who was offered the men’s coaching job at UT twice), recently became head coach emeritus of the women’s team, Manning brought up her name in our phone conversation. “If she had been head coach of the men’s football team, I would have been honored to play for her.”

Peyton Manning cares about everything. Color him Orange again.

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Woody Paige once was called by the head of the UT school of journalism “the most idiosyncratic student we’ve ever had.” Paige didn’t understand the meaning of the word “idiosyncratic.” Still doesn’t. Paige was the last columnist of the Orange and White student newspaper and the first columnist for The Daily Beacon. Paige was in the student section for the last game of the single wing and the first game of the conversion to the T-formation or UT formation. Paige has a daily international TV show on ESPN and is sports columnist of The Denver Post.