Peyton Manning’s passing performance last night was one for the ages. On the biggest stage of all–at least in the regular season–he delivered in grand style, throwing for an NFL-record seven touchdowns. Say whatever you want to about Tom Brady, but he never has, and never will, thrown for that many scores in a game. And if anyone can throw for eight, my money’s on Peyton Manning.
Manning is one of those ultra elite players that you want to tell others about seeing him play. Michael Jordan is in that category, certainly, and I saw him play on a couple of occasions. I can’t think of any baseball players in that category today, but names like Ruth and Mantle and Nolan Ryan do come to mind. I’m sure that anyone who watched Pele play soccer feels the same way about him. There are some names that, if you associate yourself with them in any small way whatsoever, it makes you feel better about yourself as a fan. And so it is with Peyton Manning.
I learned early on just how good Peyton Manning is. It was the 1997 Citrus Bowl, played on New Years Day in Orlando, Florida. He led the Tennessee Volunteers at the time, and on that day he threw for three touchdowns in the first half, and four for the game. He threw for over 400 yards, and had no interceptions. It was great to be a part of the bowl game scene–and I haven’t been to one since then–but the outcome was not what I wanted, as my Northwestern Wildcats lost, 48-28.
But what I remember most happened when the game was over. Manning at that time had a year of college eligibility left, and the NFL was certainly calling him. But the fans of the Tennessee Vols made a very pointed case for him to return to campus in the fall, instead of heading to the NFL. And Manning did exactly that, passing up the instant fame and riches that would have been his in the NFL. His team lost that year, and did not win the national championship, but another year as the king of the Tennessee campus probably wasn’t a bad thing, at all.
All these years later, Peyton Manning has the NFL at his feet. There’s a greatness in him that won’t be seen again for a very long time. And I’m happy to say that, for a couple of hours in the Florida sun, I got to see that greatness on display.