Many of you know that I went to the University of Tennessee for both my undergraduate and graduate work many moons ago. Some of my dearest friends I made during those college years I still call friend today, some 18 years later. Some know the story of how Tennessee came into the picture as a college for me to consider, but most don’t. Today, I wanted to share this letter because it seemed fitting given that the person it is to is being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Dear Mr. Manning,
I could’ve called you Peyton I guess but first of all my momma taught me better and second of all we aren’t that acquainted for me to use your first name. Although I have to admit, I have yelled it a time or two on some Sundays over the years. Many years ago, almost two decades ago (how are we that old?) this small town girl was looking at the possibility of going to college after high school. I was only a sophomore at the time but with an older sister already through college the path was set that I should be considering it as well.
My mom was pretty insistent that I would head to college but she never pushed a certain school on me, only that I weigh options available. So I started looking around at colleges outside of my home state of Tennessee. This Tennessee born and bred girl wanted as far away from the state as she could muster, giving considerable weight to both the University of Maine and Illinois Wesleyan for college. I used the guise of good teacher prep programs at these two institutions, but frankly I just wanted away from the small town I lived in.
One day I came home from school, and happened to catch a press conference going on for this guy in college. It was decision day on whether he was going to return to school for his senior year or opt out for the professional league. I was intrigued by this, as a high school athlete myself (but no where near collegiate level play) because I was seeing the money awaiting this guy. It was a lot from predictions and I wouldn’t have blamed him one bit, and he was on track to graduate in three years anyway. But that’s where you proved us all wrong didn’t you? You showed us that it wasn’t about the money or the prestige of it all. It was about your character and your heart for the game and the University of Tennessee.
I remember thinking, “There must be something pretty great about UT for a guy to want to stick around there.” It also had me thinking that a guy not much older than me took wise counsel and weighed that against his own beliefs and character to decide to stay in college. I became a fan of you in that moment too, because that’s a hefty decision to make at 21 years of age.
Several years later, after cheering you on in the pros as a rookie I would be working in the student-athlete center one summer and meet you by chance. You had come to award a scholarship you had established, not in athletics but in the department you had majored in. I stood silent and wild-eyed at the guy who had impacted my decision to check out my state’s flagship university, and ultimately become a fellow Vol. You shook my hand and thanked all of us student workers for the time we put in helping student-athletes with being students first.
I think back on all of this as I write this because I wasn’t looking at UT for my education until that moment, and I know for a fact I would not be sitting where I am today in Nashville if it wasn’t for all of those steps that followed. I wouldn’t be able to call so many amazing people friends, nor would I have such great memories of time spent on campus at the University of Tennessee. But it started with giving thought to a 21 year old’s decision to stay at a university. It started with you.
So thank you Mr. Manning for an influence you didn’t know you had on a 15 year old girl from East Tennessee twenty years ago. Congratulations on an excellent collegiate career in the classroom and the football field. You impacted so many and inspired a generation as well.
A fellow Vol for life