Peyton's place needs no trophy Manning's return sold Vols fans on folk hero

January 01, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

MIAMI -- Peyton Manning was basking in the sun at Pro Player Stadium, where he'll conclude his college football career tomorrow, when the question caught him by surprise. Did he take any solace in the fact that, more often than not, the Heisman Trophy has become an albatross for the NFL aspirations of quarterbacks?

"I guess so, maybe," Manning said with a grin, before turning dead serious. "Look, I've had a fairly good career, but after it's over, it's over. You move on.

"The only reason I ever wanted to win [the Heisman] was for the people in Tennessee and New Orleans who supported me. I can understand their disappointment. It would have been nice to bring it home to them. A lot of people laugh, but you don't understand how Tennessee people are."

Manning said he's over any upset he had about finishing second in the Heisman race to Michigan's Charles Woodson, but the Volunteer state won't give up its resentment over what natives perceived as a horrible slight. To them, it was like taking away Manning's birthright.

Ask the Tennessee Oilers' ticket office, which was hit with cancellations when word got out that running back Eddie George voted for Woodson with his ballot as a former Heisman winner.

The governor's verdict on the affair: "It stinks." The hot T-shirt on campus read "Keep Your Stupid Trophy!" Newspaper columnists Knoxville have gone to the Rose Bowl and complained that Woodson wasn't sufficiently gracious at the Heisman ceremony.

Plain and simple, Manning is a folk hero in Tennessee. Whenthe No. 3 Volunteers meet No. 2 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl tomorrow, it will be hard to say goodbye because of all the goodwill he's piled up over the last four seasons.

This will be his 45th start, and as Manning said, "that's rare for a college quarterback." He never beat Florida, but he did inch past Eric Zeier and become the most prolific passer in Southeastern Conference history in the championship game victory over Auburn that got Tennessee here.

Most important of all, Manning came back for his senior year.

The son of Archie Manning, a Mississippi All-America quarterback and an All-Pro with the New Orleans Saints, Peyton wasn't exactly a hardship case, but he was ready to come out of Tennessee after his junior season. He might have been the No. 1 choice in the NFL draft, but last spring, Manning said to show him the money -- next year.

"It was just like we won a big game," said Ron Green, a defensive tackle out of Severna Park High. "Students were running down dormitory hallways, screaming 'Peyton's coming back! Peyton's coming back!' People were driving around town honking horns."

Manning has long since forgotten what it's like to have a private life. He will play tomorrow despite a slower-than-expected recovery from an infection in his right knee, and when he was hospitalized last month, it was under an assumed name.

Manning can't rest in a hospital bed, or go out for a quart of milk, without being hounded for an autograph. It came with the territory in a program that boasts of Neyland Stadium, the largest in the nation with a seating capacity of 102,544. If all 205,088 eyes are on him, so be it.

"I disagree with the people who say athletes aren't role models," said Manning, a model student-athlete who recently received an $18,000 postgraduate scholarship. "You are. Kids are looking up to you. I've been around that a long time. Growing up in New Orleans, the son of an NFL quarterback, people watch you. I still have my fun, though."

Manning returned this year to lead the Tennessee band in another rendition or two of "Rocky Top," and to keep taking his offensive linemen out for 10-cent chicken wings on Tuesday nights. The visit to New York for the Heisman ceremony wasn't the most fulfilling, but he did yuck it up with David Letterman.

Compared to a crisis in the Manning family, the whole Heisman flap seemed irrelevant.

One of Peyton's two brothers, Cooper, has a degenerative condition in his neck. Two days after Tennessee beat Kentucky, 59-31, his father brought bad news.

"The Monday after the Kentucky game was tough," Manning said. "My dad tells me Cooper has to have another surgery. That puts it all in perspective, when you understand that maybe he's going to be paralyzed. I'm his biggest fan, and he's mine. Cooper is playing football through me."

Just as a whole state has.

Manning's career

Peyton Manning's career statistics, with SEC ranking in

parentheses:

Yards: 11,201 (1)

Touchdowns: 89 (2)

Completions: 863 (1)

Completion rate: 62.5%

Total offense: 11,020 (1)

300-yard games: 18 (1)

Pub Date: 1/01/98

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