Dan Fleser: How Peyton Manning Became "The Sheriff"

  • Wednesday, April 22, 2020
  • Dan Fleser

KNOXVILLE – With some time on my hands – imagine that – I went searching this week for the origins of Peyton Manning’s nickname “The Sheriff.”

Came upon a plausible explanation that traced its roots to an ESPN Monday Night Football telecast in 2009 and to, of all people, Jon Gruden. The network’s game analyst, who may or may not own land in Sevier County, came up with the moniker during a game between Indianapolis and Miami. Gruden was describing how the Colts quarterback “lays down the law” in opposing team’s stadiums with his use of audibles at the line of scrimmage.

Fellow game analyst Ron Jaworski reinforced the notion during the telecast and the rest is history.

The anecdote could’ve sufficed for an entire episode of “Peyton’s Places.” The 30-part series, which aired last year on ESPN+ in conjunction with the NFL’s 100-year anniversary, featured Manning as the host/tour guide through the game’s history.

The series is reason enough to consider another nickname for Manning. I propose “Santa Claus.”

While lacking glamor, it suits him because he’s the gift that keeps giving.

My only TV binge watching so far during the coronavirus pandemic has involved the series. Started watching on a Saturday afternoon two weeks ago and couldn’t stop until sometime during the evening. Got hooked again last weekend and was rewarded with the episode that featured Manning and fellow quarterback icon Tom Brady hitting golf balls at the home of CBS sportscaster Jim Nantz.

This marathon wasn’t planned. Instead, I got hooked on how funny, entertaining and informative the series was.

Didn’t know that George Halas, a co-founder of the NFL, nearly died in a boating accident. Was amazed to learn that kicker Adam Vinatieri’s family history involves both Gen. George Custer and Evel Knievel.

Watching Manning interact with NFL characters past and present showcased his unique stature as an NFL statesman. Can’t imagine anyone else filling that role and managing the humor and bearing involved as capably as him.

Of course, he’s still one of Tennessee’s favorite sons and will be forever.

The former Vols quarterback cemented his stature by returning for his senior season rather than turn pro. Can still recall the audible, sheriff-like reaction during that press conference. One of his stunned teammates blurting, “I haven’t been this surprised since the O.J. verdict”

On the eve of Manning’s first Super Bowl appearance, the Knoxville News Sentinel, my former employer, did a photo shoot involving local children who had been named “Peyton.” The image covered virtually the entire front page of the newspaper.

Tennessee football put together its own version of “Peyton’s Places’’ this month by releasing a multi-part series on its Twitter account, breaking down Manning’s recent video conference with UT’s current quarterbacks.

He wasn’t trying on Joe Namath’s fur coat or being baptized as a Chicago Bears fans, as he did during the NFL series. He was sharing real advice and experience. And as Vols assistant coach Chris Weinke noted, “He isn’t going in Zoom with the Georgia quarterbacks.”

No, this gift was all theirs.

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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com.

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