You’ll have to forgive a little because when it was revealed Peyton Manning was going to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the old sentimentalist seeped out of me. I’ve known thousands of athletes and coaches in my life, enjoying close relationships with hundreds and, to be honest, Peyton was never one of those. Oh, I’m a huge fan and I’ve watched him play countless times, but I can’t say I ever interviewed or shared a sandwich with him … it was just one of those funny quirks that never happened for whatever reason.
What tugged at my heartstrings was the prank they cooked up to tell him a little boy’s dream of long ago had come true.
They gathered all his coaches “plus one” to surprise him as he cut a spot for his ESPN show, “Peyton’s Place.” The shoot was at Empower Field - Mile High in Denver, where Peyton had starred for the Broncos (2012-15) before ending his 18-year reign. The prank was cooked up by his wife Ashley, who disliked the idea of a knock on the door like Peyton had won the Publisher’s Clearing House jackpot or something.
So, they gathered Phillip Fulmer, who coached Peyton at Tennessee, the beloved Colts coach Tony Dungy, Colts coach and quarterback mentor Jim Caldwell, and Gary Kubiak, who coached him with the Broncos. They also added “plus one.” That would be former Tennessee assistant coach David Cutcliffe (now head coach at Duke) who may be the most important man in Peyton’s life outside his dad, Archie. Man, this caper was better than raspberry sherbet.
Now let’s back up over 50 years ago … In my first year at Ole Miss, one of my freshmen classmates in a God-forsaken 8 a.m. English class was Archie Manning from Drew, Miss. The town of Drew ain’t got but about 1,200 residents and you can tour the whole place is less than five minutes. A famous Sports Illustrated cover has Archie sitting on a John Deere tractor chewing a piece of straw. The only other thing in Sunflower County aside from the world’s biggest cotton plantation is the Parchman Farm Prison and it isn’t a touristy kind of place at all. Don’t be deceived; by the time Archie enrolled at Ole Miss he’d been drafted four times by Major League baseball, this at a tiny school where every boy had to play every sport, or they’d run you out of town.
Archie was a phenom, rawer than honey and country to the bone. We chatted during class and, while Archie has long forgotten it, I’ve been a Manning fan for almost as long since I kissed my first girl.
Quick one on Archie: In the 1969 season, some Tennessee players are sitting around, and the conversation turns to “the horses” on the Ole Miss team. All-American linebacker Steve Kiner spews, “Horses, hell! They’re no more than a bunch of mules…” Get the picture: The unbeaten Vols have won 7, are ranked No. 3 in the country, and are set to play the Rebels in Jackson. UT, riding this mighty wave, come out with thousands of political-like buttons that screamed, “Archie Who??” Oh, they were having a big time. On Wednesday of that week, a light airplane begins to circle the Ole Miss practice field and coach Johnny Vaught, aka “The Silver Fox,” doesn’t dare look up. From the plane millions of propaganda leaflets and “Archie Who??” buttons were pushed out of the plane, filling the air. On the last pass, the pilot cuts the engine and in a glide very audibly yells, “Go Rebs! To hell with Tennessee!” The pilot kicks the plane back to life, and cuts towards the campus, dropping more armloads of insults. Final score in Jackson? “Ole Miss 38, Tennessee ZERO!”
Since that 8 a.m. class, there has been a lot of water pass under the bridge and I always fretted that Archie never played on a winning NFL team in his 13 years in the pros. He played primarily for New Orleans, when the Saints were indeed the “Aints.” But by then I was traveling the South, and from his sophomore year at Isadore Newman High, I had a front-row seat as Peyton became famous before acne. I kept up with him throughout his high school career.
He was recruited by over 100 colleges and another 100 would have given the world for a chance. (Hint: Peyton’s nephew Arch, his brother Cooper’s son, is now breaking all of Peyton’s and Eli’s records at Isadore Newman; Louisiana will have to hold a lottery to see where this one winds up after his upcoming senior year.)
Quick one on Peyton: Steve Spurrier was making an in-home visit with Peyton and wandering into the Manning den. Steve spied a row of golf balls on display and “The Ol’ Ball Coach,” a scratch golfer himself, asked Peyton if these were tournaments his dad had chaired. The high school wonder boy, cooler than a glass of iced tea, replied humbly, “No sir … those are hole-in-ones Dad’s enjoyed.”
Here's where it gets good. Every recruiter tried to talk Peyton out of following in his dad’s footsteps at Ole Miss except one. Tennessee offensive coordinator Cutcliffe recruited Peyton the player instead. I can tell you from personal experience Cutcliffe is magnetic, loved to talk about the intricacies of passing – particularly the short game where first downs yield touchdowns – and his personal values and kindness are just as vital.
Boom! Peyton signs with Tennessee because of Cutcliffe. It was one of many brilliant decisions Peyton has made in his life and – know this – the humility and kindness Peyton has shared since Tennessee is a careful blend of Phillip Fulmer and David.
The Lord smiled again on Manning when he was the No. 1 pick of the Colts. Tony Dungy is a great coach but few men any finer than Tony have ever shaped and molded a professional athlete. Jim Caldwell embraced those values and, while I have never met the Bronco coach Kubiak, he has been quoted numerous times as say, “All I did was stand back out of the way …”
* * *
The fact that Ashley masterminded the prank comes as no surprise at all. This is because when I was growing up I knew and loved her entire family. On Lookout Mountain the Goree girls were as famous as any Hollywood starlets yet there was a catch, a big one at that. Their daddy was “Uncle Marshall” Goree and during “The Battle of the Bulge,” he was said to be meaner and tougher than Rambo could draw on a piece of paper.
He carried around a machine gun in his bare hands and, while his number of “enemy kills” increased as his age and handicap got higher at the Lookout Mountain Golf Club, messing with Marshall was akin to what would happen to a cowboy who dared to chase a wounded Apache into the rocks.
Just before Marshall helped chase the Germans out of World War II, he married the wonderful and Godly Lisa Allison and her notes of love, encouragement, and faith still surface ever so often at Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church. When Marshall brought his Silver Star, His Bronze Star, and his Purple Heart back home, he and “Miss Liza” raised four daughters, each a slice of heaven as time has proven true.
His oldest was “Saint Corinne,” who I am assured beyond doubt was an angel of God who walked among us before dying not long ago, this after having endured years of breathing problems. She was the wife of one of my closest friends, called “Frawg,” “Strongboy,” or George, dependent on date, time, and location; this is still true on any given day. Next came Marsha, who was spirited off to Memphis by an “aces” guy named Bill Thompson. Peyton’s wife Ashley, who went to the University of Virginia while Peyton was at Tennessee, is Bill and Marsha’s daughter.
Third in line was probably the majority favorite because she was most widely known – Dottie who married Frank Brock, and then there was Allison, who married Sandy Willson, who was famously the minister for a number of years at Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church.
So, that kind of brings us full circle. Peyton and Ashley have been blessed with twins, a son, Marshall Williams, and a daughter, Mosley Thompson, who were born 10 years ago, and in the film I am getting ready to present, you’ll see why I believe Mosely doesn’t take any guff from her brother Marshall, just as Cooper and Peyton made life miserable for Eli many a day at the family’s home in the New Orleans garden district.
Cooper, the oldest of the Manning boys, had committed to be a wide receiver for Ole Miss when, in high school, he was diagnosed with spinal stenosis and was immediately and permanently sidelined by doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Peyton requested the New Orleans high school coaches that he be allowed to wear his brother’s number, No. 18. When Peyton played his last high school game, Eli wore No. 18 during his Isadore Newman career and then with the three Manning brothers at the podium, Isadore Neman retired No. 18 for time immemorial.
But .. wait … when Peyton played at Tennessee and then all those years in the pros, he continued to wear No. 18. Do you know what the speed limit on the Ole Miss campus is right now? Yes, 18 MPH. That was Archie’s number. To cop a phrase, the defense rests …
* * *
Here we go. On the last Friday in January – this 10 days before the Super Bowl -- Peyton Manning was in Denver doing a promo spot for ESPN when he was “blitzed.” Again, it was David Cutcliffe, Phillip Fulmer, Tony Dungy, Jim Caldwell and Gary Kubiak. You’ll see David Baker, the president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, “blindside” Peyton before his precious 10-year-olds tackle their Dad. The Jumbotron comes alive, with his high school coach as Isdore Newman Tony Reginelli, former Colts coaching great Jim Mora, former Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore, and Bronco coach John Fox. Here is the way Ashley Manning arranged her husband's surprise. CLICK HERE.
* -- Peyton’s memories after he learned he would be inducted. CLICK HERE.
* * *
* -- When Peyton Manning announced his retirement after 18 years of pro football on March 7, 2016, his last words in his statement were: “I've fought a good fight. I've finished my football race and after 18 years, it's time. God bless all of you and God bless football."
* * *
And, finally, Ashley, you made me cry. Thank you.