Phillip Fulmer will always remember the moment when he realized Peyton Manning was "different." Maybe not so "different" that it was obvious Manning would evolve into one of the greatest ever to play the game of football, but "different" in the sense that he was clearly cut from another cloth. That he was unlike virtually unlike any 18-year-old quarterback the veteran Tennessee head coach had seen.
That moment came in the fall of 1994.
Manning was a true freshman at UT, a school he had chosen — ironically enough — because it seemed like a place where he would be destined to redshirt his first season. With starter Jerry Colquitt firmly in place and backup Todd Helton behind him, there was no need to force a true freshman into a starting role. Instead, Manning would sit and soak up the playbook. He would compete for the starting job along with Helton and fellow true freshman Branndon Stewart the following spring.
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Of course that was the plan, but as is so often the case in football, plans changed. Colquitt went down with a season-ending — and eventually career-ending — injury in a Week 1 loss at UCLA, and Helton was dinged up a few games later against Mississippi State.
That meant Manning — regardless of whether he was ready — would be forced into the leading role for Tennessee. Little did anyone know that it would be a turning point, not only in Manning’s career but in the sport of football.
And it all started with that one play — that one moment that Fulmer found out how special Manning was.
"We were on one hash and he threw an out (route) from one hash to the sideline," Fulmer said. "He hit Kendrick Jones right in the numbers. At that particular time he’s like 195 pounds. He’s a tall, thin guy, and he hits him right in the chest. And the defensive back tried to make a play, undercut it, and Kendrick catches it, goes for a touchdown. And it’s that moment where you say ‘Oh, this kid is special.’ "
The play doesn’t sound like much, but those who know football know it’s a throw that most professional quarterbacks can’t make, let alone 18-year-olds a few months out of high school. And while Tennessee ended up losing that game, a star was born on that one play.
Peyton went in, and we never looked back. It was incredible how fast he improved and learned.
"Peyton went in, and we never looked back," said Fulmer, who coached as Manning threw for 11,201 yards and 89 touchdowns as a Vol. "It was incredible how fast he improved and learned."
Of course that was then, this is now, and quite a bit has changed since 1994. That includes Peyton Manning himself, who has gone through one of the football’s most unique odysseys during his 18-year NFL careeer.
Through it all, Fulmer — a man who knows him as well as anyone — has stood by in amazement as Manning has handled it all. Not so much the Super Bowl win on Sunday for Manning’s Denver Broncos but instead everything that led up to it.
While Cam Newton spent most of the week leading up to Super Bowl 50 under the media’s microscope, it’s easy to forget that Manning spent most of his career dealing with the same scrutiny. From his time at Tennessee, through his inability to beat the Patriots in the early part of his career, to the later years when he had "only" one Super Bowl win, it seemed like Manning could never live up to someone else’s expectations.
As easy as it is to forget now, Manning is amongs the most scrutinized athletes (especially relative to his success) we’ve seen.
"It’d be hard for me to say that there’s never been one of those (players who has received as much criticism as Manning)," Fulmer said. "But he got hit with more than his share of critiquing."
Manning was a coach’s favorite at Tennessee and throughout his NFL career.
"It would have been easy for him to be angry at times, but it’s always just like this one. It’s still about team, and it’s still done with class, and it’s still done with dignity. And it’s respect for his teammates, and that’s him. That’s him."
As Fulmer went on to point out, it’s easy to forget the challenges that Manning has faced throughout his career.
"I don’t think people put enough stock into the fact that he went to the Super Bowl with four different head coaches," Fulmer said. "I don’t think that they put enough stock into the fact that he was almost always the best player on the team. What if he played for New England and (Bill) Belichick? And been in that consistent a program and with defenses around him like that? How many Super Bowls would he have won?"
It’s a fair question but one that finally seems to be a moot point. Manning long ago cemented himself as one of the all-time greats and only furthered his legacy with the win against Carolina. Not many quarterbacks have won two Super Bowls, period, let alone won two Super Bowls while winning five league MVP awards and being named to 14 Pro Bowl teams.
If this was Manning’s final game, it was a hell of a ride.
Which of course raises the question: Was it in fact Manning’s final game?
"I think two things, and I know him well enough to think this is right," Fulmer began. "One, he has consulted people, and he will at some point take his time and make his decision on if this is the right time or not. … He did not want to distract at all from what his team accomplished last night, particularly those guys on defense who played so well. And he would have been the story if he had said anything either way. Whether he’s coming back or whether he’s not."
To his credit Manning did keep mum, even if — as Fulmer believes — he has already begun the process of making that decision.
This is certainly arguable, but in my mind, and in my very biased opinion, he’s the best that’s played the position in the game.
It also raises another interesting question altogether: If Super Bowl 50 was the final hurrah, where does No. 18 rank all-time?
"This is certainly arguable, but in my mind, and in my very biased opinion, he’s the best that’s played the position in the game," Fulmer said. "He’s done it in a lot of different ways. When he had a running game and when he didn’t. When he had a defense and when he didn’t. When he was on a great team and when he wasn’t."
Oh, and there’s one more thing too.
"He’s done it with class (the entire time)," Fulmer said.
A lot has changed since Fulmer’s first encounter with Manning all those years ago.