Peyton Manning leaves the NFL on Monday with a giant news conference in Denver. Nineteen years ago -- March 5, 1997 -- he held a big news conference in Knoxville, Tennessee, to announce he was entering the league. Except he didn't; he stayed. His campus cheered (loudly) and I was there, sitting in the front row, to chronicle the event. It had a direct impact on the team I cover -- the New York Jets -- and it provided a snapshot into the quarterback that would change the NFL over the next two decades.
Now that it's official, the Manning memories are flowing from everywhere on Sunday. I never covered the man on a regular basis, so I'm shy in the memory department, but the manner in which he handled himself on that day 19 years ago left an impression.
The Jets owned the No. 1 pick that year, and everybody figured Manning would turn pro after his junior year. The fan base was giddy with anticipation. Imagine: The Jets hired Bill Parcells in February, and now Manning was coming, too -- the ultimate dream scenario.
The University of Tennessee called a news conference, and the New York Daily News dispatched me to cover it. My story that morning, which hit the streets a few hours before the news conference, reported that Manning was planning to stay in school. My heart sank when I got off the plane in Knoxville and saw the front page of the local paper. It screamed with the headline that none of its readership wanted to see: Their favorite son was leaning toward the NFL.
I feared an embarrassing faux pas. My story was wrong; surely, the locals had the inside scoop.
After a 30-second preamble in which he made it sound like he was leaving school, the poker-faced Manning broke into a smile and declared his intention to stay for his senior year. People cheered at the news conference, but you could also hear a thunderous roar beyond the walls. Turns out the entire campus was watching on closed-circuit television.
Instead of bolting after the big announcement, wading into the campus celebration that awaited him, Manning stayed. And stayed. He sat at the table, flanked by his parents, Archie and Olivia, and spoke to every last reporter. I went to a side room to write my story. When I returned, Manning still was talking to reporters and well-wishers in a near-empty room. Over and over, he shared his thought process, explaining his decision. Nothing personal against the Jets, he said. He was polite, gracious and thoughtful, displaying uncommon maturity for a 20-year-old. This kid, I thought, is special.
Meanwhile, 600 miles away, the Jets were stung by the unexpected news. To say it was a franchise-altering decision would be a gross understatement.
“We were hoping he’d come out of Tennessee early in '97 because we all thought he’d be a Jet," former cornerback Ray Mickens said the other day. "I’m still upset about that decision. I think we could’ve won a championship or two with that group of players. It was brutal, just brutal. There were a lot of conspiracy theories floating around. His dad orchestrated a lot of things, and some people think his dad didn’t want Peyton playing for Parcells because Parcells was, quote-unquote, a quarterback killer. That was one of the conspiracy theories. People still ask me about that (decision). It still hurts to this day.”
Not in Knoxville. Manning enhanced his legend that day. When everybody expected him to leave and grab the money, he stayed. His adopted state celebrated, and a relieved reporter in the front row exhaled.