I wanted to take the time to thank you for your unparalleled contributions to not only the Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, and the NFL as a whole, but also to our shared alma mater, the University of Tennessee, and the entire sport of football. The amazing positive impact you have had on the cities of New Orleans, Knoxville, Indianapolis, and Denver, as well as countless other communities, is absolutely astounding. There is an endless list of accomplishments, both on and off the field, that will be written about, talked about, and discussed for years to come. For now though, I will leave all of that to others, and will take this opportunity to instead thank you for the personal impact you have had on my life.
The incredible influence you have had on my life is immeasurable. You have quite literally helped shape my life into what it is today on every level possible: academically, professionally, and personally. My dad is a Tennessee alum, and my mom likes to say I was “brainwashed from Day 1” but I just like say my dad raised me the right way: to bleed Tennessee Orange. I grew up in Lawrence, Kansas and stuck out like a sore thumb as a lone (but very bright) spot of orange in the sea of crimson and blue called ‘Jayhawk Country’ but I will never forget sitting with my dad and watching you throw touchdowns to Joey Kent on Saturdays. That is when I became a football fan. That is why I became a football fan. I was barely six years old when you announced your decision to become a Tennessee Volunteer and there was no way for anybody to know then just how big of a spark that would provide for the direction my life has taken in the 22 years since that moment.
I remember it all. I remember when you decided to return to Tennessee for your senior year. I remember watching you lead a second half comeback against Auburn in the 1997 SEC Championship game. I remember getting a signed Tennessee jersey for Christmas the year before with an autograph that reads “To Weller, Peyton Manning #16” across the six. I remember sitting in my Mema’s kitchen and watching the 1998 NFL draft as you were selected first overall by the Indianapolis Colts. I remember your MVP seasons. I remember your record-breaking performances. I remember feeling the elation from every win and the anguish after every loss. But most importantly, I remember making the decision to move to Knoxville and thinking about how cool it would be to walk around on the same campus that Peyton Manning walked around on, sit in the same lecture halls that Peyton Manning sat in, and in the end, being able to say that I have the same alma mater as Peyton Manning.
Initially, I had decided to stay in Lawrence and attend the University of Kansas as a mathematics major, and though I was still in Lawrence, my heart was always in Knoxville. For that reason, I decided to take a few years off from school, move to Knoxville and wait to earn in-state tuition before officially transferring to the University of Tennessee. It was a hard decision to make, but having the knowledge that choosing to go to Tennessee was also a hard decision for you helped give me the courage to make that same choice, which has turned out to be the best decision I have ever made in my life.
At Tennessee I switched my major to sport management because I knew I wanted to work within the world of sport, and more specifically, I wanted to work in football. I have no doubt that this desire was born from watching you play for so many years, and even though I wasn’t athletically gifted enough to make an impact on the sport as a player in the same way that you have, I knew that I was smart enough and driven enough to still be able to contribute to the sport in my own way if I was willing to work hard enough for it. You inspired this belief through years of talking to the media about how even if you weren’t always the most talented or athletic person on the field that you knew you would work harder than anyone else out there. You mentioned it again today in your retirement press conference saying, “there were other players who were more talented, but there was no one who could out-prepare me and because of that I have no regrets.” I hope that at the end of my career, I will be able to look back and have a similar sentiment.
For now I will settle for having a similar sentiment toward UT, because I will forever cherish the time I spent in Knoxville. In May of 2014 I was finally able to officially say that I proudly share the same alma mater as Peyton Manning. Not only did I complete my life-long dream of graduating from the University of Tennessee and being able to work in the athletic department during my time there, but I also met my soon-to-be wife. And it should be noted that we literally picked the date of our wedding (June 18, 2016) based on the fact that it contains your jersey numbers from your time in the NFL and at Tennessee.
After completing my undergraduate degree I had to figure out how to best prepare myself for my new dream of pursuing a career in football analytics. To do this I needed to study under the tutelage of Dr. Kevin Mongeon, a professor who specializes in sport analytics at a university in Canada. This meant having to make another hard decision. However, this time it was choosing to leave Tennessee. Nearly two years later, I am now wrapping up my master’s degree (with a thesis that focuses on fourth downs in the NFL) and have been working part-time in the Buffalo Bills’ football analytics department for about a year.
After I graduate, I am hoping to find employment with a team and start my own career in the NFL. It has been 28 years, but the first year of my life (1988) was the same year you started playing organized football as a seventh grader. The first year that I will be able to work full-time in football (2016) is the same year you announced that you would no longer be playing. Over the course of that time, I couldn’t have asked for a better hero from a fan’s standpoint. More importantly, I couldn’t have asked for a better person to serve as my inspiration to pursue my academic dreams, my idol for what I would like to accomplish with my professional goals, or my role model for who I strive to be as a man.
In your press conference today you said, “I cherished my time in Knoxville, especially my senior year. And I want Vols fans everywhere to know the unique role that you’ve played in my life.” I wanted to write this letter to you to turn the tables on that quote, because I want you to know the unique role that you’ve played in my life, and that I will be forever grateful for it.
Thank you, Peyton. You truly are the greatest of all time.