Adams: UT still high on list of Manning's top causes

It's easy to take Peyton Manning for granted.

If he's not being honored, he's honoring someone else. All the awards presentations probably run together in the mind of the average fan.

But not in the minds of Nora Sue Hutchison or Mike Hamilton.

Hutchison, an honors graduate of Anderson County High School, is the 2006 recipient of the Peyton Manning scholarship to the University of Tennessee. She received the award Thursday in a ceremony at the Thornton Athletics Student Life Center.

Hutchison wasn't a big football fan as a kid, but her earliest childhood memories include her family talking a lot about someone named "Peyton Manning." She said her grandmother refers to him as "an angel in a football helmet."

Hamilton feels similarly about having Manning as an alum and goodwill ambassador for his program. "It's phenomenal," he said Thursday morning on The Sports Page, the News Sentinel radio talk show.

Last September, Manning and his brother, Eli, flew to New Orleans with 30,000 pounds of relief supplies the week after Hurricane Katrina ravaged his hometown. The next month, his UT jersey was retired.

In January, he was named to his eighth consecutive Pro Bowl as the Indianapolis Colts quarterback. A month later, he was honored as the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year.

And, oh by the way, his PeyBack Foundation has distributed more than $1 million in grants in the last six years.

Manning was interested in using his status as a high-profile athlete to help others even when he was a student at UT. But his off-the-field causes aren't all about charity. He's also a huge UT fan.

In fact, if you didn't know better, you would think he grew up in the shadow of Neyland Stadium. He doesn't just sponsor a scholarship to UT or show up to accept an award. He celebrates the victories and mourns the defeats like so many other diehard fans.

"I follow all of it," Manning said. "I get the magazines. I check the News Sentinel on line. I keep up."

He keeps up with more than football.

Earlier this year, Manning called a couple of his Knoxville buddies and asked what they had planned for the evening.

"We're going to the (UT) basketball game," they said.

Said Manning: "That's not what people used to say."

Manning got caught up in UT's basketball revival under first-year coach Bruce Pearl. He regrets his schedule didn't allow him to see a game in person, but he followed the team on television and finally met Pearl at the Final Four in Indianapolis.

"I picked him and his son up at the hotel and took them (to an Indianapolis steakhouse)," Manning said. "He's one of those guys, after the first five minutes, I felt like we had hit it off.

"He keeps up with football and has some Indiana ties. We had a three-hour dinner there. We really had a good evening."

Like other fans, Manning didn't have much to cheer about during football season.

"It seems every time Tennessee is playing, there is somebody in my locker room who went (to the opposing SEC school)," Manning said. "Ninety percent of the time, I'm walking tall on Sunday morning because my team won. But last year was different, losing to some teams we don't normally lose to."

Manning played golf with UT football coach Phillip Fulmer on Wednesday. He threw with UT quarterbacks Wednesday and Thursday. But his expectations for improvement aren't based on inside information.

David Cutcliffe, who returned to UT as offensive coordinator this year, coached Peyton at UT and Eli at Ole Miss. Based on that track record, Manning is convinced Cutcliffe will improve the offense and the quarterbacking.

Manning also will be available if UT quarterback Erik Ainge has a question for a more experienced quarterback.

"I'm not his coach," Manning said. "I'm not going to call him and tell him what he needs to do. If he calls me and has questions for me, I'm more than happy to answer."

Thursday provided another reminder that when it comes to his alma mater, Manning is happy to help more than quarterbacks.

Sports editor John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or adamsj@knews.com.

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