Quarterback Peyton Manning has switched NFL jerseys — from the Indianapolis Colts to the Denver Broncos — but his loyalty to the University of Tennessee will never waver.
UT is Manning's alma mater, the place where he gained national stardom (1994-97), where he won over throngs of fans with his amazing talent, tenacious work ethic, and affable personality.
Once a Vol. Always a Vol.
You could hear it in his voice Monday during a break from the Peyton Manning Golf Classic at Fox Den Country Club benefitting Children's Hospital and Manning's PeyBack Foundation.
"I'll be pulling hard for them (the Vols) this year," said Manning.
UT has had losing seasons in both years under Dooley — going 6-7 in 2010 and 5-7 last season. The Vols are 4-12 in SEC games under Dooley, including a 1-7 record in 2011 and a stunning loss to Kentucky.
"It's a big year (for UT)," Manning said. "It's such a tough schedule. The SEC really reminds me of the NFL, that it's so competitive, so I think it's an important year for us. Talking to some of the folks over there, I know they've had a good offseason, they've worked hard, had a good spring, and it will be important to have a good summer and to play well this season."
And it's a big year for Manning, who missed the 2011 season after multiple neck surgeries. Still, Manning plans to be at UT's Oct. 20 game against Alabama at Neyland Stadium — during the Broncos' bye week — and it will be a memorable day for him and his former UT coach, Phillip Fulmer.
"I'm looking forward to that game," Manning said. "I can't tell you how excited I am for Coach Fulmer going into the College (Football) Hall of Fame this year, and they're going to honor him that weekend, so it will be special to be here for that."
Manning was at UT later Monday to present the Peyton Manning Scholar
ship winners and is expected to return today and work out with some of the Vols.
There might be some strained relationships for Colts fans who have a tough time seeing Manning in another NFL uniform. The 36-year-old Manning spent 14 years with the Colts, but Indianapolis allowed him to became a free agent after the 2011 season, and he signed a five-year $96 million contract with the Broncos in March.
However, Manning expects to have his share of Broncos fans in East Tennessee.
"I think in this part of the country, I've always felt like fans around here, maybe not necessarily were Colts fans," the four-time NFL MVP said. "I think they were just kind of fans of me, fans of all the former players that have played here at Tennessee. I certainly think you've got Titan fans here. I've had some fans that say they'll be tuning into Broncos' games, but of course we've got four Tennessee Vols on the Broncos."
Manning will be playing alongside punter Britton Colquitt, linebacker Robert Ayres, and rookie defensive lineman Malik Jackson, all former Vols.
"It's the most Tennessee players I've played with at one time since I've been back in college," Manning said, "so I've always thought folks here in Knoxville, East Tennessee, have always kept up with their alumni, so it's fun to be playing with some former Vols."
Manning, who's entering his 15th NFL season, is still regaining his arm strength after having neck fusion surgery in September. He has spent as much time as possible working out with the Broncos. He finished mini camp with the Broncos last Thursday and has about five weeks off before the start of training camp July 25.
Asked if contact was a concern once he gets into live football, Manning said, "No, it's not."
Instead, Manning is mainly concerned with getting back with his new teammates, back into the film room, and learning a new system.
"No question it's been a huge transition for me, and obviously not playing last year, every chance I can get to do a team activity, a seven-on-seven drill, being in the huddle, calling different plays, different language, you feel kind of like a rookie again in a lot of ways, except you're not allowed to play like one," Manning said. "But I've made this clear from the get-go that I still have rehab that I have to do."
Dave Link is a freelance contributor.