Aon Miller and his wife Amanda left Chattanooga on Saturday morning for New York City. They'll attend the Super Bowl this evening, rooting hard for their good friend Peyton Manning to win his second Super Bowl ring, his first with the Denver Broncos.
But it's not Manning's immense football skills or his ties to the University of Tennessee that has most impressed Miller all these years.
"He's the most superb person I have ever known," the 1997 UT grad said. "He makes you want to be a better person. You watch him and think, 'That's the way to do it.'"
From a football perspective, a Denver victory tonight over the Seattle Seahawks might cement the argument that Manning has done this NFL quarterback stuff better than anyone who's ever played.
Already the owner of several of pro football's most meaningful records -- including most passing yardage and most touchdown passes in a single season -- Manning could become the first starting quarterback to secure the Lombardi Trophy for separate franchises. He won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts after the 2006 season.
But Miller, who became friends with Manning while both were UT students -- "Peyton's one year younger than me," he said -- also knows how fortunate the player, his family, friends and fans are simply to have Manning back on the field after neck surgery three years ago that kept him out of football for all of the 2011 season.
"I think we're all just elated for him and his family that he's able to play again," Miller said. "We were all worried about him having to sit out that year. But he is also the one person who could come back and do this. He's one of the most competitive people I'ver ever met. When he sets his mind to doing something, he does it. He deserves everything he gets."
The greatest all have that. Michael Jordan. Tiger Woods. The newest Hall of Famers for the Atlanta Braves: pitchers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. Injuries and losses are just new opportunities to reprove their worth.
But as Manning ages, as his twins -- son Marshall and daughter Mosley -- develop, Lookout Mountain resident Marshall Brock said he's also beginning to see some changes in the four-time NFL MVP.
"Everything's more normal now that he's got kids," said Brock, who is a first cousin to Peyton's wife, Ashley. "Everything takes on a different pace. He's very into his kids. They've got a nice little pool at their house, and he loves playing with his kids there. He's a great dad."
The Brocks see the Mannings at family gatherings two or three times a year. The former owners of Clumpies Ice Cream, they used to send Peyton and Ashley dry packs of Cookies and Cream and Cookie Dough. Much like Miller, Brock said the neck injury was difficult on everyone close to the Manning family.
"We all knew what Peyton's older brother, Cooper, had been through with his back," Brock said in recalling how the pass-catcher of the family was forced to give up football at Ole Miss due to a narrowing of the spine. "That put everything in a different light. It was tough."
When Peyton returned to the field with the Broncos after splitting with the Colts, the Brocks made sure to take in a game against Jacksonville.
"We got to see them win, which was great," Brock said, "because Peyton tends to be a more cordial guy when he wins."
Yet a single Brock memory of Manning tells the story of a superstar who is almost always cordial to all he meets.
"We were at a wedding in Memphis and we'd just finished a round of golf," Brock recalled. "Everyone else was heading back to get ready, but Peyton and Eli wanted to play nine more holes. There were two kids getting ready to tee off, maybe 12 or 14 years old. Peyton and Eli joined them, just these two kids they didn't know playing nine holes with a couple of NFL quarterbacks. I always thought that was so neat."
Maybe that's why Miller says, "One thing that stands out about Peyton is his humble nature. He treats everyone exactly the same. He's always said he's just the same as anybody else."
He's not, of course. He's arguably the most famous NFL player on the planet. He's also arguably the world's most charming professional athlete, given his comedic turns on "Saturday Night Live" and his numerous commercial endorsements for everything from Buick to Papa John's Pizza.
"Peyton approaches most of his life with the same intensity he approaches football," Brock said. "He probably prepared for 'Saturday Night Live' the same way he prepares for a game."
Miller, the president-elect of the Tennessee Golf Association, knows this better than most. A scratch golfer, the Cleveland, Tenn., native admitted, "Peyton's beaten me a number of times the past year."
Whether Peyton can defeat the Seahawks tonight for his second ring won't be known until around 10. Miller said he and his wife aren't likely to see Manning either way.
"We kind of fly under the radar," said Miller, who also noted that he doesn't believe he possesses anything signed by Manning.
As for the Brocks, they'll gather around the television this evening in all their Peyton gear, cheering hard for their most famous relative.
"As long as the offensive line can protect him, I think Denver wins," Brock said. "Peyton always delivers when he has time to throw. We just hope he goes out on top."
And should that happen, no matter how he views himself, Manning no longer will be the same as anybody else who's ever played quarterback in the NFL.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...