Peyton Manning on Ray Lewis’ Crushing Blows & Bret Bielema

The four-time NFL MVP reminisced on his high school days during his talk in Little Rock.
The four-time NFL MVP reminisced on his high school days during his talk in Little Rock.

Pop music has the Grammys. Cinema has the Oscars. Literature’s got the Pulitzer. And now, in the world of local high school sports: the All Arkansas Preps Awards.

More than 1,000 people attended the inaugural awards ceremony on Saturday night in Little Rock that honored top male and female athletes and coaches in eight sports, as chosen by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Awards were also given for academic achievement, community service and perseverance through sickness or injury.

 The banquet’s signature event was an appearance by four-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning. The Denver Broncos quarterback gave a keynote speech and fielded questions from emcee Keith Jackson, a color commentator for Razorbacks football who runs the Positive Atmosphere Reaches Kids program in his native Little Rock.

 Manning, who’s entering his 15th NFL season, encouraged the 300 student-athletes in the Statehouse Convention Center ballroom to work hard and not see their upcoming college years as only a stepping stone but to “enjoy the experience, enjoy the journey.”

Manning retraced much of his own journey as the second son of Hall of Fame quarterback Archie Manning growing up in Lousiana to Super Bowl MVP with the Indianapolis Colts.  Peyton, who never lost to Arkansas during his University of Tennessee career, sprinkled Razorback-related anecdotes throughout the 45-minute Q & A with Jackson.

Below are edited excerpts:

Q: What are some of your memorable moments playing against the Razorbacks 1994-1997?

A: … I remember my senior year here in Little Rock. I always enjoy talking to my dad about the great old college stadiums … He got to play Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, but he never got to play at War Memorial … The the thing I remember about that game, we put a trick play in that week. We put in the ol’ pitch to the running back, throw it to the quarterback, right, and I remember we ran it in practice all week just about perfect. I schooled ‘em  every time. I had been dreaming all week about catching a touchdown – I’d never done that before.

 And sure enough, during the game we got a perfect look … and I pitch it to [running back] Jamal Lewis and he throws it back to me – a perfect pass – and I caught it and I got two yards. Their defense was a lot faster than our scout team’s.

Q: Talk some about Broncos rookie running back Montee Ball, who played for Bret Bielema.

A: Montee Ball was a four-year running back at Wisconsin. He led the NCAA in touchdowns, so we’re excited to have him on the Broncos. We had a little team function the other day and I was asking him about Coach Bielema and he was saying how [instrumental] he was for him and his career, and how lucky he was to play for him. He just thought the world of him, so I could tell [Bielema] is gonna make a great transition to Arkansas.

Q: What do you treasure most about the South?

A: I think Southern hospitality. My parents are from Mississippi, I grew up in New Orleans … Just the people, I really enjoy getting back to New Orleans, getting back to Tennessee. I’ve been here to Little Rock a number of times. Everybody’s been so nice to me here. The Arkansas secondary was always so nice to me.

Q: We normally see you so serious, but there’s a funny side to you. You had a chance to host Saturday Night Live.

A: … The one that people always talk about is the United Way skit, where I’m throwing the football at the kids. A lot of people have asked “Peyton, please tell me you weren’t really hurting those kids.” And I promise you folks, that was a Nerf football … and all these kids, they were all child actors which is a kind of disturbing field in its own way. And all the parents were there the entire time when we were doing that skit and the director said ‘You gotta hit them in the face, you gotta do it.’ And I had to have a little talk with myself before I could do it.

  But I felt a little more comfortable when I heard one of the parents yelling at the director ‘I want him to hit my kid in the face!’”

Q: What’s this [I’ve read] about you with the younger players, you assign them movies to watch?

A: Now you’ve got to remember I’m 37 years old. I had a rookie just the other day who told me he was born in 1988. He was seven years old when I was a sophomore at Tennessee and he said he liked watching me play on ESPN Classic.

I wouldn’t draft this kid on your fantasy team this year. I’m probably not gonna throw him many passes. [No Broncos rookie WRs or TEs were born in 1988. Manning is likely referring to WR Gerell Robinson, who was born in 1989, or TE Julius Thomas, a third-year TE born in 1988] h/t to Stuart Zaas]

Most of the rookies this year are 21, 22, so I’ve got to work hard to get on the same page and connect with them … Now I’ve seen all their favorite movies but to speak the same language I thought they ought to see some of mine – you know, Caddyshack, Fletch, Stripes and The Jerk. And it’s funny – they watched them and they really didn’t think they were funny, which really makes me feel old.

Q: When did you know you’re going to play in the NFL?

A: It wasn’t until I was a junior at Tennessee that a scout asked me “Are you thinking about coming out this year?” I said  “Wow, maybe I do have a chance to play in the NFL.”

… I think people, you know, thought that I was some kind of prodigy, with a great arm, with great speed. I remember when I was in eighth grade, Cooper, my older brother, wanted to get a little faster so we went off to a speed guru in New Orleans. We worked with this guy for a month and at the end of the month he wanted to time us in the 40 [yard dash]… I ran against an offensive lineman from another school, a bigger guy. and we raced in the 40, and I didn’t hear my time, but he beat me – and he had a 5.8 [second mark – a very slow time for an elite skill position player].

Q: Talk about your recent visit to our troops in Afghanistan … [Reference to Manning’s Feb. 25-March 2 tour with other pro athletes through the United Service Organizations Inc.,  a nonprofit organization providing programs, services and live entertainment to U.S. troops and their families.

A: It was an unbelievable visit … I just got a chance to meet our boys who flew into Afghanistan. We flew over to an aircraft carrier east of Iran. We went over to Spain, Italy and North Africa … They were inspiring us, just to watch the teamwork – when we were landing on all those aircraft carriers, to see these 18 and 19 year olds communicating with these planes – to know when there’s a war going on, we got to get these planes up and out… I told my offensive line ‘“If you ever jump offside again after what I just witnessed…”

Each base we would go to the commander would give me eight names to call out and wherever the [people] were, I had to throw a football to them. I’ve thrown a lot of passes to a lot of people but a Marine cannot put his or her rifle down at any point. So they called Lance Corporal [uncertain name] and she had an M-16 on her shoulder and I thought she might put the gun down – but they can’t put it down – and I threw a little post pattern and ran she ran out and snagged that ball with the M-16 on her back and it was just about the greatest catch I’d ever seen. I was wondering if I didn’t throw a good pass, she might just pull that M-16 on me…

It makes you proud to be an American. It really did. It was a life changing trip for me.

[Afterward Keith Jackson asks for all military personnel to stand up in the ballroom. About seven stand up toward the back, and they receive thundering applause].

Q: Who hit you the hardest? [This was from a high schooler, not Keith Jackson]

A: Who hit me the hardest? Wow; I’ve been hit a lot. Uh, Ray Lewis hit me the hardest. I am not sorry to see Ray Lewis retire. I tell ya … when he hit you, he’d kind of like to drive you into the ground. He’d kind of like to use you to help him get up. Then he’d whisper something like “I’ll be back in a couple minutes.”

Peyton wraps by mentioning he and Lewis had been to plenty Pro Bowls together and Peyton always treated Ray to stuff – dinner, golf clubs – that would hopefully lessen the severity of those blows during the game.

It never worked.

A condensed version of this Q &A originally published in Sync

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