BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Back in late March, as Stanford was completing a second-round upset of Wake Forest in the NCAA Tournament, a disappointed viewer clicked off the television in his Knoxville, Tenn., apartment.
Peyton Manning could feel Tim Duncan's pain.
The connection between the two was unmistakable. You could hardly miss the parallel.
Duncan, the oh-so-talented Wake Forest center, had spurned conventional wisdom and the NBA's millions to return for his senior season. He had yet to reach a Final Four, yet to play for a national championship, so going No. 1 overall in the NBA draft could wait.
This wasn't the only reason for Duncan's return, but it was a key factor. So when the Demon Deacons came up short for the fourth and final time in Duncan's otherwise outstanding career, Manning knew what the critics would say.
Bad move, Mr. St. Croix. Should have turned pro last year and saved yourself the trouble.
Manning winced. He knew he was setting himself up for similar disappointment and derision. His March 5 announcement that he, too, would return for his senior season at Tennessee stunned the experts.
How could Manning pass up the NFL's millions? Even if they would come from the lowly New York Jets, how could this prototypical quarterback delay such a payoff? And to think, he was on course to graduate from Tennessee in three years. What was the point of sticking around for grad school?
Then Manning thought back to his Feb. 22 meeting with Duncan, a brief chat outside the Wake Forest locker room after a game in Charlottesville, Va. And Manning felt better.
Let the critics bray. Let the cynics laugh.
He had made his decision for the right reasons.
"I talked to Tim during the season and got some advice," Manning said last week at the Southeastern Conference football media days. "I said, `I'm sure you want to win the championship.' But he said, `Peyton, whatever happens this season, I did what I wanted to do. You should do what you want to do, too.' He had a big influence on my decision."
Manning was truly on the fence at the time of the Charlottesville powwow.
He knew he loved college life but he also knew the Jets could put a lot of zeroes at the end of his paycheck.
He knew the Vols had a great team coming back but he also knew he was 0-3 against Florida and would have to play at The Swamp on Sept. 20.
But Manning also knew he admired what Duncan had done - for himself and his sport - and liked the idea of trying it himself.
"You're pulling for a guy like that," Manning said. "He got beat by a better team in the tournament and people might say he made a mistake coming back. But Tim told me he enjoyed college, he enjoyed his senior year and he did what he wanted to do. It's the same case for me. I know he played the best he could that day (against Stanford) and gave everything he had. That's all I want to do this year."
And if Florida spanks the Vols yet again, if Manning falls short of the SEC championship, much less the national championship, he knows some people will pity him the way they pitied Duncan last March. But he's not worried about that.
"I know Tim did what he wanted to do and I did what I wanted to do, and that's all we can live with," Manning said. "People are going to have other ideas of what's important. Tim and I know what's important to us. That's being in college and having personal happiness. That's what it comes down to. That's what it's all about."
Where Duncan and Manning seem to diverge is their comfort level in the spotlight. Duncan led a fairly sheltered existence until he left the Virgin Islands and burst onto the college basketball scene in late 1993. By his senior year, he grew so tired of his media inquisitors that he turned surly and sullen. That was one part of his decision Duncan may have regretted.
Manning, conversely, truly seems to enjoy sparring with the press. He saw the positive relationship his famous father, Archie Manning, maintained with the media throughout his NFL career and sees no reason why he can't duplicate it. He accepts the fact he's going to be asked the same questions, over and over, this fall. In fact, he apologizes for racing through his answers at warp speed.
"People are always asking me, `What's the real reason you stayed?"' Manning said. "I think that's just because it's different from the norm. I wasn't trying to make a statement for college athletes, but I don't mind being an ambassador for college football.
"I'm just letting other people know it's OK to stay for your senior year, that there's nothing wrong with it. Even though everybody else is letting it pass, that doesn't mean you have to. I stayed. You can stay too."
How can you not pull for a guy like that?
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