By Alex Norman

It’s always a special occasion when Peyton Manning, one of the best football players in Tennessee history, returns to Knoxville. Manning was in town last week to renew acquaintances, and to headline his own charity golf tournament, the Peyton Manning Golf Classic, which was held at Fox Den Country Club in Farragut.

“I had a wonderful four years here in Knoxville,” said Manning. “I think when you play football here at the University of Tennessee, you are a Tennessean from that point on. The Knoxville community really welcomed me during me four years here and has welcomed me since.”

Manning’s tournament benefits his own “PeyBack Foundation,” as well as East Tennessee Children’s Hospital.  According to a press release from ETCH, “Funds raised in 2014 will benefit the Emergency Department at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital with emphasis toward the purchase of much needed equipment to safely lift and transport patients, high-tech infant monitors and special machines to keep newborns warm.”

“These people are friends of mine, have been very supportive of me, throughout my time here I am grateful for that, said Manning. “This is something I look forward to every year on the calendar, always around this time, third week in June.  And it brings me back to a place I love very much.”

Manning added, “I’m proud of what the PeyBack Foundation has done, giving funds to programs in this area that are helping out kids who don’t have life easy. This tournament… hard to believe it has been 17 years… we’re proud to partner with East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, helping a lot of kids in a lot of different ways.”  PeyBack Foundation and ETCH will share more than $165,000 raised at this tournament.

While in Knoxville, Manning spent time at his alma mater. As he had done in previous visits, Manning worked out with the present day Tennessee Volunteers and addressed the team. He also caught up with head coach Butch Jones. Manning believes that Jones has Tennessee football back on track.

“Butch (Jones) had a lot of work to do when he got here and he has put in that work,” said Manning. “He is signing some of his players.  Every coach wants his players. I think he has been patient and at the same time he has been as hard working as he was advertised to be.  I just see it continuing to be better.  I really do. I really like Butch.  I’m a big Butch Jones fan. We communicate pretty often throughout the season… he does a great job keeping me updated on what is going on.”

Peyton Manning has maintained a strong connection with the people of East Tennessee and has done so ever since his playing days for the Volunteers (1994-1997).  Manning values his annual summer trips back to Knoxville, but also realizes that the hard work of another NFL campaign is about to begin as he gets set for his third season in Denver.  Manning led the Broncos to the AFC Championship last year, but fell short of the NFL title with a Super Bowl loss to Seattle.

Manning is entering his 17th season in professional football, but won’t put a timetable on how much longer he expects to play.

“It has been the second chapter of my football career. I think a one year at a time basis is a good philosophy,” said Manning. “I think you want to really evaluate, are you still helping a team… is there any way I am hurting a team or slowing them down… Are you still enjoying the games? That isn’t hard to do.  But are you still enjoying the OTAs (Organized Team Activities), the April throwing sessions off campus, do you have the same energy, do you look forward to training camp getting here July 23rd, or do you dread that date…  But as long as you are still looking forward to it and the preparation part to it, then I would like to still do it as long as I can still help the team and make an impact. So I feel lucky to still be playing.”