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On a Blisteringly hot Friday afternoon two years ago, Peyton Manning stood outside Florida's Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and looked at the future through innocent eyes. A promising sophomore who the next day would start for Tennessee against Florida in the first truly big game of his brief career, Manning envisioned stepping into he world he had dreamed about since he was a child listening to rebroadcasts of his father's renowned career at Mississippi. "I can't wait to get out there," he said that afternoon, sweating through his sport coat despite a shower after the customary light practice on enemy turf. "I want to run through the tunnel for warmups and hear people yell, 'Manning, you suck!" and 'Tennessee sucks.' I want hear that. I came to Tennessee to play in this kind of Game." He was a kid then, 19 years old, beaten just once is a starter in 10 games. Anything was possible.
Manning returns to Gainesville on Saturday as the most famous player in the college game, a polished quarerback who turned down the chance to be the first pick in April's NFL draft so that he could play a fourth year at Tennessee. He is also an accomplished student, having earned a B.S. (speech communications) in three years with a 3.6 grade point average. He signs autographs, speaks to schoolchildren, visits hospitals and throws the deep sideline route. Last week when Tennessee students camped out waiting for fewer than 800 tickets to go on sale for this year's Florida game. Manning bought 20 pizzas for those at the back of the line. He is everything that college football purports to be but seldom is. He is something else too. He is the punch line to some of Steve Spurrier's best jokes.
I know why Peyton came back for his senior year. He wanted to he a three-time star of the Citrus Bowl.
The stand-up routine started after the Tennessee-Florida game in 1995. The Volunteers were brilliant for nearly a half, sprinting to a 30-14 lead before disintegrating in a 62-37 loss, a defeat so humiliating that it made an 11-1 season and a Citrus Bowl victory over Ohio State seem inconsequential. One year later Tennessee attracted an NCAA-record crowd of 107,608 to Neyland Stadium in Knoxville and seemed to marshal the support of the entire state for Florida's visit. Less than five minutes into the second quarter Florida led 35-0, and by halftime Manning had thrown four interceptions en route to another blowout of comic proportions. The game finished 35-29, as misleading a final score-as has ever been recorded. (Tennessee players and coaches often claim that they simply came up short in a furious and noble comeback, but Florida defensive coordinator Bob Stoops said last week, "If that's the way they want to look at it. fine, but we definitely pulled the dogs off.") Tennessee went 10-2 and again won the Citrus Bowl.
In the off-season, at Salisbury steak and rubber-chicken dinners with Florida booster clubs, coach Spurrier teed up his A material and unloaded on Tennessee.
I heard they just hung a new sign outside the Citrus Bowl in Orlando: WINTER HOME OF THE TENNESSEE I VOLUNTEERS.
Yeah, that stadium up in Knoxville sure was loud last year. Then the game started.
You know you can't spell Citrus without U-T.
Spurrier sat behind his desk in Gainesville last week and issued a timid disclaimer. "I say those things at Gator clubs because Gators like to hear them," he said. "If [Tennessee coach] Phil Fulmer wants to go on his Big Orange caravan and say funny things about the Gators, that wouldn't bother me one little bit. Besides, I don't make those jokes if there's any media in the audience." He paused. "Usually I don't, anyway." In fact this year he often did just that.
Spurrier delights in tweaking Tennessee for its ability to beat nearly every other team in the country and lose to Florida without a fight, despite making the Gators the focal point of its season. His jokes are painful to Vols fans and players but hilarious to everybody else for the same reason: The jokes strike so close to the truth.