June 24, 2014
By Brian Rice KNOXVILLE, Tenn.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.- When Peyton Manning left the University of Tennessee, he didn't just walk away with an SEC Championship and virtually every record in the passing section of the media guide.
Manning left campus with two degrees earned with honors, the result of a relentless approach in the classroom that rivaled the one that he applied on the practice field. And while his dominance of the record books cemented his football legacy, it was an academic contribution that has perhaps paid the greatest dividend.
On Monday afternoon, two of the highest-achieving in-state students entering the University of Tennessee, Alex Crockett from Jamestown and Cody Sain from Medina, were named recipients of The Manning Scholarship, an award in its 17th year that has now rewarded 21 of the best and brightest students to enter UT since 1998.
More than just recipients of an award, Manning sees the honorees as members of a family. His family.
"It's been a great connection to me, with the University, not just the football program," Manning said as he signed items and posed for pictures with Crockett, Sain and their families in the locker room at Neyland Stadium that bears his name. "I've been just as proud of that. I'm a great supporter of the football program and been in touch with it, but it's been a connection with the student body, the academic side of it, the campus life part of it. All of these students that have received the scholarship have gone on to do great things on campus and continue to do great things. It's been a family, and that's been very important to me."
A member of that family, 2010 Tennessee alumnae Nora Hassell, returned to campus to share with Manning and the newest what the scholarship had meant to her and her life. She recounted how the scholarship allowed her to attend UT without burdening her family and how the lack of debt has helped her and her husband as they embarked on starting a family of their own.
In introducing the newest recipients, Manning stood under the famous "I Will Give My All For Tennessee Today" sign and encouraged them to live it. A message that hit home for Hassell.
"When you ask me what I do, this is what I do every day," she said, gesturing to the sign. "I'm a local girl, I grew up about 35 minutes from this university on a dairy farm and I've chosen to stay here and invest in these people and my family."
"It means a lot," Manning said of Hassell's words at the podium. "You're trying to make an impact, but each of them are personal and you don't know what it's going to mean. It's a personal connection to each of them. To hear that, what it meant for her current family with her husband and daughter and for her parents as well, that was the idea. She took advantage of her four years here and the resources provided to her and we're proud to be a part of that."
Sain, who will be a Pre-Medical/Microbiology major at UT, said the scholarship not only removed a financial burden from his family, it gave him the confidence entering the University that his dreams and aspirations are now goals right there for the taking.
"This scholarship is a blessing," said Sain. "With every week comes something new, it just changed my life. With this scholarship, I know people believe in me and that helps me believe in myself even more. With that, I plan to do great things.
For Crockett, who plans to major in Food Science Technology, receiving The Manning Scholarship has been an extra push to live up to the honor. The fact that he grew up a fan of Manning on the field only underscores that extra expectation.
"For years Peyton's hard work, dedication and selflessness on and off the field has been an inspiration to me and has changed so many lives," Crockett said. "I feel like it has challenged me to find my own path so I can do the same. It's not just an opportunity, it's a challenge. I don't know what the next four years have to offer, but I know what I want to get out of it. Like Peyton, I don't plan on quitting anytime soon."
Manning asked both to stay in touch with updates on their academic careers and lives, as other members of the family have done. But most of all, he wanted them both to live up to the words on the sign, encouraging them to take a photo with it as they left as a reminder of the mission ahead.
"I remember hearing a quote from Peyton once that life is about making decisions, first you ask questions, then you listen to the answers, then you listen to your heart," said Crockett. "I never dreamed I would be a Peyton Manning Scholar and would be compared to such a great representative of the University of Tennessee. When I received that award letter, I was so humbled to be a part of this family."
"It's so special in its uniqueness, it's a Tennessee Volunteer," Sain said of Manning's challenge. "Being a part of that family with Peyton, it changes your life. It means giving back to the people that made me, not just back in my community, but all over Tennessee. Without Tennessee, you're not who you are."