In the locker room that bears his name, Peyton Manning welcomed four special Tennessee students to an elite fraternity on Monday afternoon.
Manning, along with University of Tennessee Provost Dr. Susan Martin, announced the 2016 Peyton Manning Scholarship recipients in a ceremony at Neyland Stadium. With the awards to Benjamin Cruz of Chattanooga, Andrea Ramirez of Cookevile, Chad Smith of Bristol and Courtney Wombles of Loudon, a total of 29 Tennessee students have been named Manning Scholars in the 19 years the award has been given out.
"This is always a fun day for me," Manning said. "It's hard to believe we have 29 Manning Scholarship recipients. Ashley and I have been really fortunate and made a gift to UT two years ago to up the scholarships to four a year. We're proud of all of our recipients, they're all Haslam Scholars and all great Tennessee Volunteers. This is a special day and we hope to continue it forever."
The award covers nearly the full cost of attendance for the students for their academic careers. In exchange, Manning asks that the students continually write letters to keep him updated on their progress and experiences at UT through their academic careers and beyond.
"The University of Tennessee is a school that has such a giant network of alumni that cares so much about the students that still go here," said Chad Smith, a graduate of Tennessee High School and scholarship recipient. "I think that's incredible and it's really cool to be a part of something so great."
The scholarship began after Manning's senior year at Tennessee, when a bevy of postseason awards for his accomplishments on the field and in the classroom yielded thousands of dollars in scholarship monies. For a student that already owned a pair of UT degrees and was well on his way to a long National Football League career, Manning decided to pay those dollars forward.
"We immediately formed an endowment and had people match some of the gifts that I was granted," Manning said. "That formed the seed money for the Manning scholarship. Certainly, Ashley and I have contributed to it over the last 18 years to grow it to four per year."
For Smith, receiving the call the day before his high school graduation that he had been awarded the Manning scholarship not only ensured that he would attend UT, but allowed him to come to school without having to worry about the financial burden that is often associated with attending college.
"Without the Manning Scholarship, I'm not sure where I would have ended up," he said. "It made my decision a lot easier for me. I wasn't sure where I was going to go to school and how I was going to go."
To be further bonded to a school that he grew up loving made the award even more special.
"Growing up in East Tennessee, it's embedded in you that you love UT and Peyton is such a legend, it's hard not to be star-struck," Smith said. "I like what he stands for and all of the inspiring things that he has done."
That reaction and that opportunity are exactly the things that Manning had in mind for future generations of Volunteers when he first founded the scholarship.
"There are great causes out there," Manning said. "I've been involved with hospitals and the foundation, but the gift of education might be the greatest gift that there is."