Assigned to guard the crime scene at the U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve Center on Amnicola Highway late Saturday evening, Chattanooga policeman Joe Silva was taking a quick phone call from his father when a fellow officer tapped him on the shoulder.
Said the officer to Silva: "Peyton Manning wants to talk to you."
Sure enough, there stood the most popular football player in University of Tennessee history, offering his right hand for a handshake and heartfelt condolences for the Thursday morning terrorist murder of four Marines and Randall Smith, a Navy petty officer who was a friend of Silva's from both men's service in the Navy reserve.
"I couldn't believe it," Silva said. "Peyton and his wife just pulled up on the side of the road. He got out and thanked us for our service and told us how sorry he was for what happened. He probably stayed 30 minutes. It means so much to us that he would take the time to do that."
For those who have closely followed Manning's magnificent career off the field, his actions should surprise no one. Almost no celebrity did more to help with disaster relief following Hurricane Katrina's destruction of Peyton's hometown of New Orleans than the Manning clan.
Then there are the Peyton Manning Scholarships. Twenty-five incoming UT students have received them since Manning first initiated the program back in 1998, and each scholarship's total worth can max out at close to $35,000 if that student is approved for a graduate school gift.
Finally, his Peyback Foundation has donated more than $6.6 million to youth clubs and programs in Tennessee, Indiana (where he played for the Indianapolis Colts from 1998-2011) and Colorado (where he has played for the Denver Broncos since 2012) since it was first formed in 1999.
But it's the stories you're never supposed to hear that make Manning special, beginning with his visit to the Amnicola crime scene with his wife, Ashley. Had Silva not posted a picture of himself and Manning on Facebook, chances are no one would ever have known - or there at least would have been no proof of it.
Manning certainly didn't seek publicity. He arrived after 9:30 p.m., when it probably would have been too late for television stations or newspapers to send a reporter to get the story. The police department's public relations staff didn't even know about the quarterback's visit until news of the Facebook photo began to spread Sunday afternoon.
Said the Chattanooga Police Department on Sunday evening in a prepared statement: "This event has affected us all and having Mr. Manning visit with our officers, and pay his respects to the Marines and Sailor who lost their lives is greatly appreciated and unexpected."
None of us expected to be here this morning, our city in the national focus so much that Silva's photo with Manning wound up on the Washington Post's website. But while there's some comfort in knowing we aren't in this alone - we were mentioned on all the Sunday morning network television talk shows - at the end of the day, this remains a deeply personal nightmare.
We've been laid low by one of our own, a terrorist educated in our town's school system as well as our town's university. Yet to drive past the crime scenes on Amnicola and Lee Highway on Sunday was to see hundreds, if not thousands, of grateful Americans paying their respects to the fallen by leaving American flags, flowers and messages.
"It's been heartbreaking for me and everybody else," said the 25-year-old Silva, who also admitted after some coaxing that many officers have worked double shifts since early Thursday. "We'll do whatever's needed. Everybody's on board. You just never expect something like this to happen here."
If it's hitting Silva harder than some, it's because he'd gotten to know Smith through the reserves.
"Just a great dude," he said. "We weren't necessarily close, close friends. Randall had only been here about a year and a half. But he had three young kids, and my wife and I have a young daughter and a young son.
"It's just awful. Such a good, good guy."
When Manning agreed to have his picture made with Silva, the good character of the patrol officer got the best of him.
"I probably need to tell you something," said Silva, who moved here in 2012.
"Let me guess," Manning shot back. "You're a New England Patriots fan or a Florida Gators fan, right?"
Responded a sheepish Silva, who grew up in Boston, "I'll tell you after we take the picture."
Yet when the policeman came clean about his pro football allegiances, Manning said, "That's OK. My wife and I are good friends with (Patriots quarterback) Tom Brady."
As expected, Silva has heard from dozens of friends and colleagues since the picture was posted.
"Most of the guys in the department are mad because I didn't call them so they could get pictures and autographs, too," he said. "But there really wasn't that much time."
However, there's plenty of time for the rest of us to extend our right hands to Silva and thank him and the rest of our law enforcement officers and military personnel for all they do to protect us from the bad guys. That's because Silva just re-enlisted with the Navy reserve for six more years.
Asked why, he instantly replied, "Because I love my country."
If Peyton was the first to thank Silva for such patriotism, he'll surely be far from the last.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org
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