Wiedmer: Philanthropy may overtake football as Peyton's greatest legacy

His name was Tyler Frenzel. When he was 7 years old he was diagnosed with leukemia. He spent the next two years of his fragile life moving in and out of Indiana hospitals, fighting a brave fight he could not win.

One of those hospital visits led him to Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent in Indianpolis. He soon became friends with Manning, the Indianapolis Colts' quarterback in those days.

"For two or three months after that, Peyton would invite him to charity events," recalled University of Tennessee associate athletic director for communications Ryan Robinson, who was Manning's personal assistant at that time. "Or he'd have Tyler sit in a suite at Colts games."

Along with former major league baseball player Scott Rolen, Manning soon became fascinated with young Frenzel's goal to build a giant treehouse where children with leukemia could go to, in Tyler's words, "feel normal."

Then Tyler Frenzel died at the age of 9 on Dec. 11, 2004, his treehouse still nothing more than a kid's touching dream.

"Peyton called me the next day," Robinson recalled. "He said, 'We've got to honor Tyler. We've got to raise money to build that treehouse. We've got to do it now.'"

Ten days later, on Dec. 21, 2004, Manning, Rolen and Indy's Bob and Tom Show staged a charity auction that raised more than $150,000 in a couple of hours. More than 11 years later, Tyler's Treehouse stands at Camp Emma Lou, a family camp Rolen runs near Bloomington, Ind., on Lake Monroe. The camp and the treehouse opened the year after Frenzel died.

"That's just the kind of person Peyton is," Robinson said. "He's always trying to help somebody. And most of the time, nobody knows about it. They threw that auction together in less than two weeks. They had autographed Derek Jeter jerseys. They had tickets to the Super Bowl, I think. They had amazing stuff. And Peyton was on top of all of it."

An estimated 188.9 million Americans are projected to tune in Super Bowl 50 a little after 6 tonight on CBS to see if Manning's current team, the Denver Broncos, can help the 39-year-old quarterback come out on top against the Carolina Panthers.

And a Denver win not only would make Manning the oldest starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl but also make him the first to guide two different teams (the other being the Colts) to world championships.

Throw in the fact that he's the NFL record holder for passing yards and touchdown passes in a career, as well as the only player to be named the league's MVP five times, and a case could be made for Manning being the best ever. Especially if he wins today.

Yet an argument could also be made that football might struggle to hold off philanthropy as Peyton's best legacy, whether Manning retires this winter, as is being rumored, or long into the future.

Or have you forgotten the July 16 terrorist attack in the Scenic City, the one that cost five military personnel their lives? The attack that led Manning to join U.S. senator and former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker in starting the Chattanooga Heroes Fund to aid the families of the victims.

"What people may not know is that Peyton and (wife) Ashley were out of town when the attacks happened," Corker said Friday. "They drove to the memorial site on Amnicola as soon as they got off the airplane to comfort our servicemen, law enforcement and First Responders."

One of those Manning met that Saturday evening was Chattanooga policeman Joe Silva, a Boston native and huge New England Patriots fan. Reached Friday, Silva admitted that spending time with Manning that night wasn't enough to keep him from pulling for the Pats against the Broncos in the AFC title game two weeks ago.

And because of that rivalry, he'll probably root for the Panthers tonight. But he also said, "Peyton's a great, great person all the way around. And if this is it for him, if he really is about to retire, I'll be happy for him if he wins."

When a Pats fan can be happy for a Manning success, something truly magical may be in the air.

Corker is more than happy that the Heroes Fund raised more than $1 million before it was closed in September, but he is equally thrilled to give his slightly more famous partner in the fund the credit for its success.

"(That success) would not have happened without Peyton," Corker said. "His dedication and involvement were crucial. And what's so impressive to me is that he continues to stay in contact with the victims' families."

Nor are Tyler's Treehouse and the Heroes Fund Manning's only large-scale successes. There are his Peyton Manning Scholarships at UT, which have been awarded to 25 students since 1998 and can carry a total value of nearly $35,000 should the student choose to use the graduate school portion of the scholarship.

There is also the Peyback Foundation, which has donated more than $6.6 million to youth clubs and programs in Tennessee, Indiana and Colorado since it was formed in 1999.

Using words that sound remarkably similar to those uttered by Robinson and Corker, UT's Carmen Tegano - who will attend the Super Bowl today at Levi's Stadium in California - said of Manning's intense involvement with the scholarship program: "He runs those meetings to decide the scholarship winners each year like a football practice. Everything is extremely organized. And Peyton's very cognizant of each candidate's background. He also keeps up with them after they come here."

Yet it's the largely unsung gestures that separate him from so many of today's celebrities.

"I really believe it's the private side of Peyton that makes him special," said golfing buddy and former UT-Chattanooga basketball great Brandon Born, whose brief NBA career also took place in Denver.

"He treats everybody the same, whether he knows you or not, whether you're a friend or not. He might not have been to a particular course in a year or two, but he'll still remember the name of the guy who parked his car the last time or the kid who sold him golf balls."

Duke football coach David Cutcliffe, who was UT's offensive coordinator when Manning played for the Vols, shared this insight concerning Manning through an email.

Wrote Cutcliffe, who'll also attend the Super Bowl: "I absolutely love the fact that Peyton is a great husband and a great father. Sometimes when we talk I will hear the twins in the background, and it makes me smile. The commitment he has to his family is so incredibly strong, and so sincere."

A few months ago, Born asked Peyton if he would mind calling a woman in Knoxville who was a big Manning fan but was also struggling with health issues.

"Get me her cellphone," Peyton replied.

A day or two later, Born received a text: "Just spoke to her. All is well."

Born smiled a small smile, one shaped by great pride in a good friend.

"That's Peyton," he said. "Just working behind the scenes, always doing the right thing."

And because of that, despite the sports journalist's No. 1 rule never to cheer for one team over the other, I'll pull as hard for the Broncos today as I've ever cheered for anyone in my professional life as I predict a 24-21 Denver win. To paraphrase the old Luther Ingram song, If rooting for Peyton is wrong, I don't want to be right.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com