ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --As handshakes and embraces were simultaneously exchanged, the exclamation, "Coach, great to see you!" repeatedly filled the air on a sunny morning at Dove Valley – and with good reason. For Peyton Manning and a handful of other Broncos, Saturday marked a special reunion with the man who, appropriately enough, once coached them on Saturdays – former Tennessee Head Coach Phillip Fulmer.
Fulmer – who coached Manning, defensive end Robert Ayers, punter Britton Colquitt, and Offensive Assistant Jim Bob Cooter during their respective tenures at Tennessee – attended the Broncos' walkthrough on Saturday morning, warmly reuniting with players who developed under his tutelage long before their NFL careers began.
"Since I've been out of coaching, I've tried to get around during the course of the season to see my guys who are still playing," Fulmer said. "Robert was a great player for us, Britton was a great punter for us, and obviously, Peyton Manning is the greatest ever at Tennessee."
Fulmer, who also had both Cooter and Assistant Special Teams Coach Derius Swinton on his staff as graduate assistants from 2007-08, noted that Saturday marked the first time that he had visited with former players in Denver.
"I hadn't been to Denver," he said. "I saw Peyton when he was in Indianapolis and everything, but I wanted to come out and spend a couple of days, see the guys and enjoy the game."
For Fulmer – who compiled a 152-52 record at Tennessee from 1992-2008, and whose 1998 team was crowned national champions after a 23-16 win over Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl – the relationships with his former players have reached far beyond the final time they suited up in Tennessee orange jerseys. Instead, Fulmer said that he's made an effort to follow the careers and the lives of the men he once watched grow up on the gridiron.
"I do follow them. The first thing I do on Monday morning is pick up and see how they did if I didn't see the game," he said. "I talk to them quite often, actually – talk, text or email back-and-forth with the guys, keep up with their families. They're men now, you know – they're not children. You had them at a time that was pretty special, 18-22 or so. Most of us are good friends."
Fulmer has observed Manning's career as it has progressed from standout collegiate quarterback to future NFL Hall-of-Famer, and he noted that Manning's high level of execution and leadership have been trademarks since the quarterback left college with 33 school records as a Volunteer.
"He's always played at an unbelievable, high level everywhere," Fulmer said. "We won the national championship – he wasn't on that team, but we won the national championship because of Peyton Manning having been there, the work ethic that was developed and recruiting to his abilities. That's not to take anything away from the guys that were actually on the team the next year. But he's done the same thing everywhere he's been."
Seeing Manning continue to sustain that level of excellence has been particularly exciting for Fulmer.
"To see what he's doing here in Denver is just thrilling, particularly after the injury. To come back and play at the level that he's playing, which is the highest of anybody in the country right now – and maybe he'll be the best ever. I thought that when I coached him, that this guy – I could be a part of something in coaching maybe the best player ever to play the position."
Manning is not alone in achieving NFL success after playing under Fulmer, however – and Fulmer noted that one of the most gratifying aspects from his time coaching has been watching former players succeed in their careers later in life, whether on the field or away from it.
"I think I had something like 92 guys in my 17 years that played in the league – not just drafted, but played," he said. "So that was really special. You also have great respect for the guys that just were the good college players and went on and got into business or whatever. It's fun being a part of their lives and it's really fun to see them have the success that (the Broncos) are having right now."
On a morning of reunions and camaraderie, perhaps no image was more definitive than that of Fulmer – who was accompanied to Denver by three college teammates from his own playing days at Tennessee – trading hello's and warm words with a whole contingent of Broncos who wore Volunteer orange long before they wore Bronco orange.
"Well, here I am, 40 years later with three of my teammates out here from the 60s and early 70s," Fulmer said. "That's what the locker room is about, those friendships that are established in the college game that will be forever. College football – you're three or four years together, usually, and it's a big growing up time of your life. You're 18-22, you establish really what you're going to be. So I loved every minute of it and I'm excited to have touched so many lives."