It was clear that Preston Perry had put a lot of thought into his words.
The careful consideration made sense. The second-grader stood before dozens and dozens of his classmates at Cherry Hills Village Elementary on Sept. 8. He was tasked with introducing a celebrity, a hero whose name and number were emblazoned on countless orange jerseys worn by students and staff alike across the room. Perry handled his duties calmly and confidently.
"He's not only the best player of all time. He's also my friend – Peyton Manning," Perry said, as the entire room seemed to swivel their head toward the back door in unison.
Peyton Manning didn't miss his cue. The Denver Broncos quarterback offered the crowd a casual smile as he made his way through the crowd, offering the seated second-graders high fives and hellos. They responded with whoops and cheers – Manning's arrival had come as a complete surprise to the vast majority of the group. Manning visited the school after Perry's family successfully bid on an item at a charity auction during the summer; his visit was kept secret from most of the school.
"How about a round of applause for Preston?" Manning said right away before offering some context for his visit. "The reason I'm here is because Preston and his family helped out with something that's very important to me, a charity called the Payback Foundation. We help out kids who don't have life easy … I'm very honored to be with you all this morning."
With that simple introduction, Manning proceeded to engage in a dialogue with the entire second-grade class at Cherry Hills Village, taking a seat in a white rocking chair and offering thoughts about priorities, academics and physical fitness. He also fielded a wide variety of questions from the group, offering feedback on topics ranging from the pain of being tackled to his memories of signing up for his first formal football game as a quarterback in seventh grade.
For nearly a half hour, Manning answered questions earnestly and directly, returning to some basic themes that were clearly tailored to the crowd.
"When I was in second grade, my parents taught me about the word 'priority,'" Manning said. "The main thing I'm trying to say is that sports and extra-curricular activities cannot be more important than school … My parents taught me that my priorities were always my faith, my family, my education and then whatever comes after that … I encourage you to listen to your teachers, listen to your parents and listen to your principal about what you need to do as a second –grader."
With that in mind, Manning didn't shy away from talking about the value of exercise and physical fitness, whether it was playing an organized sport or simply getting outdoors.
"When I was your age, I played at recess in school, I played in the backyard with my older brother Cooper," Manning said. "I was playing football as a kid, but I don't think it really matters as long as you're outside and you're doing something active. Whether its football, or basketball, or soccer, or just running around, that's what you want. You want to be healthy and active."
Those messages came between candid responses to all kinds of questions. The second-graders at Cherry Hills Village interviewed Manning with all the insight and focus of the most seasoned sports reporter. One student demanded, "When will you retire?" "I don't know," Manning replied, adding that he'd stay as long as the sport was still enjoyable. Another student asked how he first got on the team, and Manning replied that hard work, focus and family encouragement were the keys to his 18 seasons in the NFL.
Some of the questions weren't as concerned with football. For example, a student asked Manning if he liked to sing; the quarterback said he did, but only in the seclusion of his car and in the company of a very select audience, including his own children.
Manning handled every question with focus and encouragement, returning again and again to common themes.
"You always want to be asking questions in order to learn, to get better, to get smarter," Manning said. "That's what I've always tried to do as quarterback … I still have to do a lot of studying."
Those messages meant a lot to students and staff alike.
"He is an absolute hero in the eyes of our children. To have him telling them to make right choices and to be a good friend, to stay invested in their academics and to listen to their teachers and principal – it's so valuable," said Molly Drvenkar, principal at Cherry Hills Village. "They totally take that to heart. I know that will be a lasting impression that children will take away for the rest of their lives."