It’s easy to look at the Buffalo Bills’ selection of EJ Manuel as some sort of destiny.
It was 28 years ago that the Bills made a franchise-altering decision to take Bruce Smith first overall out of Virginia Tech.
In Manuel, they hope to find another player who changes the direction of the team. The fact that Smith is Manuel’s godfather makes the pick feel, well, right.
Smith and EJ’s father, Erik, were childhood friends growing up a street away from each other in the Poplar Hills section of Norfolk, Va. The friendship has remained strong into adulthood.
“It’s just been a very blessed relationship and one that I’ve cherished since the inception,” Smith said. “I had a long conversation with EJ, I think it was about a month or two ago, and he talked to me about the interest the Buffalo Bills had shown and I gave him my honest opinions about the fans – who I believe are the best fans in the National Football League.
“I gave him my thoughts about the environment, which can be hellish at times, but when you’re winning it certainly warms up. Just the atmosphere as a whole, it’s electric. The hope is that he will catch on to the system quickly. ... But he has the talent, the mind-set, certainly has God on his side, and if he’s surrounded by the right talent, and it’s the right system, he will flourish.”
Manuel, who made a formal introduction at One Bills Drive on Friday, picked Smith’s brain about Buffalo during the pre-draft process.
“He said this is a great town,” Manuel said. “He said the fans love their football team and when they’re winning, this is the best place to be. Best place to be in the world. Obviously this team and this franchise, the fans all want this to be back on the positive note. Bruce just said go in there and learn. Just continue to work hard like I’ve always done.
“It’s crazy how God works. I met Bruce when I was a kid, a small kid. I remember looking up staring at him. I think he was still playing at that time. He looks like he’s still in football shape now, but the fact I’m playing for the team he had such a great legacy with means a lot to me. Bruce has been very pivotal in my process going from high school to college and now from college to the pros.”
It’s been an emotional ride for Manuel, whose mother, Jackie, was diagnosed with breast cancer in August. She underwent chemotherapy treatments throughout the season, and is currently cancer free.
“It meant a lot to have my mom there in good health,” said Manuel, who wore a 1,000-watt smile after the Bills selected him. “She’s been working for the past four weeks and gotten back into her normal everyday thing that she does. To go out across that stage and see her when I came back from it just meant a lot to me. She’s made a lot of sacrifices, just as my dad has, too. ... I wanted my family to enjoy the draft process. I wanted them to have some type of feeling to always remember, that day, that night. To be picked in the first round meant a lot to me. To have my whole family there meant even more.”
As his son spoke, Erik Manuel stood off to the side, listening intently, just as he had so many times at Florida State. Afterward, he described his emotions at the draft.
“I cried,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation. “Yeah. I’m probably going to cry some more later.”
Manuel appeared at ease when speaking with the media. He was asked about the criticism of the Bills’ selection, most notably ESPN’s Todd McShay saying he had “slow eyes.”
“I have no idea what slow eyes are,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t know. They’re moving pretty quick right now.”
Manuel described himself as a “simple man,” one who when he’s not playing football “can just sit back and watch a movie on TV. Tallahassee’s not a big city where there’s a lot going on, so a little bit of Xbox if I have time. A lot of my time is spent working out, watching film. We treat ourselves as professionals in college at Florida State. So I think assimilating to professional football will not be too hard.”
If Manuel has realized the pressure that will come with being counted on to be the successor to Jim Kelly as a franchise QB, he’s shown no outward signs thus far.
“I think there’s pressure whenever you’re the quarterback coming into a situation like this,” Manuel said. “Obviously there are expectations. I expect greatness for myself.”