When coach Darnell Moore got his hands on EJ Manuel at Bayside High School in Virginia Beach, Va., he resisted the temptation to let his prized freshman quarterback simply use his size and speed to overwhelm opposing defenses. » “We didn’t run the option or anything with him his first two years, because we wanted him to concentrate on being a pro-style quarterback,” Moore recalls. “We didn’t want him to get labeled as an athlete playing quarterback. We wanted him to be seen as a quarterback who’s a good athlete.” » Nine years later, Manuel considers his ability to focus on his receivers a great strength. » “I think I have the ability to know when to run and when to run in order to throw,” Manuel said early in his first Buffalo Bills training camp. “When I break out of the pocket, I’m still looking downfield for my receivers. You have to distribute the ball to your playmakers.” » The fact Manuel completed 70 percent of his passes at Florida State on throws from outside the pocket is just one small example of his single-minded ability to focus. It’s a trait that seemingly extends to all areas of his life. » Manuel knew he wanted to be a quarterback from the time he first stepped on a football field as a 6-year-old. He was determined to excel in the classroom from an early age, so much so that his father remembers him crying a rare time he brought home a C grade.
He gave up basketball, at which he excelled, at age 16 to concentrate on football.
He won Bayside’s award given to the school’s top two all-around students. He picked Florida State in part because its pro-style offense would better prepare him for the NFL. He graduated from college in 3½ years and is halfway to a master’s degree. He was the winning quarterback in four bowl games.
And he became a first-round NFL draft choice when the Bills picked him 16th overall in April.
Manuel is nothing if not driven to succeed as the quarterback of the future – and present – for the Bills.
“EJ at 10 was bigger than most other kids, but that’s not just what made him different,” recalls Demarco Henderson, who coached Manuel in basketball from age 9 to 16. “When you’re in practice with 10-year-olds, they’re running all over the place. You have to tell some kids things over and over. Not EJ. He wanted it so bad. EJ seemed so much more focused and more mature than the other kids his age.”
One day in 2000, Henderson was driving with his assistant coach, Erik Manuel Sr. Henderson pulled the car to the side of the road.
“We were riding back from a game and I stopped the car and said, ‘Your son is going to be the No. 1 player in the country some day,’ ” Henderson recalls. “ ‘You’ve got to begin to prepare him for what’s to come.’ ”
Both men fondly recall the incident, but the words were no shock to the elder Manuel, who had given Erik Jr. the nickname “EJ” when he was a baby.
Erik Manuel grew up in Norfolk, Va., with Bills Hall of Famer Bruce Smith. The two were schoolmates since the fifth grade and played high school ball together. Boxing great Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker was a childhood friend.
Erik Manuel also had coached plenty of talent in the Virginia Beach area, a recruiting gold mine that has produced athletes such as Allen Iverson and Michael Vick.
“When EJ was 9 years old, Tavon Austin played on his team, which I coached,” Erik Manuel said, referring to the receiver the St. Louis Rams drafted eighth overall in April. “Imagine having two 9-year-old kids like that on a team. We won the city championship when EJ was 10.”
“EJ ran in AAU track with a team called the Virginia Beach Flames,” Erik Manuel said. “He wore a size-12 shoe when he was 13 years old. He had big feet but he could run. When he was 9, he ended up placing second in the nationals in the 200 and fifth in the nationals in the 100 meters. He ran on that team with Percy Harvin.”
(Harvin, a Virginia Beach native, was an NFL first-round pick in 2009.)
“So I had been around that type of athlete,” Erik Manuel said. “I think I knew what it took in terms of not grinding him into the ground but nurturing him and letting other people come alongside and help him develop.”
The Manuel household is close-knit and successful. Erik Manuel works as a civilian contractor with the U.S. Navy. He certifies hazardous materials near the family’s Virginia Beach home. Mom Jackie Manuel works as an administrator in the athletics department at Old Dominion University. Sister Amber Manuel, four years older than EJ, was the Virginia prep player of the year in basketball and played on scholarship at High Point (N.C.) University. The family has a strong Christian faith.
“His parents did a heckuva job with him,” Moore said. “Big-time athletes sometimes get lost, get carried away, and their heads get swollen. Throughout it all, his parents were not going to let that happen.”
EJ calls his father his greatest influence and occasionally repeats some of his father’s lessons, like: “God never wanted us to be mediocre.”
“I just think my dad has always brought me up to be a leader as far as the decisions you make in life,” EJ said. “Do the right thing when nobody else is watching.”
“I think a lot of the pitfalls that put guys I grew up with on the wrong path – things that didn’t allow them to get to the next level even though they were maybe talented enough to be here – came from the fact that they didn’t have fathers around,” EJ said in a pre-draft interview with FoxSportsSouth.com. “My main core value is being a follower of Christ – not just saying it, but living it.”
Says Erik Manuel: “EJ had a super gift. But your gift is your gift. You have to develop yourself. I was a stickler about being a student-athlete. … EJ has always been hard on himself and a self-critiquing kind of kid.”
His competitiveness was nudged along by his sister.
“I’d go by their house, and they’d have these one-on-one games in the driveway,” Henderson said. “His sister is aggressive and she would just brutally wear him out.”
“I remember one particular time,” Erik Manuel said, “EJ was like 13 years old. He was determined to dunk the basketball. He worked on dunking for a half hour or so and came in the house and said, ‘I finally dunked.’ ”
“When Amber came home, of course, he wanted to dunk on someone,” Erik said. “He went up over her and tried to dunk and she kind of elbowed him off and they got into it. He pushed her and ran off, and she threw the ball and hit him in the back of the head and he fell to the ground. That was a funny moment for me. Amber pushed him, and she’s his No. 1 fan.”
By the time Manuel finished his sophomore year of high school, he already was getting football scholarship offers from big-time schools. That’s when he dropped basketball, baseball and track to focus on football.
“He called me and told me he was praying, and God told him to leave basketball alone and play football,” Henderson said. “That told me where he was in terms of growing as a man.”
Bayside was a rebuilding program that didn’t have a winning record until Manuel’s senior season, when it went 7-4. Manuel’s statistics weren’t gaudy. He passed for 1,859 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior. But he got good coaching. Moore previously had been a head coach at Norfolk State. And at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, Manuel’s arm strength and talent were obvious.
“He sacrificed his statistics his senior year for the good of the team,” Moore said. “There were times where we were beating teams by 25 or 30 points and it didn’t make sense for us to continue to throw the ball in the fourth quarter. He was fine with that.”
Manuel was the No. 2-rated QB in the country behind Terrelle Pryor, now with the Oakland Raiders. Manuel chose Florida State over Oregon, Louisiana State, Tennessee and Alabama, among others. Manuel had liked Florida State and admired former Seminoles QB Charlie Ward as a kid. The pro-style offense of coach Jimbo Fisher appealed to the Manuels.
“We just felt like Jimbo would be the one who would be able to teach him the most,” Erik Manuel said.
Forged in Tallahassee
One might look at Manuel’s 25-6 career record at Florida State and the fact he quarterbacked four bowl-game victories and think it all went smoothly for him as a Seminole.
It’s not the case.
Manuel had to sit for two years behind established starter Christian Ponder (who would become a first-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2011).
“One of the better lessons EJ learned in college – and it was tough while we were going through it – was to have to sit down and get mental reps,” Erik Manuel said. “To have to sit there and learn from the sidelines. My thing with EJ was always, you have to be ready when your number is called. Be prepared for the opportunity to be successful.”
Manuel helped rescue the Seminoles in his redshirt freshman season. With the team struggling at 4-5, Ponder went out with a shoulder injury. Manuel went 3-1 in Ponder’s place and was most valuable player of the Gator Bowl win over West Virginia.
The next year Manuel went 1-1 in relief starts and played the last three quarters of a bowl-game win over South Carolina.
Manuel went 9-2 as a starter his junior year, which ended with a Champs Bowl win over Notre Dame. Manuel missed parts of three games early in the season with a shoulder injury, and the Seminoles lost all three. Florida State finished 9-4 and 23rd in the national ranking.
Last season Manuel went 12-2 and led Florida State to the Atlantic Coast Conference title and an Orange Bowl victory over Northern Illinois. A toe-stubbing midseason loss to North Carolina State (17-16) and an ugly, late-season loss to Florida (37-26) kept them out of the national title fight.
Manuel compiled the highest completion percentage (66.9) in Florida State history and ranked third all-time in the ACC in passer efficiency. Yet while he was respected by the fan base, he wasn’t as widely celebrated as one might expect.
“I think we are the only program to be in the top five 14 years in a row,” said Bills rookie kicker Dustin Hopkins, a Seminole and friend of Manuel’s. “So that’s what’s expected. And the expectations of him as such a huge recruit coming out of high school were that we’re supposed to be in the national championship.”
Erik Manuel said fan expectations weighed heavily.
“I think a challenge for us as a family was, even though your son is playing quarterback at this elite level, a lot of times we know we have to have thick skin,” he said.
The other challenge for Manuel was playing for Fisher, a demanding coach. A player who can thrive under Fisher probably could have thrived under basketball legend Bob Knight. Fisher did not hesitate to get in Manuel’s facemask for “teachable moments.”
“I feel like EJ handled it the best he could,” said Bills linebacker and ex-Seminole Nigel Bradham. “Jimbo was so hard on him. Of course, he was harder on EJ than he was on me. He recruited EJ in high school. EJ was more like his son. They talked every day. He rode EJ and expected nothing but the best. He expected EJ to be perfect every play.”
Said Hopkins: “I think Jimbo is tough on everybody. He always says he doesn’t coach the player you are, he coaches the player you can be. So he holds you to extremely high standards, which as a player you have to sit back and recognize. It’s not, ‘Hey buddy, let’s go.’ I’m trying to think of a metaphor. If we’re a piece of carpentry, he’s like the sandpaper to smooth you out, to make you a finished product.”
Back in Virginia, Team Manuel tried to embrace the idea steel is forged by fire.
“He’s a demanding coach,” Erik Manuel said. “I still say it’s part of growing as a player. He’s already been through that. Anything that happens in the future, he’ll be able to handle the majority of it.”
“He called me and began to talk about difficulties he had with Jimbo Fisher, but you’ve got to deal with leadership,” said Henderson. “When EJ talked to me, I was like: ‘Here’s something that’s needed in your life. Here’s a push. You have to pass through it.’ ”
Handling the criticism
To his credit, Manuel never publicly chafed at the hard coaching.
“I trusted Coach Fisher,” Manuel said before the draft. “That’s why I wanted to come here and play for him. I really wanted to come in and learn under Jimbo and be in his offensive system, which is a pro style. … Any time somebody was critiquing me, I was so used to it from getting it at Florida State. I really think it’s helped me, because I’m probably my worst critic anyway.”
Manuel thinks the Bills’ offense is less complex, from the standpoint of pre-snap reads, than the Florida State offense. He likes the progression of reads laid out in the Bills’ West Coast-style offense.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of Manuel that cropped up after defeats, particularly the loss to Florida in November, was on his decision-making in the pocket and his reaction to pressure.
His high school coach, obviously, is biased in his favor.
“When he’s put in a situation where he’s allowed to play free, I think that’s when you’ll get to see all of the talents that he has,” Moore said.
Nobody at Florida State questions his character. Hopkins said it showed before the Orange Bowl in January.
“All year we had this national championship expectation,” Hopkins said. “We were glad to be in the Orange Bowl. But even though Florida State hadn’t been there in recent years, it was still a letdown to some extent. So coming in, before the game, EJ took the reins and he got everybody pumped. He made sure everybody’s intensity level was where it needed to be for an Orange Bowl BCS game. I think the more years removed we are from his time, people at Florida State will look back and talk about what a great quarterback he was.”
The 25-6 record is the career accomplishment that most pleases Manuel.
“I had a great passer rating or whatever you call it, but I really wasn’t big on my statistics,” he said. “I think I am a winner. I have a leadership about me and I have a competitive edge about me that I think helps rub off onto my teammates. I love to have great players around me. I love to have guys who feel that they can trust me. That is the main thing I want to do, instill the trust in my teammates and to my coaches.”