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Postseason INTs elevate Manning to star status

Panthers rookie cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. greets fans outside of the team's stadium in Charlotte, N.C., early Monday.

Published: Friday, January 23, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 23, 2004 at 12:35 a.m.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Ricky Manning Jr. stepped out of the sauna and into the locker room, pausing to flex like a bodybuilder.

His Carolina Panthers teammates stared in disbelief, then burst out laughing.

With four postseason interceptions, the rookie cornerback has turned into a star and is loving every minute of it.

''I think Ricky wants to be a model or something,'' safety Deon Grant said. ''He thinks he's so pretty and so special - he thought that even before he started playing well. Now that he's playing as good as he is, he's out of control.''

But that's OK with the Panthers. After all, Manning is learning as he goes, and Carolina might not be headed to the Super Bowl to play New England on Feb. 1 if not for him.

After replacing an injured Terry Cousin in the starting lineup with four games left in the regular season, Manning has improved steadily. He had three interceptions in the regular season, and returned one 27 yards for a touchdown in the finale against the New York Giants.

His play hit another level in the postseason.

Against Dallas in the first round, he allowed only two receptions and no touchdowns while breaking up two passes.

He saved Carolina's season the next week in St. Louis, stripping the ball away from receiver Torry Holt in overtime to stop the potential game-winning drive. That interception set up the Panthers' own score to send them to the NFC championship game.

But he saved his best for last week, intercepting three passes in Philadelphia.

Now the baby-faced Manning - at 23, he's the youngest player on Carolina's roster - is one of the most popular Panthers.

''My phone doesn't stop ringing now, so I just keep it off,'' he said. ''I don't know if I am a star, but that's the way everyone is making me feel. All I know is I am playing real well right now, so I think it's well deserved."

Manning was a two-sport star at UCLA, spending summers playing outfield for various Minnesota Twins farm teams. He made the all-conference football team three times and thought he was one of the best cornerbacks in the draft.

But 81 players - including 10 cornerbacks - were selected before him. At 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, Manning was considered too small by most NFL teams. Carolina coach John Fox decided to take a gamble in the third round.

''I felt like my play was better than all the corners taken before me,'' Manning said. ''But I guess because most of them were taller, everyone thought they'd be better NFL players than me. So I set out to prove everyone wrong.''

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