Faith, fate carry M&M to Detroit


Published: Tuesday, January 31, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 31, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
He wept openly when his team won the NFC title game. Marquand Manuel may do the same when he runs onto Ford Field to play in Super Bowl XL on Sunday.
"When I think about how I got here," he said, "that might be too much."
How in the world did he get to Detroit, to XL, to the starting secondary of the Seattle Seahawks? How did he go from a guy known best for the ball that squirted out of his hands against Florida State to the safety taking Jake Delhomme's pass back the other way?
How did he go from one of 17 children in Miami to an inspirational leader for the Florida Gators? How did he deal with the hardship of losing his starting job as a junior, hurting his knee at the worst possible time and being told by an NFL team he had been cut?
How, indeed, did he get to this point? The journey has been an amazing road, one so bumpy and constantly under construction it would fit right into the current Gainesville scene.
"It has been a fairy tale story," Manuel said in a telephone interview. "I'm not sure it has sunk in yet."
You travel the Manuel timeline and you have to be sure to take some spirituality with you. He will tell you his faith has always sustained him, carried him through some difficult times. He used to point to a light tower at the UF practice field and tell teammate Todd Johnson that God was up there watching out for them.
This was the same Todd Johnson who beat Manuel out of a job at the start of the 2000 season. Grudge? Naw, just try to get better. And help the guy who beat you get better. Through all of the criticism he took, Manuel never did anything but work hard.
"Every day," said Jon Hoke, then the Florida defensive coordinator. "Marquand always showed up ready to work. He worked harder than anyone. And he always handled everything so well."
That included the play in Tallahassee, 1998, a sure interception going through his hands and into Peter Warrick's, resulting in an FSU score. That was a scar that stayed with him, at least in the Gator Nation. You mention M&M picking off a pass in the NFL title game last week, you're likely to hear back, "Yeah, he finally learned how to catch the ball."
"It hurt him, all of the comments about that game," Hoke said. "I always told him to forget it and move forward. But it was difficult for him."
When his college career ended, Manuel wasn't considered a big-time pro prospect. Then, at the Senior Bowl, teammate Andra Davis fell into Manuel's knee. On the sideline, doctors told him he had a torn ACL.
Thanks for coming, now it's time to put that degree to use.
"That was a tough night," he said. It turned out to be a severe bone bruise, one that wasn't fully healed by the time he ran for the pro scouts in Gainesville. His 40 time left him undraftable.
Like he was going to give up. Manuel went to the UF track every day and worked with former UF sprinter Dennis Mitchell on technique. He ran for scouts again at an individual workout and the improvement put him back on the NFL boards.
Cincinnati in the sixth round. OK, it's was a start. It was almost the end. After two seasons, he was the last cut before the 2004 season began.
"I loaded up everything in a van and started heading down I-75," he said.
Through all of those places where he made memories - Lexington and Knoxville and Atlanta. Finally, on through south Georgia, just across the border the phone rang. It was Seattle. They wanted him to report immediately.
"I thought it was over," he said. "And then they called with the plane ticket and I'm going to one of the best teams in the NFL. I thought a lot on that drive back to Gainesville about how I had been taking football too seriously. I had made it a business. I needed to start having fun again."
In Seattle, he thrived as a backup and special teams player. In October of this year, Manuel's career took the most bizarre turn of all when starting safety Ken Hamlin was severely beaten outside a Seattle night club. The shaken Seahawks turned to Manuel.
"When we lost Hamlin, I looked at Marquand as a good, solid safety, but more a key guy for our special teams, a high-effort guy, fearless, a blow-em-up type guy," Seattle coach Mike Holmgren said. "And now, all of a sudden, he's our starting safety, directing traffic back there and changing things, and he's had a phenomenal season. I'll never forget that. When I'm in my nursing home on the porch in my rocker - it might be next year - that is just a wonderful thing for a coach to see."
Nobody is sure what will happen in Hamlin's future. Manuel understands that his good fortune came with someone else's near-tragedy.
That's why he told Hamlin, "I will play every down for you."
"Everyone knows my heart goes out to Ken," Manuel said.
But there were games to play, games that got bigger and more intense each week. Now this, the biggest of them all on Manuel's horizon.
It doesn't seem possible that he is there when you look at the route he took.
"I couldn't write a better script," he said. "I never doubted myself as a football player. You just have to keep working. Sometimes you wonder if it's going to pay off. Well, it has definitely paid off."
You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley by e-mail at dooleyp@gvillesun.com or by calling 374-5053. Dooley's columns appear Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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