It is a taboo subject, one of those uncomfortable topics that make a lot of people squirm. Most will avoid it at all costs. But E.J. Manuel, the Florida State quarterback who is expected to be the second quarterback taken in the upcoming NFL draft, hit it head on without batting an eye.
“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,” Manuel said during a candid sit-down interview.
This wasn’t an off-hand comment by an athlete prone to saying silly things. Manuel is one of the sharpest players in this year’s draft, a natural-born leader with just the right blend of savvy, smarts, humility and quiet confidence.
He smiles, shakes hands firmly and looks everyone in the eye, oozing charm.
He says “yes, sir,” “no, sir,” “thank you,” “ma’am” and “please” with unforced ease, a throwback to days when such courtly manners spoke volumes about a man and his family. And he is measured, never speaking without thinking through what he hopes to convey.
So when Manuel said things like “The biggest influence in my life is my father, Eric Manual, Sr.,” and “I think growing up in a two-parent household, in an intact family, made all the difference,” you sensed that there was a purpose in his message.
His father, a civilian contractor with the U.S. Navy who certifies hazardous materials near the family’s Virginia Beach home, laid a solid foundation based on God and family, which the son now views as the reason for his success.
“My main core value is being a follower of Christ — not just saying it, but living it,” Manuel said. “Obviously nobody’s perfect, but people can tell if you’re real and you respect others. Having that strong Christian background has helped me, not just in football, but through all the adverse times I’ve had socially and otherwise at Florida State.
“Going away to school — and Tallahassee is 13 hours away from my house — I was on my own, but I didn’t feel like I was alone.”
In preaching his family message, he didn’t go through the statistics, but he didn’t have to.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 6.7 percent of two-parent households live in poverty, while the rate in single-parent households in 29.9 percent. Children in single-parent households are twice as likely to be expelled from school, twice as likely to abuse drugs and twice as likely to have children out of wedlock before their 20th birthdays.
He also didn’t say that 67 percent of African American kids in America live with only one parent. The point with Manuel was more personal.
“A lot of times my dad would act as a friend to the other (fatherless) kids, being our league basketball coach and football coach and trying to fill that void for them,” he said. “He would talk to them — try to help them out however he could. It certainly helped me. Anytime I listen to someone as far as advice, my dad is who I go to.”
Manuel grew up playing and watching sports with his father. They would watch Michael Jordan and the Bulls and the NFL games after Sunday services at Cavalry Revival Church. And when the NFL Draft rolled around every spring, the two Manuel men would huddle on the couch to see who would go first.
“I would sit and watch the draft all day, first through seventh rounds,” he said. “I remember getting goose bumps watching those guys get called up to shake hands with Paul Tagliabue and now Roger Goodell. There was something special about that. Now, to think that I’m going to be doing the same thing — it’s surreal.”
He is going to be a big part of it, in large part because of the great impression he made on coaches and general managers. He told them about his mom battling breast cancer during his senior season and how she assured him that she would be fine when they spoke almost every day.
He told them about his philosophy on leadership and what it will mean to walk into a locker room with men 14 and 15 years his senior.
“I’m a quarterback,” he said. “It’s not like I’m a wide receiver or DB. As the quarterback I’m expected to carry myself a certain way and guys are going to be looking for that. I plan on being myself and respecting others. Hopefully that will earn the respect of my teammates.”
And he told them how he planned to handle the newfound fame and riches that are bound to come his way.
“We’re blue-collar people,” he said. “My parents made about $70,000 a year my whole life, and we did fine. So when I hear about guys make $300,000 or $3 million a year and going broke, I don’t understand that.
“You don’t want people to think you’re trying to upstage them or that you think you’re better than they are, but by the same token you have to be careful. The people who cared about you before will still care about you, but you will also have people coming out of the woodwork.”
Then he summed up how he will handle the coming weeks and the whirlwind that certainly awaits him. His response came as no surprise.
“I’ll have my dad there,” he said. “My mom and my sister will be there, too, but my dad will not allow me to get into any crazy situations. I know that.
“And I know that if I work hard and continue to do the right thing, everything is going to be alright.”
Manuel didn’t attribute that last lesson to his father. He didn’t have to. Sometimes it’s obvious that the apple does, indeed, fall close to the tree.