When sophomore wide receiver Mario Manningham outstretches his arms, different people see different things.
Those close to him may see the tattoos around his wrist, symbolic of his strong family ties.
Penn State fans may see the hands that made the catch that prevented their Nittany Lions from having an undefeated 2005 season.
Yet Michigan fans may just see two empty hands – a grim reminder of the amount of times they saw the Maize and Blue come up empty-handed last season.
But no matter what the interpretation is of the hands, the fact remains that they belong to a wideout who is coming off of one of the best freshman seasons in school history. And nobody can argue that if the program wants to return to the upper echelon any time soon, those hands will have to play a big part in it.
It was a Saturday night in early September, and Warren G. Harding High School’s Mollenkopf Stadium was filled to the brim. Even though it was an early-season game, the sell-out crowd provided proof of the magnitude of the contest.
Not only were two of Ohio’s premier football teams colliding, but the state’s two most highly touted recruits were also set to battle. Mario Manningham, Harding’s four-star wide receiver, was pitted against Jamario O’Neal, Glenville’s five-star cornerback.
The match-up wasn’t just a typical duel between two great player, it was hyped as the first battle between two stars who were set to have many more – Manningham had already committed to Michigan, and O’Neal was headed to rival Ohio State.
But what was supposed to be an epic head-to-head battle soon turned into the Mario Manningham show, foreshadowing the future impact the 6-foot wide receiver would have at Michigan.
Manningham snagged seven catches, three of which went for touchdowns, for a total of 251 yards. O’Neal even moved from cornerback to safety following Manningham’s second touchdown, but Manningham had planned on doing more than just winning his match-up against the rival corner.
Warren G. Harding still trailed by two points late in the game, despite Manningham’s receiving clinic. Glenville had the ball at midfield, and with less than two minutes remaining on the clock, it appeared as if Manningham’s offensive explosion would be all for naught.
But his night wasn’t over yet.
On third down, Glenville attempted a screen pass, but Manningham, who was also playing cornerback, read the play perfectly and stepped into the passing lane. An interception and 50 return yards later, Manningham’s night was complete, as was Harding’s comeback victory.
“He’s had a lot of great performances, but that one was definitely special,” Warren G. Harding coach Thom McDaniels said. “He’s the best receiver I’ve ever coached in 33 years of coaching, and I’ve seen a lot of great wide receivers.”
Fast forward 13 months to another Saturday night. The scene is similar, but on a much larger stage. There’s still a sold-out crowd, there’s still a tightly contested game and there’s still Mario Manningham putting an emphatic end to that game with his heroics.
Michigan fans remember it as one of the few bright spots in a disappointing season.
Manningham remembers it as “just another catch.”
However it’s remembered, it sent Wolverine nation into a frenzy and prevented Michigan from having its first losing record at any point in a season since 1998.
On the game’s final play, Manningham, a true freshman, slanted across the field, where quarterback Chad Henne connected with him on a 10-yard touchdown pass. The catch propelled Michigan to a 27-25 victory over then-undefeated Penn State.
“There isn’t anything about big games that makes me play differently,” Manningham said. “It’s just that some games I get more plays called for me than others. Last year it seemed like more of the big plays got called for me in big games.”
His former coach agreed, saying that Manningham doesn’t care what team he’s up against – he wants to do whatever he can to beat whatever team is put in front of him.
“He doesn’t necessarily have a knack for the big game, but he definitely has a knack for the big play,” McDaniels said. “I don’t think Mario cares who the opponent is, he has the ability to break the big play no matter who he plays. At any point and time of the game, he can bust loose.”
Whether or not Manningham would be busting loose at the next level was never really the question – his natural ability is undeniable. But it was far from a forgone conclusion that Manningham’s receiving prowess would be on display at Michigan.
Manningham grew up in Warren, Ohio. Once he began turning heads during his sophomore year in high school, almost all of the big schools came calling, including Ohio State. But by his junior year, Manningham had decided against moving three hours southwest to Columbus, and instead chose to enter enemy territory and sign a letter of intent to play for Michigan.
“To come from Ohio, you know early on that nobody likes Michigan, and nobody from Michigan likes Ohio,” Manningham said. “There isn’t any middle ground, so you either have to join them or play against them.”
Manningham’s family had been through the recruiting process before – his uncle, Gerald Simpson Jr. had previously gotten a full-ride scholarship to play football at Pittsburgh. This made the daunting task a little bit easier for the wide receiver.
“We were kind of fortunate because (Mario’s uncle), Gerald Simpson Jr., had already been through the process,” Manningham’s grandfather, Gerald Simpson Sr., said. “This was even more intense than what my son went through. A majority of Division I schools pushed really hard to get Mario and were knocking at his door.”
Manningham’s close ties to Warren alumni were another determining factor in his college choice. Luckily for members of Wolverine nation, Warren G. Harding High has a history of sending graduates to Michigan.
“We have a great bond at Warren: it’s like a brotherhood,” senior linebacker and Warren alum Prescott Burgess said. “When I went (to Michigan), I wanted to do what I could to get other good players from Warren to do the same.”
Once Manningham arrived in Ann Arbor, his goal was to play as a freshman. Not only did he not redshirt, Manningham had already made his mark by the second game.
“I sat in the stands and had tears in my eyes the first time he walked on the field last year, and having his first catch of his college career be a touchdown catch against Notre Dame, what more can you ask for?” Simpson said of his grandson’s 25-yard touchdown catch against the Fighting Irish.
In all, Manningham finished his freshman campaign with 27 catches for 443 yards and six touchdowns, just one touchdown behind Anthony Carter’s freshman record of seven.
Manningham knows this year, his sophomore season, will be much more difficult. Long gone are the days of playing in anonymity.
“I’m ready,” Manningham said prior to the season at Michigan Media Day. “I know they’re going to know about me this year. Every time I think about it, it just makes me want to work harder.”
And work hard he must. Right next to the chip on Manningham’s shoulder after a 7-5 season will be a target placed squarely on his back.
Rivals.com listed Manningham as the nation’s top No. 2 receiver in its preseason rankings, a list that placed him above receivers such as Southern Cal’s Steve Smith and Notre Dame’s Rhema McKnight.
After the team’s opener against Vanderbilt, it appears as if Manningham may be the go-to guy for the receiving corps.
More responsibility? Manningham doesn’t mind.
Manningham, who was raised in a single-parent home with his mother along with his grandparents, took on the added task of caring for his brother and sister while growing up. He has the names of his brother (Mardel, 13 years old) and his sister (Jeffer’l, 11) tattooed across his wrists, along with a chain and a lock, to symbolize his tight family bonds.
“He’s very protective of them and very nurturing,” Simpson said. “Mario will go out of his way to do little things for them. … He just listens to them, sits down and talks to them and shows interest as to what they’re into. He’ll make special calls back from Ann Arbor just to talk to them, which I think is pretty neat.”
Manningham said he tries to just instill in his younger siblings the same values that his mother and grandparents taught him.
“My mom, my grandfather and my grandmother are the most important people in my life,” Manningham said. “They’ve always been there for me; they taught me the rights and wrongs. Even though there’s an age gap between me and my brother and sister, I still think I can help. I was their age once, and I’ve been there before. I can help them out when they need me. I show them what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Responsibility isn’t new to him, and neither are hype or high expectations. Even midway through his freshman season, he was already being tapped as the “next big thing.”
“Super Mario” shirts were distributed throughout the student body, with the likeness of a Manningham-like “Super Mario” Brothers character in the center of a shirt. Manningham admits that it’s flattering, but he’s yet to prove that this is Super Mario’s world just yet.
“I’ve got one,” Manningham said. “But it isn’t really anything but another shirt for me. I feel like I really haven’t done anything yet to deserve it.”
That isn’t the lone attire-related issue that Manningham has to face. The tradition of Michigan’s top receiver wearing the No. 1 jersey is well known in Ann Arbor. Former All-American Braylon Edwards was the last Wolverine to wear the number. And despite having to live up to Edwards’s legendary status, Manningham admits the prospect of wearing it is intriguing.
“I’ve thought about it, but I’ve got a long way to go,” Manningham said. “Those are some big shoes to fill.”
Being the next Braylon and gaining individual accolades aren’t the key concerns for Manningham going into his sophomore season. His one and only goal for the year is to get Michigan back on the map as a national power.
“Sometimes we forget who we are, and who we’re playing for,” Manningham said. “But passion this year – passion is a big thing for us. Our passion is going to be out there, you’ll see it.”
Manningham said the team’s goal since last season’s Alamo Bowl defeat has been to return passion and intensity to its repertoire. He uses his free time with teammates as an opportunity to show just how hungry he is.
Manningham spent his first summer in Ann Arbor this offseason, where he roomed with sophomore cornerback Johnny Sears. The two competed whenever they could, doing “anything and everything” to test each other’s wills.
“All we do is compete,” Manningham said. “Video games, washing hands, it doesn’t matter. That’s it – that’s all we do is compete.”
Sears said their tendency to compete carries onto the football field as well.
“Last year, we’d watch tape, and we went against each other a lot,” Sears said. “We just try and make each other better, and we’re so competitive that we’re always going at it hard. We don’t let up on each other.”
Manningham doesn’t let his practice competition end at roommates. He remembers fondly the impact cornerback Leon Hall had on him as a freshman, and he hopes to keep learning from the All-America candidate.
“Leon Hall does nothing except get me better,” Manningham said. “Because of some of the things I did last year, it’s because of Leon Hall – he helped me a lot. He played three years before I got here, and he knows how it is, so every time he used to get up there, I tried to get up there and battle against him.
“When I first got here, he tried to jam me up. Now I know the little things; he’s taught me a lot of little things. I had to learn fast, coming in and playing right away and everything. The cornerbacks, especially Leon, taught me how to learn the little things really fast.”
And fast is exactly how Manningham likes things.
Whether it’s quickly making an impact as a freshman, blazing by defenders with his 4.39 speed in the 40-yard dash or rapidly ascending up the wide-receiver rankings, Manningham has just one gear: full-speed ahead.
If he has his way, that will be exactly the gear Michigan will be stuck at on its way back to the top of the college football universe.