July 17, 2014

Tragedy has pushed Manuel to triumph

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Shavar Manuel doesn't remember much about the day that changed his life, other than it started out like any other. He was only 6-years-old, in the backyard playing football. Then the cops surrounded his house, eventually taking his dad away.

"I was like, 'What's going on?,'" Manuel said. "They got my dad and nobody would actually tell me what was going on, so I was just wondering why he went to jail. Then, it added up that night. Mom didn't come home all day, and pops is in jail. So I knew something had to go wrong."

The night before, while Manuel slept, his father murdered his mother. The events surrounding the tragedy left Manuel without his parents. His aunt, Becky Morris, raised him and his two sisters moving foward.

The cards Manuel were dealt early on certainly didn't set him up for a bright future, but as he enters his junior year at Tampa (Fla.) Blake, he finds himself as one of the top high school football recruits in the country. A 6-foot-3, 262-pound defensive end, Manuel has more than a dozen offers from Big Five schools including Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Clemson.

With superior talent and caring authority figures helping, Manuel is rising above tragedy. Though at times, it hasn't been easy.

"Poof -- she was gone"

Manuel doesn't have many memories of the tragedy or of his mother. He remembers falling asleep and believes the murder occurred at his home, overnight. He hasn't talked to his father since.

"I just remember waking up and she was gone," he said. "Without saying goodbye, or nothing. Just poof -- she was gone."

As for his mother, he remembers little things like playing PlayStation video games with her on his fifth birthday, and her giving him a Tampa Bay Buccaneers replica uniform on Christmas when he was four. He remembers how much she loved her family. Because he was her youngest child and only son, Shavar said he was spoiled a lot by his mom.

The rest has been filled in by family members telling him about her.

"It was very hard," Manuel said. "I'm not going to lie and sit here and say it wasn't. To lose your momma so young -- I barely knew the lady. I was just entering life, so it was very hard. But as days went on, I got used to it. I know she's looking at me every day and that she's proud of me. I don't have no choice but to keep making her proud."

Morris took Manuel and his two sisters in and raised them. Manuel said he knew he had to be the man of the family so they could have a shoulder to lean on. He worked every day to make them proud, and he credits his aunt for helping him become the young man he is today.

"She helped me out big time," Manuel said. "When she took us in, we were blessed. I salute my auntie for stepping up to the plate in a big moment."

Discovering football

Manuel has always taken a liking to football, but the sport wasn't as accepting toward him at the beginning. He was oversized for his age growing up, and youth leagues prohibited him from playing because he exceeded their weight limits. So growing up, it was sandlot football for him.

"I actually only played two years of (organized) football," said Manuel of his playing career before high school.

Manuel finally caught a break in seventh grade when he discovered the Sulphur Spring Cowboys Association, a league that didn't have a weight limit. He already weighed 200 pounds at that point, but played all positions on the field, including quarterback and running back. He took a liking to the quarterback position.

"I was actually pretty good," he said.

His coaches at Davis had other plans for him, however.

Caring coaches

When Manuel stepped onto the practice field as an incoming freshman, he lined up with the quarterbacks.

"I've always had a cannon," Manuel said. "I was throwing tight spirals, my footwork was good, agility, running was good."

Blake assistant Anthony Davis took notice of Manuel, but wasn't admiring his quarterback abilities.

"I went up to him and I said, 'What year are you, man?'," Davis said. "And he said, 'I'm an incoming freshman.' I said, 'Do you know who Simeon Rice is? Julius Peppers?' At the time he didn't know. I told him, 'If you listen to me, I can promise you by the end of your sophomore year, I'll have schools drooling over you."

If Manuel were to reach the NFL via college football, Davis was just as reliable of a resource as any to help get him there. Davis played for Virginia Tech and parlayed that experience into a six-year career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2003-08.

When Davis approached Manuel, Manuel was all ears.

"I knew when I entered organized football that I was going to have my hand in the dirt," Manuel said. "So I took his lead. Growing up, I had always heard about the Giants' great, Lawrence Taylor, and I would say, 'That's going to be me one day.'"

Davis put Manuel to work, and Manuel responded. The results were exactly as Davis predicted. Manuel has become a dominant defensive end and major college football programs are lining up with offers. Manuel continues to put in the work necessary to get better, and Davis and Blake head coach Darryl Gordon have both said he's handled the process well.

"He's doing a great job because he has us talking to him and helping him along the way," Gordon said.

The advice Davis and Gordon give Manuel help him both on and off the field. When Manuel first entered the program, Gordon sat him down and talked to him about life.

"I told him I had a tragedy myself," Gordon said. "I lost my son. I told Shavar that we all love everyone in the family, but God loves them most, and sometimes he'll take someone away from us. When God's doing his work, we can't interfere. So therefore, we've got to persevere and move forward. You'll never forget it, but you'll move forward."

From a football standpoint, Davis offers Manuel a unique coaching angle, teaching the defensive end position from an offensive lineman's perspective.

"I'm giving him tips," Davis said. "They're going to hold you like this, they're going to do this, this is how you beat this. Forty-five degree set, tackle open and boom! He's listening, and that's the great thing about him."

As Manuel plays on, he keeps his mom on his mind. Every time he makes a big play and looks to the sky, that's who he's looking at. And with the support of his aunts, uncles, sisters and the Blake coaching staff, he said he'll continue to stay humbled and on the straight path.

"I know I've got a long road to finish in my life," Manuel said. "This is just the beginning."

And Manuel will have a constant reminder from Gordon as to make the best of the circumstances he's been given.

"I told him, 'You were put here for a reason, Shavar,'" Gordon said. "And the reason you were put here is to play the game of football."

Adam Krohn is a Southeast Region football recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. You can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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