Running a printing press at the Lincoln Journal Star, Danieal Manning watched the sheets whiz by, covered with stories of the successes of his would-be teammates on the Nebraska football team.
Manning was working the $8-an-hour job after signing with the Cornhuskers but failing to qualify because of his low SAT score.
Deciding that playing with the Cornhuskers wasn’t right for him, the defensive back embarked on an almost five-year journey that has taken him from starring at tiny Division II Abilene Christian to a Shrine Game performance that propelled him into the spotlight for this year’s draft.
“Every day, every hour I worked there I thought about how I should be in the newspaper instead of in there printing them,” he said. “There were moments that I kind of hid away from my bosses and I was just thinking about that. I was upset with myself and I knew that it probably wasn’t my stop.”
There’s little doubt he’ll be the first player drafted from Abilene Christian since 1985 and some have him projected as a late second-round selection.
Manning, who has played cornerback but is projected to be an NFL safety, gained Associated Press Little All-America third team honors after his 2005 performance. He had 49 tackles, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and three blocked kicks.
In his three-year career at Abilene Christian, he broke the school record for touchdowns on special teams returns with five and his return skills make him more valuable to teams looking for an immediate contribution.
Scouts like the 5-foot-11, 202-pound player’s speed (4.46 40-yard dash) and leaping ability (39-inch vertical jump), but some worry about the level of competition in which he has excelled. He calmed some of those fears and nabbed an invitation to the NFL combine with a standout performance in the Shrine Game.
“I started getting phone calls the next day,” he said. “I think I answered a lot of questions by playing with bigtime players like that.”
Holding his own in the game also answered the nagging voice in his head that wondered if he really belonged at that level of competition.
“That was big for me,” he said. “I always had that question in my mind, that doubt in my mind like Am I really supposed to be a D-I player?”‘ I just wanted to know that I could play on the next level.”
A recent mock draft by ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper had Manning going with the last pick in the second round. Frank Coyle, the head scout and publisher of draftinsiders.com, said he thinks Manning will be one of the first 100 players drafted.
“He’s a nice player,” Coyle said. “He’ll tackle and he’s got the athleticism to cover. It may take a couple of years, but this kid can be a starter.”
Russel Hicks, his Houston-based agent, was confident teams would be interested in his client once he was showcased with Division I players.
“He is a very gifted athlete,” Hicks said. “He doesn’t realize how good he is. He knows that he’s good, but sometimes people comment on something he can do and he’ll say I just thought everybody did this.”‘
Manning has visited about 10 teams and sometimes still can’t believe the recent turn his life has taken.
“It’s been so exciting just being noticed by all these teams and all these coaches and having conversations with them about football,” he said. “Everybody doesn’t get this opportunity. They treat me like I’m not just a regular person. Normal people don’t really get to talk to a Bill Cowher or a Bill Belichick.”
Despite his often modest demeanor, Manning isn’t afraid to sell himself and said he thinks the team that picks him will get a “steal.”
“I’m a versatile player,” he said. “I have a great knowledge of the game and I’m going to play hard every snap. Whoever picks me will have a good, solid all-around player.”
Manning sees his recent recognition as an “honor” and loves when fans approach him in his hometown of Corsicana, Texas.
But he recently got his biggest thrill realizing that his 19-month-old son Jonte understands what he does.
“I’ve got a son that I love to be around and have him seeing his dad do big things,” he said. “He sees me on TV and he’ll run to it and say Daddy touchdown!.’ That makes my day.”