Saturday, June 28, 2008

Requiem: Mario Manningham.

Note: As Brian stated at MGoBlog, I'm looking for ideas to blog about here at GS. I've gotten several emails with some interesting ideas, and will gladly accept more. While I sort through those and gather materials needed to carry out some of those ideas, I've decided to go ahead with a small "project" I thought of a few months back. I use quotes around "project" because it's not really a project. Just a three-part thingie, starting with part one right now.

Mario Manningham
Wide Receiver, 6'0, 174
Warren, Ohio; Harding High School
Rivals: 4 stars, #5 WR, #45 overall
Scout: 4 stars, #7 WR, #43 overall
Committed to Michigan - February 5, 2004

Has it really been that long? With guys like Mike Hart and Chad Henne, it was different; it seemed like they were here forever and would never leave and this upcoming season it will look so alien to not see #7 and #20 in the backfield. But with Mario, it was different. This was before I was a fullblown recruiting junkie, following it with an unhealthy obsession, but I can assume based on his rankings, Mario was quite the coup for Michigan. I first heard his name when I picked up my usual round of preseason magazines in the summer of 2005, before the season. As usual, I immediately checked out the analysis for Michigan. Braylon was gone, and I was interested in seeing who else besides Avant and Breaston was going to step up to replace him. I read up about some incoming freshman, and two names caught my eye, mostly because they just sounded cool: Antonio Bass and Mario Manningham. In the three years since, Bass has joined Daydrion Taylor, Zia Combs and others on the list of those fondly remembered by Michigan fans for "what could've been." After showing promise as a freshman, Bass destroyed his knee in the spring of 2006, missed 2006, missed 2007, and after two years of speculation, finally gave it up earlier this year. Bass would've loved playing in Rich Rod's offense. Such a shame.

Manningham, on the other hand, would end up carving out his own unique niche in Michigan history. You ask any Michigan fan about Mario Manningham, you'll never get a quick, concise answer. That's because there isn't one. Mario was an enigma in the three years he spent in Ann Arbor. He won our hearts against Penn State, dazzled our eyes at Notre Dame, lost us with his behavior on and off the field, won our hearts again at Michigan State, drew our ire against Ohio State, and departed for the NFL a year early, leaving us all with a sense of wonderment and perhaps discontentment, but still leaving us with memories that will lead us all to associate the #86 with Mario for a long time.

I remember his very first touchdown. It was against Notre Dame in the second game of his freshman year in 2005. I've been watching Michigan football since about 1996 or so, and before last season's Ohio State game, the Notre Dame game in 2005 was the most frustrating, infuriating offensive performance I'd ever seen from Michigan. Three turnovers in the redzone. Held to only three points for the first 56 minutes of the game. And with 3:47 to play, down 17-3, Chad Henne fired a 25 yard bullet down the middle of the field to a receiver who had beaten the Notre Dame defender to the inside. The receiver wore #86, and it said "MANNINGHAM" on the back of his jersey. Mario's first career catch was a touchdown.Of course, Michigan lost the game, so nobody was in the mood to be happy about anything. Mario would flash signs of brilliance in the next few games, connecting with Henne for long TDs against Wisconsin and Michigan State while showing off his uncanny ability to freeze defensive backs with subtle double moves and then blaze past them while they got caught flat footed. That was all fine and dandy, except for the fact that Michigan was 3-3, and the Year of Infinite Pain was in full swing.

I was supposed to be at the Penn State game in 2005. It was played on October 15th, 11 days before my birthday. The plan was for my dad to score tickets to the game as an early birthday present. And he would've, too - if not for the omnipresent nuisance that is the female species. My mom weaved one of those guilt trips that those people are so good at, and my dad had to bail on the game in favor of some godforsaken wedding. As it turns out, I was deathly ill that day anyway; raging fever, sore throat, throbbing headache; and I still curse the world to this day that I was robbed of my chance to be at the game that put Super Mario on the map.

I'm still a rookie in terms of Michigan fandom; watching the team for the past 12-13 years, I never got to see Bo, but I'll be damned if that's not one of the greatest moments in Michigan history. My voice still hasn't recovered from that last play.

That was the pinnacle of Mario's freshman season, and really Michigan's abortion of a 2005 season as a whole. They ended the season by folding their fourth quarter tents against Ohio State and Nebraska, leaving the fans with the bitterest of bitter tastes: Seven and Five.

Being one of the few bright spots in 2005, Michigan fans were giddy to see what Manningham had in store for his sophomore season in 2006. He didn't disappoint. His hat trick in the first half against Notre Dame left America speechless - nobody knew at the time that Charlie Weis's brain didn't work and that the Irish were fool's gold; all they saw was some speedy little demon wearing #86 for Michigan making Notre Dame's defensive backs look completely inept.

Super Mario was dubbed "The New Math" by Brian at MGoBlog in this excellent piece after the 2005 Penn State game, which remains one of my MGoFavorites to this day. The logic of course being that 86=1, and Super Mario was destined to ascend to the throne of Carter, Alexander, Terrell, and Edwards. The following weeks only added to his legend: 7 catches, 113 yards, 2 TDs vs. Wisconsin; 5 catches, 131 yards, one TD vs. Minnesota; 3-75-2 vs. Little Brother Michigan State. And ironically, it was that second TD against the Spartans that cut Mario's season short. Cursed be the football gods, as they dealt a pox upon our New Math's knee, sidelining him for the majority of five games. He returned for that fateful day in Columbus where during the Game I Shall Never Speak Of he caught six passes for 86 yards. The season that had started out so brilliantly ended so sadly, both for Mario and Michigan as a whole.

2007 was going to be the be all end all for Michigan's offense. Henne was going to heave the football 40 yards downfield many times, and many times it would descend from the heavens into the hands of Mario, who would lay waste to all who opposed him. But those forsaken football gods deemed it to be heresy, and threw Michigan into the wood chipper from day one of the season. We all know what happened; it's done, and there's no point in dwelling.

What happened the week AFTER that, though, polarized Mario in the Michigan fanbase. While Ron English and his defense spent the second game of the season puckering for Team Nike, what many did not notice was Manningham, the one destined to be Number One, dogging it after halftime. Granted, trailing by 30 is not exactly conducive to giving 110%. But would Braylon Edwards have disappeared? Braylon often caught cases of the drops, but he was always a factor and always had to be accounted for.

When you think about it though, Mario's 2007 season was very baffling and completely anomalous. His senior quarterback was hampered by injuries essentially all season, he clashed with the freshman backup and had to operate in the offense led by the dumbest coach to ever coach for Michigan (DeBord, not Carr). And yet, look at the numbers: 72 receptions, 1174 yards, 12 TDs. After the Penn State game, Mario ripped off six straight 100-yard games (with a suspension against Eastern Michigan mixed in), catching at least one TD in all six and two TDs in four. And it was the fifth of those six games where he provided his final signature moment. If 2005 Penn State is #1, and 2006 Notre Dame is #2, then this is #3.With one majestic leap, one stab of his hands into the sky, Mario pulled down Henne's lob like Braylon did three years earlier, foiling Sparty in the most shocking of ways. After listening to Mark Dantonio barely hold back his glee after the Appalachian State loss with his "moment of silence" comment and having to hear about Dantonio's "Michigan Clock" from the moment he took the MSU job, Mario's lunge in the East Lansing evening provided Michigan fans with perhaps the most underrated satisfying victory ever. Make no mistake about it: Michigan fans hate Mark Dantonio. Dantonio is viewed in Michigan circles as Johnelle Smith without the goofy grin and the slapping. Michigan fans hate Dantonio for his "moment of silence" comment. They hate him for that smirk he let slip when MSU went up 24-14 in the 4th quarter. They hate him for his comments after this game, as he lowered himself to Mike Hart's level, talking trash in the wake of defeat. And for all the reasons they hate Dantonio, they love Manningham for dealing Sparty another knife in the gut.

That was essentially the final hurrah for Mario in Michigan. He had an eye-popping 97 yard touchdown the next week against Wisconsin, but spent much of that game verbally eviscerating Ryan Mallett on the sidelines. He was a non-entity against Ohio State (but in his defense, who DID show up on the offensive side of the ball in that game?), but he did play an important role in sending Coach Carr out a winner in the Capital One Bowl against Florida.

When you look back at Mario's career, you see in three years he reached 9th on the Michigan receptions list, ahead of Desmond Howard and Derrick Alexander. He finished 5th in receiving yards, ahead of Alexander, Howard, Jason Avant, Marquise Walker and Tai Streets. He finished 4th in receiving touchdowns, behind only Braylon Edwards, Anthony Carter, and Howard. Among receivers with over 100 career catches, Mario's yards per catch trails only Greg McMurtry, Anthony Carter, Amani Toomer and Mercury Hayes. Mario's 2007 season was the second best season ever for a Michigan wideout in terms of yards, trailing only Braylon's senior year in 2004. Had he not been suspended for a game, and had he had a healthy Chad Henne for the entire season, he probably would've easily broken Braylon's 1330 mark.

And yet, you look at Mario's career, and you can't help but ask yourself, "What if?" And this isn't even an Ohio State thing, either. The fact that in Mario's three years Michigan was 0-for-OSU is immaterial. Braylon Edwards left no doubt when he left Michigan. He left the Rose Bowl on New Year's Night 2005 with his head held high. Michigan lost that game to Texas, but Braylon dazzled the fans in Pasadena and left a Michigan legend, along with his future as an NFL star secure. When Braylon left, he left his imprint on Michigan football. For the new generation of fans, #1 isn't Anthony Carter, it's Braylon Edwards.

Can the same be said for Manningham? Will 86 always be the number fans look back on years from now and fondly remember Mario making Justin King pay for picking Penn State over Michigan? Will they think of 86 and remember Mario's hat trick in South Bend that made us all believe? Will they think of 86 and think back to the time that Mario 86'ed the Spartans in East Lansing? Or will they always have that lingering doubt that as brilliant as Mario was, as poetic as he looked at times dashing across the field like the cheetah chasing his prey, will the doubt always be there that Mario could've been so much more?

I don't have the answer. I wish I did. I can't say that Mario is an all-time Michigan great, or that his legacy will be remembered as that of one of Michigan's greatest playmakers. All I know is that for one day - way back in his freshman year - Mario WAS Braylon. He WAS Desmond. He WAS AC. And he gave the next generation a moment that will last for eternity in the cosmos of Michigan football.


Mark said...

Great piece. Keep 'em coming.

hat said...

You summed it up perfectly. Nice job!

Anonymous said...

No one smoked a bowl or was quite as illiterate as Mario. Ah, the good old days.

Anonymous said...

For me, it's #2 cemented forever in my mind. The F%&!'n BEATDOWN will live forever, even if it turned out Weis had no clothes. (on second reading: UGHGH)

You made an excellent point about the 2007 MSU game being a very underrated satisfying victory. But then, still, it's just Sparty... you know? Who cares?