Columbia native Manuel adjusting to starting role with Mizzou football
Martez Manuel hadn’t started a football game in his hometown since November 2018, the final game of his Rock Bridge career.
That district championship loss by one point to Blue Springs took place less than three miles from where Manuel made seven tackles and a Southeastern Conference-best 3 1/2 tackles for loss against No. 2 Alabama on Saturday night in his first home start with Missouri football.
The journey from Bruin standout to Tiger starter has always been a dream for Manuel, and even amid the coronavirus pandemic, family and friends can watch his games live from a socially distant Faurot Field.
Making plays in Columbia on Saturday meant more to the sophomore than doing it against players who may compete for a national title in a few months.
“It feels pretty awesome just to be able to play on Faurot Field in front of my friends and family, in front of my town,” Manuel said. “I wouldn't really put a lot of focus on the Alabama part because it's going to feel just as awesome to make that play against anybody. I wouldn't say as much Alabama, but it is a really tremendous and huge honor to be able to play in front of my family and friends and just my community.”
The pilgrimage from Columbia’s largest high school to the state’s flagship university right up Providence Road is a path shared among several Tigers, with five Rock Bridge alumni on the team. That’s the most-represented high school on the squad.
Alongside Manuel is defensive end Tre Williams, the other Bruin alum to start on defense. There’s Sean Koetting, who handled kickoff responsibilities for the Tigers against the Crimson Tide. Rounding out the group is true freshman Will Norris and redshirt sophomore Bryson Clayton.
Manuel didn’t just play football at Rock Bridge. He was also an integral part of the Bruins’ track and field team.
During his senior season, Manuel won a state championship in the 110-meter hurdles in Missouri’s largest classification of high school sports.
“I often said in high school I feel like track is one of the hardest sports in the world, even harder than football mentally because every week you know you're going to be leaving the meet that you showed up to at 7 in the morning, you'll be leaving that about 9 at night, and you're going to do that every week, as many events as you have,” Manuel said.
“So I would say from a mental standpoint, doing that and just crossing barriers, I feel like it really helped my mental toughness and conditioning and just knowing when I'm tired that I can still perform."
That mental strength will be needed throughout the Tigers’ SEC-only, 10-game schedule, with seven opponents either being ranked or receiving votes in this week’s Associated Press poll.
The next challenge is against No. 21 Tennessee, which will have around 25,000 fans in Neyland Stadium instead of the more than 100,000 who usually would be jammed into the Knoxville venue.
Saturday is slated to be Manuel’s first start in a road game since last year against Kentucky, and as valued as his performance was against Alabama, he already is setting his sights on the Volunteers.
“I felt like we started to kind of get in the groove in the second half,” Manuel said of the team’s performance last week. “So just start on the first play and finish the last play, the same way that we started to play towards the end of last game. (We) just believe in each other and play for each other and not have any personal or selfish goals in mind.
“Just playing for the brother next to you and playing for the Tigers.”
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