Making the leap: Former Rock Bridge hurdler Manuel making an impact on Saturdays

How a track background prepared Missouri safety Martez Manuel for a potential breakout on the SEC stage.
Martez Manuel (3) saves a touchdown by dragging down Alabama RB Najee Harris on Sept. 26, 2020. SEC Media Portal

Missouri safety Martez Manuel took off as soon as he saw Alabama quarterback Mac Jones hand the ball off to running back Trey Sanders.

Quick on his feet, Manuel shot through a gap in the offensive line and wrapped up Sanders in the backfield before he could find the edge. The athleticism displayed on that play was nothing new to those who watched the true sophomore grow up just miles from Faurot Field.

Much of what Manuel does on Saturdays can be attributed to the three years he spent on the track and field team at local Rock Bridge High School. During his time as a Bruin, Manuel consistently placed in every competition he participated in, from individual meets to state championships.

Now, just one game into his sophomore season, he may have broken out in the Tigers’ opener against Alabama. By the end of last Saturday’s game, Manuel doubled the amount of tackles he made a season ago, and his 3.5 tackles for loss lead the Southeastern Conference.

“He brings a lot of energy and effort,” defensive end Darius Robinson said. “I love everything about Martez and the way he plays. I love him off the field. Martez knows what he’s doing. He’s very energized. You always know that he is going to play hard for his teammates and hard for Mizzou.”

If track was the sport that Manuel used to complement his talent on the football field, it was also the sport that first drew recruiters’ attention.

The Eastern Relays, held annually in Louisville, Kentucky, bring over 100 schools from the Midwest together to compete in dozens of events. Oftentimes, college programs will send a scout to Louisville to search for kids with football potential.

Manuel’s performance in 2018 caught the eyes of scouts and jump-started his recruiting process. He swept every event he participated in as a senior. He took first in both the 300-meter and 110-meter hurdles, the latter of which set a personal record, and his relay team won both the 4-x-200 and 4-x-400 competitions.

Before the Eastern Relays that season, Manuel held offers from Missouri State, Northern Iowa and Wyoming. By the end of the week, he had offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and, soon after, Missouri.

“I don’t think people understand that multiple sport athletes, coaches like that, they can watch how players handle other types of adversity,” Rock Bridge head football coach Van Vanatta said. “And I think track does that to football because when you’re in those starting blocks, you’re on your own. That just shows what type of mentality, what type of passion and grind you have once the gun goes off. If you really want to know the truth, that’s what opened some doors for Martez, because of his ability in track and field.”

Manuel, already an outstanding athlete by the time he joined the track and field team, could have been satisfied after becoming Missouri’s state champion in 300-meter hurdles his sophomore season. Finishing fourth in the 300-meter hurdles and seventh in the 110-meter hurdles at the Eastern Relays, his junior year was certainly nothing to scoff at.

Instead, he constantly spent hours outside of practice his senior year working with coaches on one of his major weaknesses: foot placement coming off the starting block.

“We kept noticing that he wanted to take wide angles,” Blackburn said. “You could just see some of the drills that were played over from football that would go onto the track where he had to run more straight lines instead of zig zags.”

To fix that, coaches took chalk and tracked where his foot placement was and where he was striking coming off the block. The message was simple: he needed to get back to the basics.

“[Manuel] is at his best when he is competing,” Blackburn said. “That’s what he lives for and he would make those corrections on race day. Sometimes at practice he would get frustrated if it didn’t click right away. He just wanted to go at it until he got it right.”

When he wasn’t working on individual drills, Manuel often worked out with one of his best friends on the team, Nathaniel Peat, who is now a sophomore running back at Stanford. Peat and Manuel met at Smithton Middle School and grew close during their time at Rock Bridge. They often went up against each other on the gridiron but would also find the time to race one another on the track.

“That was definitely our mentality during practice,” Peat said. “Always trying to beat each other, outwork each other. We never really ran the same races besides the 400 [meter], so it was who can get the fastest split, who could put their team in the lead. Stuff like that.”

Through friendly competition and hours of individual work, Manuel made plenty of strides to become better on the track. So when he finally achieved his goal of winning the 110-meter hurdle event at the Eastern Relays, Blackburn glanced over at his gifted hurdler and shared a moment after years of work.

“One thing that hasn’t changed is that when he does something special he is very emotional about it,” Blackburn said. “He’ll beat his chest and get super pumped, and while that’s not out of the ordinary on the football field, sometimes it is on the track. We are very emotional people that wear our hearts on our sleeves and sharing that from across the track after he would do something really well is what will always stick with me.”

Vanatta will always remember when Manuel believed his senior season was in jeopardy of being cut short.

In the first round of the playoffs against Francis Howell Central, Manuel dove for the ball on an onside kick, but collided helmet-to-helmet with a Spartans player, suspending him for the next game. Despite the disappointment of missing a playoff game, Manuel stayed positive and jumped into helping the team every other way he could.

“He was our inspirational leader; he got kids going,” Vanatta said. “It was funny because he was running scout team, running quarterback, and the following week we put some wildcat in with him on the ball because he can do a lot of different things.”

Manuel did get to play his final high school football game the next weekend. In a way, years of participating in track helped him mentally during a tough week in which he couldn’t fully participate with his team.

“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 showing up at a meet at seven in the morning; you’ll be leaving at about nine at night,” Manuel said. “You know you’re going to do that every week at as many events as you have. I feel like it helped my mental toughness, conditioning and knowing when I am tired that I can still perform.”

Through track, Manuel built up the speed and explosiveness necessary for a player –– especially one starting in the secondary –– to burst into the backfield and create chaos.

“I think he was able to just really complement his football skills with the development of his speed, his tenacity and his competitiveness that he brings to those one-versus-one type races,” Rock Bridge track and field coach Neal Blackburn said.

That blend of physical and mental attributes is beginning to shine through on the SEC stage.

Over the years, Vanetta would often attend Rock Bridge track and field events because he had multiple players that participated in both sports.

While some visiting parents would gawk at Manuel’s raw athletic talent, Vanetta was never really surprised. Effortlessly clearing hurdle after hurdle over the course of 300 meters was par for the course for a player with much greater aspirations.

Manuel may not run track or hurdle anymore –– SEC football is a full-time occupation, after all –– but many traits he picked up from his time on the Rock Bridge track and field team extend to what he does in football.

And when Blackburn watches his former star hurdler take to Faurot Field, as he did on Saturday night when the Crimson Tide rolled into town, the longtime coach sees many things that can be attributed to his time running track in high school.

“I think that we had a small hand on his overall development,” Blackburn said. “But I’ll still swear on it that he had a much bigger impact on us than we did on him during his time at Rock Bridge.”

Edited by Jack Soble |

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