Dan Wetzel:

EJ Manuel becoming an NFL star, and his family is with him every step of the way

Frank Schwab
Shutdown Corner

Five or six hours after the Bills wrapped up their last-second victory against Carolina on Sunday, the television was still on in EJ Manuel's house.

Deep into the night, Erik Manuel was watching the highlights, listening to what was being said about his son after he led an 80-yard game-winning drive in his second career start. EJ Manuel just had his first great moment as Buffalo Bills quarterback, but his dad might have been more excited than he was.

"He might have been," EJ Manuel said in a phone interview to promote the Pepsi Next rookie of the week award voting through NFL.com. "And I was pretty excited, so that shows how excited he really was."

This scene wasn't unusual. It was special, with Manuel finding his dad in the stands after the win and promising him the game ball on his father's birthday, but this has been the drill since Manuel was very young. Erik Manuel is always at his games.

Erik Manuel didn't live vicariously through his son, and EJ said he never felt pushed into playing a sport. But there was always the support of his dad and his mom, Jackie, as well. They also had the same support for EJ's sister Amber, who played basketball at High Point University.

Good genes and hard work helped the Manuel siblings tremendously, but it's not a coincidence that they became successful athletes and their parents were behind them the entire time. The Manuels are providing a pretty good role model of what positive family support can do for their children.

"My dad is my best friend and one of my biggest fans – along with my mom and my sister and my grandmother," Manuel said. "I have a huge supporting cast with my family, and I think that’s one reason I’m at where I’m at right now.

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EJ Manuel with his father after Sunday's game (Associated Press)

"I don’t think I’ve gotten here on my own strength. Having that supporting cast of a strong family, a lot of moral values and a lot of things my dad and mother taught me that cultivated me to be the person I am now. Now that I’m in the NFL and a starting quarterback, I’m not going to start beating my own chest and I’m this or that – I’m still going to pay homage to the people who got me here, and that’s my parents."

That's why last year was so hard. EJ Manuel was trying to concentrate on his final season at Florida State, but his mother was battling breast cancer. He didn't say anything publicly about it during the season, but Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher finally revealed that news in response to some criticism Manuel had been getting. Any small struggles Manuel had during the season suddenly made sense.

Jackie Manuel beat cancer and is doing well now. EJ said she's getting back to her normal life and has been back at work for a few months. She cried tears of joy when EJ was drafted and she was at Buffalo's season opener two weeks ago. Knowing his mother is OK helps EJ concentrate on his job.

"Anytime something like that happens to your family, it brings you all together even closer," Manuel said. "We were extremely tight before that, and became even tighter after that.

"I’m extremely proud to call my mom a survivor of breast cancer, and I’m looking forward to having more and more happy days with my family."

The Bills should be thrilled with their rookie first-round pick, who looks like the frontrunner for rookie of the year awards, and can expect to do a lot of promotional work for the Pepsi Next Rookie of the Week – he'll probably be nominated many times this year.

Manuel said he and his fellow rookies on the Bills have already seen the hunger the Buffalo fans have to win, and that Sunday's final-second win provided a small glimpse of what it will be like if the Bills start winning consistently. If the Bills do turn it around, it will be in large part because of the franchise quarterback who has already provided one incredible highlight for the fans.

"This is something I’ve worked for my whole life," Manuel said. "To see it all come together and have a game like last Sunday … it was just awesome."

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