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Sunday, July 12, 2009

High impact from low-key 'V'

By Ben Nishimoto

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jul 12, 2009

There are things you need to know about Vince Manuwai, but don't expect to hear them from him.

The recipient of numerous accolades, Manuwai lacks the bravado of an athlete who, during his career at Hawaii, was among the nation's most proficient offensive lineman.

After graduating from the Skippa Diaz School of Hard Knocks at Farrington, Manuwai played guard for the Warriors from 1999 to 2002, de-cleating linemen on his way to earning first-team All-America honors his senior year -- one of only five University of Hawaii players ever to do so. A pillar of stability, Manuwai didn't allow a sack in his last 35 games as a Warrior.

June Jones once said Manuwai could have made his Atlanta Falcons squad as an 18-year-old freshman. Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh once called him the best interior lineman he's ever coached at Hawaii. And his current coach, the Jacksonville Jaguars' Jack Del Rio, called him a Pro Bowl-caliber left guard.

Said Diaz: "He puts on his blinders. He bites down. He gets to work."

Manuwai's introduction to organized football was a rude one. As a young boy, he was too big to play Pop Warner, so he started playing basketball, which he continued to play through high school.

Current Farrington football coach Randall Okimoto remembers watching a high school basketball game in which Manuwai was playing. After a hard foul, a fight broke out. The benches cleared, and fists flew. Manuwai, who was on the court when the scuffle started, walked in the opposite direction of his teammates, sitting down on his team's suddenly empty bench.

"That was a real sight. I won't forget that," said Okimoto. "He wanted a chance to play football in college and didn't want anything he did to jeopardize that."

Manuwai stayed out of trouble and, after starring on the offensive line for the Governors, accepted a scholarship from then-first-year head coach June Jones, becoming a part of Jones' first recruiting class.

"He would pancake guys with the strike of his hand. He had the best punch I've ever seen," said Brian Smith, Manuwai's former teammate and current Hawaii assistant coach. Smith now shows Manuwai's sophomore highlight tape to his players.

So powerful were his punches that sometimes even his opponents were incredulous.

According to Cavanaugh, during a television timeout in Hawaii's home matchup with Alabama in 2002, a Crimson Tide defensive lineman who had battled Manuwai all night called him over and asked him how much he bench-pressed. When Manuwai told him he benched around 500 pounds, the lineman swore Manuwai could lift more.

With every pancake, national attention increased. Coaches, teammates and eventually pro scouts raved about his athleticism and technique. The "V-Man 65" campaign, concocted by the Hawaii athletic department, gave the quiet giant enough exposure to be named to the CNN/Sports Illustrated All-America first team.

But Manuwai was never one to bask in the spotlight. He doesn't show his awards to anyone, not even to his children.

"I never thought I had to express what I got," he said. "There's no reason to parade it around. I don't want to show anyone up."

The reason behind such modesty? Maybe it was growing up in Kuhio Park Terrace. Maybe it was playing for Diaz at Farrington, where Manuwai still remembers the stench of his hand-me-down practice jersey. Maybe it was Cavanaugh, who constantly reminded his players that jobs pumping gas were waiting for them if they didn't fully commit to school and football.

Or maybe for Manuwai it was as simple as putting on blinders, biting down, and working hard.

Because at every step, Manuwai eyed the next.

The Jaguars, under new head coach Del Rio, used the 73rd overall pick on Manuwai in the 2003 draft. He went on to start 78 of his first 79 games in the league before spending all of last year inactive after tearing two ligaments in his right knee in the season opener.

But like the workhorse he is, Manuwai dropped 30 pounds this offseason and is poised to reclaim his starting position on the Jaguars' offensive line.

His rise from KPT to the NFL is certainly an improbable one. Manuwai knows where he came from. That's why he gives back.

Shortly after Manuwai signed his first pro contract, he called his former assistant coach and current Farrington athletic director, Harold Tanaka.

"He said he wanted to donate to our (football) program," Tanaka said. "I told him no, not yet. I wanted him to take care of himself first."

After signing his second contract a couple of years ago, Manuwai called Tanaka again asking if he could give.

"Of course I said yes," Tanaka said.

But when Tanaka tried to organize a school assembly in appreciation, Manuwai shot the idea down.

"I said 'hell no,'" Manuwai said. "I wasn't doing it to get my name out."

Manuwai's giving to Farrington again this year, and Tanaka is looking forward to using the donation to buy new football helmets.

"I know what it's like running out with a new helmet on. They should too," Manuwai said.

Manuwai is back in Hawaii now, resting a bit before the NFL season starts. In fact, today he celebrates his 29th birthday.

So if you happen to see him from afar, be cool. A simple tip of your cap will suffice.

After all, he's not looking to be recognized, but deserves to be acknowledged.

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