Manuwai remembered for his deeds, others’ words

That description of gentle giant gets thrown around a lot when we talk about behemoth football players. And it is true that Vince Manuwai, who died Sunday at age 38, was very big and very kind.

One of his teammates, defensive back Jacob Espiau, put it best. “Never been picked up and mauled so bad by an O-lineman in my life. Then picked up and given a hug. We lost a super good braddah,” Espiau posted on Facebook upon the sad news.

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Yes, he was gentle. But he was also fierce enough to be the undisputed leader of a college football team of 100 alpha males, and then later to play nearly a decade in the NFL.

But I’ll remember Vince the person fondly, as much or more than Vince the football player — and there’s no doubting he was a great football player.

When I became the University of Hawaii football beat writer for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 2001, Vince was a junior, a team leader and already considered the team’s best pro prospect (well, maybe other than Ashley Lelie … but that’s like comparing an Abrams tank with a Ferrari).

Vince was always cordial with reporters, even though being interviewed wasn’t really one of his favorite things. He usually answered questions matter-of-factly, but in an interesting way; sometimes funny, never condescending. When UH decided to promote him heavily headed into his 2002 season, he accepted his role of face of the program with enthusiasm, despite his aversion to drawing attention to himself and his accolades.

“He was so humble through the whole thing,” said UH associate athletic director Lois Manin, who was then the media relations director and ran the “V-Man 65” campaign (65 was Manuwai’s uniform number) that included distribution of notepads and pens to national college football media. “It almost felt like he didn’t think he deserved all the attention. Vince was one of the best but you’d never know it if you sat down and had a one-on-one conversation with him. We lost a great guy way too soon.”

The nature of Hawaii’s passing offense made publicizing an offensive lineman even more difficult. There were few “pancakes” and “decleaters” and rushing yards to tally … but since Manuwai’s number of sacks-allowed stayed steady at zero — over the course of three seasons — and the offense was the biggest reason the Warriors won 10 games in ‘02, the promotional efforts weren’t wasted. At the end of the year Manuwai’s honors included first-team All-American from CNN, Sports Illustrated and CBSsports.com.

And after conversations with UH offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh, NFL draft guru Mel Kiper put Manuwai on his top 30 list. When the draft did come, Manuwai wasn’t picked until the third round. But the coming passage of time proved that he was the real deal, as Manuwai played in 111 NFL games, starting 105 of them, as a Jags player from 2003 to 2010. He didn’t run-block very much in college, but Manuwai was one of the biggest reasons why Jacksonville rushed for 2,541 yards in 2006 and 2,391 in 2007.

Pro Bowl running back Fred Taylor rushed for more than 1,000 yards in four of the six seasons he ran behind Manuwai. The other two were shortened by injuries. In 2006, Taylor and Jags rookie Maurice Jones-Drew combined for 2,087 yards on the ground.

“One of my favorite teammates I’ve ever had the pleasure of going to battle with. Big Vince never complained …” Taylor posted on Instagram after learning of Manuwai’s death. “He’d always say ‘whatever you wanna do bruddah, I got you’ and he always rushed to snatch guys off the pile and pick me up.”

None of it changed Manuwai’s self-image.

“I never thought I had to express what I got,” Manuwai told Ben Nishimoto in a 2009 Star-Bulletin feature. “There’s no reason to parade it around. I don’t want to show anyone up.”

That was in a piece that was part of a series called The Centurions, where we employed a panel of media and coaches to rank the top 100 UH football players from the first 100 years of the program. Manuwai came in at No. 19.

Nishimoto got Manuwai to do something he doesn’t like to do: Talk about his contributions to the local youth and high school football communities. For every time Manuwai was publicly acknowledged for volunteering his time or money to help kids in Hawaii, I’m sure there were five or six other times when it got no fanfare.

“I know what it’s like running out with a new helmet on. They should too,” he said after donating money for gear to his old high school, Farrington.

Manuwai was a product of the projects, namely Kuhio Park Terrace — a place that some folks grimly change the initials of KPT to standing for “Kill People Tonight.” But Vince never started trouble and was known for stopping beefs before they started.

June Jones, who successfully got Manuwai to switch his college commitment from Utah to UH, once said Manuwai could start as a freshman for any team he’d coached … including the Atlanta Falcons.

That recruitment was a huge early step in UH’s resurgence under Jones (seven winning seasons in the next nine) after the previous regime that ended with an 0-12 season in 1998.

When quarterback/defensive back Omega Hogan, who was about 160 pounds, reported to UH as a freshman, Manuwai was his roommate for his first camp.

“Dude said, ‘Give me your tickets to the home games and I’ll see that nobody (screws) with you.’ I was like, ‘Man, I was gonna give ‘em to you anyway,’ said Hogan, who was from Texas and didn’t have family here to use the tickets. “See you on the other side Vince.”

You learn alot about a person’s character when you are seated next to each other on a long flight. That’s especially true when the person is very big.

When I covered road games, I usually was not on the same flight as the team. If so, it would be strictly by coincidence.

In late 2002, however, I ended up on the same plane as the Warriors for a game at Rice. This would be a long flight, 10 hours nonstop. I can’t remember if we were heading to Houston or back home after UH beat the Owls 33-28 to improve to 8-2 on the season.

The plane was full and I was stuck in a middle seat.

Well, at least the gentleman next to me in the window seat was small. But that bit of relief was quickly negated by the discovery of who would be in the aisle seat to my right. It was UH offensive lineman Vince Manuwai … all 330 pounds of him.

My first thought was this long flight is gonna seem even longer, just because of the sheer physics of our situation. A 330-pound man does not fit well in a coach seat.

But everything worked out. I was able to move to my left a little bit, and Vince had half of his body in the aisle for most of the flight, when people were not trying to get through. He kept his eye out for them, especially the flight attendants, and would move his entire body into the seat as they approached, and he was unfailingly polite to them.

It certainly gave me an appreciation for what athletes — especially big football players — must deal with on commercial flights.

Vince told me he was used to it, and it wasn’t so bad. We chatted a lot, but not very much about football. This was one of the new planes Continental had at the time, with several different games available to play. Vince and I played “Hangman” against each other — for a couple of hours. Neither of us liked to lose, even in a silly game like that, but we laughed and had fun. Whenever we crossed paths in future years, we’d laugh and ask each other if he still sucked at “Hangman.”

I caught up with him in Jacksonville in 2005 after his second season with the Jaguars and the Super Bowl was played there. That city was being ripped to shreds by the media there for the big game, and Vince said it was unfair. He was a champion for underdogs, even an underdog city.

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I don’t think he ever said no when asked to do clinics for kids.

“As tenacious as Vince was on the field, he was humble and soft-spoken off of it,” said Keith Amemiya, an organizer for an event Manuwai attended in 2007. “He was also generous and just a great overall role model.”