Sunday, March 28, 2010

Manumaleuna Owes Succes to Dad


You can't tell Brandon Manumaleuna's story without starting with his father, because the proud Samoan football legacy that Brandon brings to Chicago starts with him. So, before you can begin to know the mammoth tight end the Bears signed on the first day of free agency, you first must realize what happened at Neyland Stadium on Sept. 7, 1974.

Less than a month after President Nixon resigned, UCLA linebacker Frank Manumaleuna was named Chevrolet Player of the Game after being credited with 25 tackles in a 17-17 tie with Tennessee. But that isn't the most amazing part. What makes it such a memorable performance even after all these years is that Frank was a true freshman playing in his first collegiate game.

Sadly, it also would be his second-to-last -- or so it seemed after the devastating diagnosis of a spinal condition.

''He was the finest linebacker I ever coached at any level,'' ex-UCLA and longtime former NFL coach Dick Vermeil said. ''He was physically mature as a freshman and a gifted athlete. He was unbelievably graceful -- but when he hit you, you went down. He was so strong, he didn't even flinch. He would've been an All-Pro linebacker.''

Today, it's Brandon, the son, who is having the type of career his father never had. Manumaleuna is the sort of tight end who rarely shows up in final statistics. At 6-2, 295 pounds, he was brought in primarily to help protect quarterback Jay Cutler and add toughness to the Bears' running game. The toughness he brings, and the perseverance that has allowed him to be an impact player despite averaging 12 catches per season during his nine-year career, is rooted in his father and the South Pacific islands of his ancestors.

''I would hear about him from other people when they found out who I was,'' Brandon said of his father. ''But he never talked about [his football career].''

NFL and college football players haven't always been American Samoa's leading export. Frank was one of the pioneers. He was 6 when his family moved to Southern California to be closer to a Shriners Hospital because Frank's older brother, John, had been disabled by polio. Despite the handicap, ''Big John'' became a mentor to kids in the neighborhoods where many Polynesians settled.

He urged Frank and others to use football as a means of obtaining a free education. Frank's talent made it an easy choice. He was one of the top recruits in the country when he chose UCLA.

''He lined up with the fourth team on his first day in pads as a freshman,'' said Dick Tomey, who coached Frank as a UCLA assistant and later coached Brandon at Arizona. ''After that practice, all the guys who played his position went to see [Vermeil] because they wanted to play another position. They realized this guy was tremendous.''

He suffered what he thought was a harmless stinger against Tennessee. Then it happened again. He would be diagnosed with what then was described as a congenital deformity of the spine, not unlike spinal stenosis. Because of the risk of paralysis, UCLA doctors would not clear him to play. His career appeared over.

''I thought it was a regular pinched nerve,'' Frank said. ''I had them in high school and kept playing. In the second game it happened again, and that's when they got serious. I thought I would sit out and get better, but as time went on I kept going to all these doctors and neurosurgeons. I got down. My parents said football wasn't important. They wanted me to go to school, but I wanted to play.''

His desire to play never waned. Unbeknownst to their parents, ''Big John'' later helped enroll him in a junior college, where he resumed his career. San Jose State later cleared him to play as long as he wore equipment that kept his head immobilized. Frank went on to become one of San Jose State's all-time greats, and although he played for the Chiefs for three seasons, those who remembered how he performed that day against the Volunteers said the apparatus he had to wear to protect himself robbed him of much of his athleticism.

''He was never the same,'' Vermeil said.

You won't hear any bitterness in Frank's voice when he talks about the career he wishes he had, and he's not reliving his dream through Brandon -- not while he had 10 other children to raise, including five boys who played football at the high school level.

He's just glad Brandon has received the opportunity to play uninhibited by straps, collars and the constant fear of a life-threatening injury.

He's just thankful his son is having the type of career he was denied.

''I did whatever I could just to have the opportunity to play at that level,'' Frank said. ''Looking back on it now, it could've been great if [the injury] never would have happened.''

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