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Mike Downey

This Lionel Is Fresh and Ready to Roll

January 23, 1987|MIKE DOWNEY

Four of his teammates were dancing with winsome cheerleaders, arm in arm, boy-girl-boy-girl, kicking like Rockettes, and Lionel Manuel could not take his eyes off them. Occasionally, his concentration would crack, right in mid-sentence, as he stole sidelong glances at David Jordan, Brian Johnston, William Roberts and Damien Johnson, until finally he noticed them posing for photographs.

"I've got to get in some of those pictures," Manuel said, and walked off to join the others.

He was bored. There were places he would rather have been, even though he hadn't been in this particular place very long. He was like Groucho Marx, who once reluctantly accompanied his brother, Chico, to a movie produced by Harry Cohn, a man Groucho did not like. When "Columbia Pictures Presents" appeared on the screen, Groucho turned to Chico and said: "Drags, doesn't it?"

Manuel, a wide receiver for the New York Giants, strolled over to where his teammates were cavorting.

"Aw, you guys look so cute," he said. Whereupon he adjusted his sunglasses for maximum coolness, then tried to slip into their chorus line.

For him, it was more fun to be playing than talking. Manuel had endured weeks and weeks of inactivity, during which talking was about all he could do, after Antonio Gibson of the New Orleans Saints knocked him and his knee out of commission in the fourth game of the season. Manuel missed the next 12 games.

Upon returning to active duty, Manuel helped the Giants reach their first Super Bowl by catching an 11-yard touchdown pass in the NFC championship game against the Washington Redskins. Lionel was back on the track.

But he still didn't feel much like talking, not even to Gibson about what Manuel and many others in greater New York and New Jersey considered to be a questionable hit.

"Nothing to say to him," Manuel said.

He preferred just to go back to work, catching passes, and not making any small talk. Even when someone brought up his true off-the-field love, music--he plays several instruments and sang the lead on the Giants' music video--Manuel resisted the urge.

"That's my hobby," he said. "Some people go to bars, some go to happy hours, some read. I go listen to music, or play music, or write music. That's all there is to it. No need to get into it."

He did say he intended to drop by his mother's place in Cucamonga, where some of his musical stuff was stored, before this hectic week was over. Already, he was busy enough trying to find tickets for all the California relatives and friends who, Manuel said, "were starting to come out of the woodworks."

Manuel went to high school in La Puente, then attended Citrus College and University of the Pacific. He was home. Someone from his high school had just contacted him about holding a day in his honor as soon as the season was over.

Still, he wasn't all that keen on talking over old times.

"What's it like living in New York after all those years in California?" Manuel was asked.

"California's better."

"How come?"

"Warmer," he said.

"Were you a beach boy here?"

"Yeah."

"Surfer?"

"Boogie boarder," he said.

Out of college, Manuel was, in fact, selected by Los Angeles in the 1984 United States Football League territorial draft, but elected to go big time and sign with the NFL Giants, who drafted the 5-11, 175-pound receiver in the seventh round.

"What did you learn during your time at Pacific?" Manuel was asked.

"Survival," was his entire comment on that matter.

He learned enough to step right into the pros and catch 33 passes as a rookie, followed by 49 his second season, including 5 for touchdowns. He did all that despite missing a month of the 1985 season with a pulled hamstring.

This season, because he has missed so much action, Manuel's statistics are hardly dazzling, but he does consider himself to have at least one advantage going into Sunday's game against Denver. "My legs are fresher than anyone's out there," he said.

It was mentioned that Cleveland receiver Brian Brennan had described Denver's secondary as the "weak links" of the Bronco defense, and the area where that club could be exploited.

Manuel's response to that was: "If you come this far, how many missing links can you have? We're the two top teams in football and nobody else can say anything about it."

The questions getting increasingly innocuous, he was asked, "Happy to be playing in a Super Bowl?"

"Yeah, looking forward to winning the championship and taking it on back to Jersey," Manuel said.

"Enjoying all this attention or getting tired of it?" he was asked.

"Well, enjoying looking at those cheerleaders," Manuel said, and a minute later he was gone, because the conversation had really started to drag.

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