BOARDMAN - There's always an extra player in the huddle for the San Francisco 49ers when receiver Mario Manningham is on the field.
No one can see him, but Mario can feel the presence of his grandfather, Gerald Simpson, who died unexpectedly on Aug. 24. Simpson was the dominant male figure in Manningham's life and the role model he needed growing up in Warren.
"Just going out and playing my game and knowing I have an extra person out there helping me out and motivating me," Manningham said of how he's remembering his grandfather.
Tribune Chronicle / Dave Dermer
San Francisco wide receiver and Warren G. Harding graduate Mario Manningham catches a ball during practice on Wednesday at Stambaugh Stadium in Youngstown.
Manningham, who graduated from Warren G. Harding in 2005, signed with the San Francisco 49ers during the offseason after a four-year stint with the New York Giants. His signing power improved dramatically after he made a 38-yard, over-the-shoulder catch along the left sideline against the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, somehow managing to keep both feet inbounds. The Giants went on to score the winning touchdown on a 6-yard run by Ahmad Bradshaw with 57 seconds to play.
The 49ers are staying at a hotel in Boardman this week and practicing at Youngstown State University for a road game Sunday against the New York Jets. The 49ers played in Minnesota last Sunday and decided to practice here instead of returning to the west coast and facing a cross-country flight on Saturday.
Staying so close to home is a bonus for Manningham, who spends a considerable amount of time during the offseason in Warren. He was able to go home Tuesday for some home cooking. Before practice Wednesday Warren G. Harding coach Steve Arnold stopped by the team headquarters to spend some time.
Having the support of fans from his hometown is special to Manningham.
"It means a lot," he said. "They've been supporting me since I first got on the field, (basketball) court or whatever. That's the type of city I come from. Everybody loves sports and loves to be there and support it."
A smile came to Manningham's face when Harding's 4-1 football team was mentioned. He knows what success in sports can mean for young men hoping to fulfill their dreams.
"Coming from around here you really don't see that many people that are encouraging and trying to help out," he said. "These kids are more talented than when I was in high school. They need someone to tell them how it's done and anything is possible. Stick with your dreams."
Manningham was signed as one part of the equation to fill a missing link after the 49ers lost to the Giants in the NFC Championship game last season. The other part was enticing Randy Moss out of retirement to add more speed and big-play ability to go along with Michael Crabtree.
Quarterback Alex Smith is pleased to have Manningham on his side.
"He's incredibly quick," Smith said. "A great route runner. Makes a bunch of tough catches. A guy that can win 1-on-1 and can separate. He brings a lot to the table."
Manningham has seven receptions for 57 yards as the 49ers approach week four with a 2-1 record. Coach Jim Harbaugh is looking to increase the contributions Manningham can make as the 49ers try to take it a step beyond last season and make it to the Super Bowl.
"He's been a contributor in every game that we've played," Harbaugh said. "He has a knack; a savvy. Very talented. High character guy that makes plays. He's fit in real nice here."
Return specialist/receiver Ted Ginn Jr. agrees with Harbaugh. Ginn joked about how Manningham almost single-handedly defeated Cleveland Glenville, 30-26, in the second game of the 2004 high school season. Needing a first down late in the fourth quarter to run out the clock, the elder Ginn called a receiver screen pass to the left flat. Manningham, playing cornerback, jumped the route and returned an interception for the winning touchdown.
"I think every athlete in the pros played on both sides of the ball at one time," Ginn Jr. said. "We're all tremendous athletes. We put work into our craft. As much as you put in, you should get out."
Manningham reached the pinnacle of NFL success last season. He's trying to do the same this season. The uniform is different and he has an extra helper with the constant presence of his grandfather, who is one reason why he's where he's at today.
"Just being there and showing me the ins and outs of life," Manningham said. "Some of it doesn't have anything to do with football. Just being a man of your word. Just being accountable and doing what I have to do to stick out and don't be like everybody else."