One of Warren’s best

WARREN – Imagine a high school basketball coach being told by a potential star player that he doesn’t want to play football.

After a few chest pumps and a couple of back flips, the coach might sit down and calmly ask the player if he thinks he’s making the right choice.

Steve Arnold faced that situation when Mario Manningham, prior to his sophomore year at Warren G. Harding High School, balked at the prospect of playing football despite scoring close to 30 touchdowns as a freshman. Arnold, who was about to enter his first season as the Raiders basketball coach, was undoubtedly intrigued by a player not wanting to play football, but the realist in him said it wouldn’t be right to steer Manningham away from the sport.

Arnold knew that Manningham was a very good basketball player. He also knew that Manningham had the potential to be a great football player.

Holding back greatness would have been borderline sinful.

“I told him, ‘If you don’t play football, I’m going to cut you from the basketball team,’ ” said Arnold, who became the football coach after 10 years with the basketball program. “I knew I wasn’t going to cut him, but, anyway, he ended up playing as a sophomore and the rest is history. Now he’s getting his jersey retired.”

Manningham became the third Harding athlete to have his jersey retired during a short ceremony following a football camp Saturday at Mollenkopf Stadium. Manningham’s 30 jersey joins Paul Warfield’s 45 and Korey Stringer’s 77 as numbers that will never be worn again.

“It’s humbling,” Manningham said of the honor. “I try to come back and try to do stuff for the children. Just stand out and try not to be like everybody else. Try to be my own man.”

Manningham was an elite receiver/defensive back at Harding from 2002-04. He excelled at the University of Michigan from 2005-07 before entering the NFL draft and being selected by the New York Giants in the third round in 2008.

Manningham played four seasons with the Giants and the last two with the San Francisco 49ers. He returned to the Giants during the offseason after appearing in just six games last season because of a knee injury.

It’s the magic Manningham displayed at Harding that led to Saturday’s ceremony. When great Warren receivers are mentioned, three top the list – Warfield, Omar Provitt and Manningham.

Thom McDaniels, Manningham’s coach at Harding and the current coach at Canton McKinley, has seen many talented athletes during his lengthy coaching career. He can’t recall anyone coming close to Manningham as a receiver.

“Unquestionably the best receiver I’ve ever coached. I’m not sure who number two is,” McDaniels said. “He was awesome.”

An interesting aspect of the retirement ceremony was that Manningham is remembered by most fans for wearing number 1. Not a fan of 30, Manningham requested a change after his sophomore season, and his wishes were accommodated.

“(Coach) made me earn the jersey because I wasn’t going to play,” Manningham said. “He was harder on me than I was on myself. That’s why I give him the utmost respect. Starting off I wasn’t an easy player to deal with just by the simple fact that I came out there late.

“When you’re young you think you can do whatever you want to. A lot of kids go through life thinking they can do what they want to. You have to break yourself down mentally in order for you to succeed and stand out on the field.”

The number 30 is appropriate because it symbolizes the start of Manningham’s ride to the top of the football world, which included in a sensational reception from Eli Manning on a fade route that kept alive a game-winning drive in the Giants’ 21-17 win over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.

Warren fans can easily recall McDaniels increasing Manningham’s role in a game against the Massillon Tigers in his sophomore season. Trailing at halftime, the Raiders rallied to win behind a four-touchdown effort by Manningham two receptions, one kick return and one punt return.

“We didn’t hold him back as much as we brought him along slowly,” McDaniels said. “The transition from freshmen football to varsity is a difficult one. He actually scored the previous week against McKinley. As the season unfolded his role expanded, and then he had a breakout game against Massillon. The Massillon people and the Tigers have never gotten over that.”

Manningham is anxious to return to his pre-injury form on his return to the Giants.

“It feels like I haven’t played football in so long,” Manningham said. “I’m just trying to get more memories like that (catch against the Patriots). Yeah, I have the ring to show for it, but I want another one. I’m never satisfied.”