Moving away from your home of eight years to train for the biggest job interview of your life isn’t easy.
But Martez Manuel has been doing well. In January, he left Columbia for Cumming, Georgia, to prepare for the NFL draft. Despite being unfamiliar with the area and the people, he’s found a sense of community. He misses his teammates, family, friends and girlfriend, but he said being away for a while only makes him appreciate them more.
In Cumming, the former Missouri safety and captain felt like he got to know himself all over again.
“Shoot, I feel like a big one is that I’m fast. I forgot I’m fast,” Manuel said. ”It’s nobody’s fault, but at Mizzou, I was always playing in the box. … I was a four-time state champion in track, you know, 300-meter hurdle champion, and through my time at Mizzou, I kind of forgot that I had speed.”
Manuel is training with Richard Camp, who runs Power, Performance and Fitness (PPF) Athletics. Camp’s son, Jalen, plays receiver for the Houston Texans and shares Manuel’s agent. They’re working primarily on Manuel’s testing — 40-yard dash, broad and vertical jump, shuttles and three-cone drill — which teams have told him is the main thing they’re looking for at Missouri’s pro day on Friday at Devine Pavilion.
Teams know Manuel can play. They want to know if he’s athletic enough to do it in the NFL.
“The people that (Camp has trained) over the last few years have tested great and have had great pro days that got their draft stock moved up,” Manuel said. “We just thought it would be the perfect move for me.”
Manuel has had a lot of time to reflect on his time at Missouri, during which he accomplished a great deal, but he hasn’t done that much. The only time he did was at the Tigers’ end-of-season banquet, when it truly hit him that he had played his last game in Columbia. He knew he wouldn’t play in the Gasparilla Bowl; having suffered a high- ankle sprain preparing for the 2021 Armed Forces Bowl, he didn’t want to take that chance.
Though Manuel discussed his years with the Tigers in a recent interview with the Columbia Missourian, he isn’t planning on taking a minute to sit back and think about them until he signs with an NFL team, because he knows his journey isn’t done.
“I feel like that’s a last-page-of-the-book, let’s-close-the-book conversation,” Manuel said. “I’m having the mindset of I’ve still got 30 pages left in my book, and I’m ready to write this new story now before I reflect on the last one.”
Second time around
Manuel did not receive an invite to the NFL scouting combine or any pre-draft all-star game, both of which he feels like he deserved.
“The truth is that I’ve had to take a lot of losses in this process,” Manuel said.
Manuel posted on his Instagram story after the full NFL combine invite list came out and he wasn’t on it. He likened the lack of recognition to what he received out of high school: no all-star game invites and only three Power Five offers.
Even when he got to Missouri, Manuel didn’t feel like the program valued him as much as they valued others.
“I’m walking on campus, probably not even as a top guy that they even really wanted,” Manuel said. “(There were) guys like Stacy Brown, Jalani Williams, who was a four-star. It really was not fit to work out in my favor at all.”
Manuel’s solution was to work like he was the guy his coaches believed in. In his mind, he was the starter over players like Tyree Gillespie and Joshuah Bledsoe, which Manuel admits was impossible at the time. Both Gillespie and Bledsoe were drafted in 2021 and remain on NFL rosters this offseason.
“That didn’t discourage me,” Manuel said. “So, I feel like my situation now is really the same. I didn’t get a Senior Bowl invite, didn’t get a Shrine Bowl invite, didn’t get a Hula Bowl invite. I didn’t get any invite. That can do something to you if you let it, but I didn’t let it.”
Back then, Manuel absolutely felt the uncertainty from his recruiting rankings. Fans on social media tend to pick favorites among each recruiting class, and Manuel did not feel like he was one of them. It was discouraging, but it didn’t last.
“It was once I got there and once I started training with those guys who they told me were better than me,” Manuel said. “I was just like, ‘Hold on. I am just as capable as anybody else in this building.’ I feel like that’s when I truly started to believe it. … That’s when I learned I can’t let anybody tell me, before the situation happens, who I am or what I’m gonna be.”
Manuel started as a fourth-stringer on Missouri’s depth chart, at least in part because he didn’t enroll early. By the end of fall camp, he was the primary backup to both Bledsoe and Gillespie, and he stuck at that spot throughout the season.
“I was really proud of myself,” Manuel said. “People would be like, ‘Why are you celebrating the backup position?’ Because I’m 18.”
Feeling the pressure
Having been through it before, Manuel has several strategies to handle the pressure of being overlooked this time around. He believes he’s better than some of the players who got all-star game and NFL combine invites, but he won’t dwell on it. He knows spending time making comparisons will just stress him out.
He’s leaned on his faith, much more since he went to Cummings than he had in Columbia. Manuel has always been a spiritual person, but he went away from it more than he would have liked to in college.
“I’m not making any excuses, but it is hard to play a game on Saturday and go to church on Sunday,” Manuel said. “But since I’ve been down here, man, I’ve really been able to lean into that and really dive back more in my faith.”
After he talked about his faith, though, Manuel opened up about going to therapy, which he started in early February.
He didn’t believe therapy would work for him until he started it, but Manuel said it helps him deal with pressures — from the pre-draft process but also, through no fault of theirs, from his family and others back home.
“I have a very loving family who cares about me, but they’ll reach out and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, when’s the draft?’ Or ‘When’s your draft party?’ Or ‘Oh, I can’t wait ’til you make it and we get to come out there and see you.’” Manuel said. “And that’s very motivating stuff, but at the same time, it’s like, ‘OK, but what if that doesn’t happen?’”
Manuel thought it was best to talk about things like that with a therapist, and he was dealing with enough uncertainty that he thought he had to talk to somebody. Even players who get NFL combine and all-star game invites, he said, have little to no control over where they end up, and he needed to talk to someone about the feelings that came with the process.
“Just being able to talk to somebody and tell them, like, ‘Hey, I’m feeling these pressures from my family, who believe in me and who only want to show me love, but at the same time, their love can be kind of (be stressful) on me,’” Manuel said. “Like, I have to succeed, or I’m gonna let them down.”
Therapy, Manuel said, has helped him believe in himself and be at peace with his situation.
“It’s been really good for me.”
The maturity the game teaches you
Manuel knows how much he grew from his starting debut in 2020 against Alabama to his final game in 2022 against Arkansas, but his growth was not linear. The first game of the season, in each of his three years as a starter at Missouri, was a significant benchmark.
In Year 1, nobody outside of Columbia knew who he was, and Missouri came in with zero expectations, given its opponent.
“There’s power in that,” Manuel said. “My sophomore first game, I was just out there because I love my teammates and I wanted to play Alabama. And that’s how I played.”
Alabama smoked Missouri, as was expected, but the final score was within 20, and it wasn’t dissimilar to any other Alabama game that year — including the national championship, which the Crimson Tide won by 28. Manuel had 3.5 tackles for loss, breaking out as a plus starter for the Tigers.
Fast-forward to the 2021 season opener against Central Michigan. The Tigers won, but it was closer than most anticipated, and the defense showed warning signs of what it would look like for several weeks.
Manuel let the positive reviews of his sophomore year performance go to his head.
“I was so overhyped to get out there, because I wanted to prove everybody wrong, and I didn’t even play good, like, at all,” Manuel said. “I hated that game from a personal level.”
One year later, Missouri opened on a Thursday night against Louisiana Tech. Manuel, a returning captain, calmed his nerves before the game. He made sure everyone on a defense with three new starters and several other first-year contributors checked their reads. He communicated before the snap, himself playing a new position.
Missouri cruised to a blowout win, which set the tone for the season its defense was about to have.
“That’s the maturity that the game teaches you,” Manuel said.
In an up-and-down three years, Manuel took some of the downs personally. He was elected captain before the 2021 season, which he said was the most difficult season possible for that to happen.
“I mean, our defense was playing so bad,” Manuel said. “We weren’t playing good as a team. It was a tough, tough season. It taught me so much about the real world of college football, the real way coaches move, the real way coaches think. … It was just such a reality check for me, so much to the point that in my senior year, I was hesitant about if I wanted to experience that again.”
Never getting over the six-win hump crushed Manuel. There were many players, in his eyes, who did everything in their power to get the Tigers out of the .500 range, and they couldn’t do it. In Manuel’s words, it was heartbreaking.
“I feel like fans think that we’re just, like, on a script, and we don’t care what happens,” Manuel said. “We got people who cry after every loss, and that’s six losses. That’s a lot of tears.”
With so many close losses in 2022, the pain deepened.
The only dull moments came on the road, where Missouri struggled, winning only four games away from Memorial Stadium in Manuel’s entire career. Before the 2022 season started, Manuel, a captain again, stressed to Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz that something had to change.
“I don’t care if we gotta go practice at Rock Bridge (High School) for a day or go to Cosmo Park in Columbia,” Manuel said he told Drinkwitz. “We gotta start practicing in some alternate locations, because when we get on the road, we act like we don’t know how to play football anymore.”
Respect in the SEC
In terms of high points from Manuel’s time in Columbia, two wins stand out from his sophomore year. One was the thriller against Arkansas, which Manuel said was his favorite game of the season, but his first win as a starter came on the goal-line stand he helped spearhead to beat LSU.
The scoreboard read 45-41 Missouri. Forty-four seconds left. Terrace Marshall, a current Carolina Panther and the one holdover from LSU’s record-breaking 2019 offense, caught a pass and was forced out of bounds at the 1-yard line.
“I like this now, because I’m not at Mizzou anymore, so I can be honest,” Manuel said. “Oh my gosh, I was like, ‘We blew it.’”
Four plays later — two run stuffs in part by Manuel himself, one Nick Bolton swat and one Bledsoe deflection — Missouri took down the defending champions.
“I saw a tweet that said, ‘Mizzou never wins that game,’” Manuel said. “That was so facts to me, because I’ve been a Mizzou fan, and I’ve seen that we lose that game because of a situation like that.”
After that, one of the games Manuel is most proud of might stun Missouri fans: the Auburn game in 2022. Yes, that Auburn game.
Manuel saw that day — once-in-a-lifetime, brutal ending aside — as validation that his team belonged.
“To see our fans travel to that game the way they did, to see our school, who nobody respects in the SEC, going to an SEC tradition school, like a very well-known SEC school’s homecoming, and playing the way that we played and almost beating them,” Manuel said. “To play like we did and just put Mizzou on that map, on the road against Auburn, that was so big for me.”
He looks back fondly on the “heartbreaking” loss to Georgia, even though he said it “hurt so bad” for the same reason.
Manuel knows what Missouri’s reputation is in SEC country. He reads tweets from rival fans saying the Tigers don’t belong in the conference. It’s a sticking point for him, particularly because he was a Missouri fan before playing, and it has been for years. He implied as much publicly, when he said after the road win at South Carolina that Missouri won’t be respected in the SEC until it wins the East Division.
He was receiving treatment in February down in Cumming, and he remembered debating with trainers about the best southern food restaurant, or something along those lines. One of the trainers quipped that the SEC should never have let Missouri in.
“I was ready to fight about that,” Manuel said. “I feel like (the Auburn and Georgia games were) a really high moment for me, because we really got to let the South know we’re here.”
Caring about Columbia
Because Manuel is from Columbia, he also felt like he carried the responsibility to represent his city — and he still does — as he hopes to play in the NFL.
Manuel knows that after a Missouri game, a Rock Bridge student will probably check his stats first. He knows that kids in Columbia are constantly paying attention to what he says and posts on social media, which he feels has helped him become a professional, choosing his public comments carefully.
“I feel like that’s one thing that I’m really proud of myself for doing,” Manuel said. “I’ve always used my power, used my influence the right way — to give back, to shout out kids, to tutor kids, to do whatever I had to do.”
Williams, who has become one of Manuel’s close friends despite representing competition at safety at first, once introduced Manuel at a press conference as, among other things, “The Hometown Kid.” Others have used that nickname before. One of Manuel’s biggest goals is to earn that moniker, representing his city in a positive light.
The first public step in that process since he played his last game with the Tigers comes Friday — at his pro day.
“I’m gonna show people how special the people in this community are through me,” Manuel said. “I feel like that’s what I did.”
Manuel believes in himself. Columbia believes in Manuel. And Friday, he plans to show why.
“I’m not in this to prove anyone wrong on pro day,” Manuel said. “I’m in it to prove myself right.”