Every Sunday in family rooms and sports bars, football fans gather around big screen televisions to watch their favorite teams, and every week players like Chad Johnson, Joey Porter and Terrell Owens try to make the game about themselves with their celebratory antics and constant trash talking geared at gaining the national spotlight. Younger players can be easily influenced by these flashy NFL stars, but some young men still want to play the game in a pure manner that would make Dick Butkus and the ghost of Ray Nitschke proud. Ryan Manalac is such a player.
The Bearcat starting middle linebacker is a lot of things, but he's not a player that necessarily enjoys the spotlight. Last August I requested an interview with Manalac after an afternoon practice at Camp Higher Ground, but Cincinnati football SID, Kelby Siler, returned saying Ryan had declined the interview. I was told by others that I was lucky because Manalac was a lousy interview, but after seeing Ryan's effort for two years, I knew he was exactly the type kid Bearcat football fans would want to know. He is all substance and no flash, a throwback player to a time when the word "artificial" never appeared before the word "turf."
Despite his distain for media attention, his workmanlike play on the field this season has attracted more and more cameras and microphones. Being chosen the Big East Defensive Player of the Week for October 8 earned him a televised interview on the nationally syndicated show "Inside the Big East," and this week Fox 19 included him in a story. Still, the throwback linebacker said he'd prefer just concentrating on his job. "Interviews to me just distract me from what I have to do out here on the field so it's not something I like to do. I like to stay focused and do what I need to do with the team."
Some might think Ryan is just shy, but he explained that isn't the case at all. "I was always comfortable giving speeches in classes. It has nothing to do with my confidence. It's just something I don't like to do."
Ryan may not like to do interviews, but he's more than capable. A few weeks ago, Coach Kelly chose Manalac to address the local media during his weekly Tuesday press conference. Manalac talked about the need to play "fast" on defense and was asked the difference between playing fast and playing slow. He pondered the question for a moment before giving the perfect answer. "I don't ever play slow so I don't know."
Manalac's statistics support his answer. Even though Ryan splits time at middle linebacker with Andre Revels, Manalac is second on the squad with 60 tackles, only one behind the leader Haruki Nakamura, who seldom leaves the game. The ex-walk-on also easily leads the defense in solo tackles with 42.
Manalac seems to excel at everything he does. At Pickerington Central High School, he lettered in football, basketball, baseball and track, and since enrolling at Cincinnati, he's been a frequent member of the Bearcat Academic Honor Roll. In 2005 as a redshirt freshman, Manalac was named to the BIG EAST All-Academic Football Team.
Ryan comes from an athletic family that is very close. His older brother played football and basketball at Pickerington and served as a bit of a role model. "My older brother is 6' 4". I wish I had his size. He was a linebacker in high school, and I always admired him. He became an engineer and left sports behind to concentrate on school." His younger sister plays basketball at Capital University in Columbus, and his older sister won a state softball championship in high school. They all support Ryan's football career. "My family comes to all the home games. My brother usually makes a couple away games, and we talk all the time. My mom hasn't missed a game anywhere in the country."
After essentially ending the Rutgers game with a late interception, Ryan seemed to do the same at South Florida last week until the replay official overturned the call on the field. Ryan believes he caught the ball. "I thought I caught it. I guess they said the ball shifted when I hit the ground, but I thought I had it in my hands when I hit the ground. I was a little disappointed, but we still got the win."
The "mike" linebacker knows his position demands toughness, and we both chuckled at his answer. "I love thinking of myself as a bad ass."
A look at Ryan's roommates proves that he hasn't forgotten his roots. He lives with three other players that came to Cincinnati as walk-ons, Kevin Huber, Evan Sparks and Nick DeFilippo. They've all helped each other along the way. "I think we all have scholarships now, but when any of us didn't have one, we pushed each other. We're all tough, hard workers and will do what we need to do to earn our money. We've accomplished a lot together."
Ryan is hard working, intelligent, polite and focused, and if a fight broke out in a rugby bar, he's the guy you'd most want sitting at your table. He's the kid you'd want your daughter to bring home to dinner or the son you wish you had. He's also a player with a dream. "I know there is still a lot more that I can achieve. I'd love to play in a BCS bowl game, especially the Orange Bowl. That's always been a dream of mine."
As the Bearcats prepare to play nationally ranked Connecticut this Saturday at 3:30 in Nippert Stadium, that dream of playing in a BCS game can still become a reality for Ryan and every other Bearcat football fan.
Throw Back Player Becomes Defensive Leader
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