I wish I knew Gabe Manzanares better.
Having had only a handful of chances to talk with the Aggie running back, I want to know more — and not necessarily about the usual football stuff.
His story has pretty much been documented on these pages: a backup here, a backup there. On the gridiron, until this fall, the Bay Area native has been in the wrong program at the wrong time.
Since walking on the UC Davis campus this summer, the former Wesleyan University and City College of San Francisco sub has found his stride.
A 208-yard performance against Idaho State turned heads. Right back he came with a 175-yard show-stopper at Southern Utah. Manzanares was the key to UCD’s 21-3 victory Oct. 5 in Cedar City.
If the junior gains 15 yards Saturday against Northern Colorado, he’ll have 621 this season. That will represent the most yards rushing by an Aggie running back since Joe Trombetta gained 711 in 2007 — and that’s with five games left on the schedule. Seriously.
Manzanares has never lacked confidence. He’s rarely been hurt. The thing missing for the economics major has been opportunity. And even that almost didn’t come.
Once a serviceable back at St. Ignatius High (730 yards rushing in a 4-6 senior season), Manzanares trekked 2,700 miles to Wesleyan in Middleton, Conn. While there, he used up one year of eligibility while traveling all of 11 yards on the playing field.
He told me the school was terrific and the experience was appreciated, but Gabe was far down the depth charts … and he admitted the East Coast just wasn’t for him.
Back home he came.
“My family, they mean everything to me,” Manzanares explains.
Brothers Gustavo and Marvin, sister Marlene and mom Barbara have been, as Gabe puts it, “my rocks.”
Raising her kids after her husband died (Gabe was 7) couldn’t have been an easy trick. But Barbara managed, and all of her children matriculated through St. Ignatius. The whole clan remains tightly knit.
Once back in The City, Manzanares enrolled at City College of San Francisco and suited up for his sophomore season.
As ready as Gabe was, once again opportunity didn’t present itself. Kris Olugbode was coach George Rush’s featured back — and the now-Idaho RB kept Manzanares off the field while rushing for 1,699 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Manzanares didn’t want to quit, but he didn’t know what his next step would be.
“I contemplated going back to Wesleyan,” Gabe said, but his mom reminded him it wasn’t the right fit.
Rush, his brother Gustavo (a CCSF assistant coach) and the rest of Gabe’s family told him to have patience.
It was a tough time for Manzanares. He wasn’t playing much. He considered himself “in limbo.” While searching for a four-year school for which to play, coaches weren’t returning his calls.
“My mom would always keep me (motivated). That’s how I got through,” the personable Manzanares told me this week.
Enter George Rush again.
“We got a call from coach Rush, asking if I’d do him a favor,” Gould says.
The favor was to at least look at films of Manzanares.
Gould said he’d talk with staff, see how “he evaluates … see if he can help us.”
Assistant coach Ben Steele, the Aggie recruiting coordinator, talked with Rush (in his 37th year as CCSF coach) and reviewed those films.
Steele suggested that Gould take a peek.
“I watched ‘em once and said ‘OK.’ I looked again and said ‘Hmmm. That’s pretty good.’ ”
Manzanares finally got his call back.
Last spring he came to a practice at Aggie Stadium.
“I had an opportunity to meet him,” Gould said, remembering that morning. “That’s what put it over the hump for me. I said ‘we need this young man.’ ”
Gould was drawn to Gabe as a young man. His passion for the game and his football IQ aside, the first-year UCD coach saw “a great young man. I knew he could help us.”
Help? No kidding. He’s set the tone during UCD’s recent games.
Manzanares, clearly a study in tenacity and resilience, was asked if he had advice for emerging young players — especially those down a rung on the depth ladder.
“Keep working hard,” he told me. “The big thing is to stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.
“Preparation is the key because you never know when you’re going to get that shot. Luckily I was ready, wasn’t out of shape, got the opportunity, and made the best out of it.”
— Bruce Gallaudet is a staff writer for The Davis Enterprise. Reach him at [email protected]