GREEN BAY—The line, “I just want to get on the field and contribute,” can be a tired, empty cliché, but in the case of Packers linebacker Terrell Manning’s rookie season, it truly meant something.
Manning contracted a debilitating stomach ailment during his rookie training camp last summer. He’s still not entirely sure of the cause, though it was eventually diagnosed as a parasite and included a bout with colitis.
He lost a lot of weight. He continued to practice, at far less than full strength, but knew he wasn’t the player General Manager Ted Thompson traded up to draft in the fifth round. He couldn’t be sure he’d make the team, even though the coaches knew of his health struggles.
Fortunately he did make it, but then a concussion in the season opener sidelined him for five games. He returned to play in three contests, exclusively on special teams, and then injured a shoulder and was out another five games.
To his credit, Manning flashed some ability in that midseason three-game stint, recording two tackles on the coverage units. When he came back from the shoulder injury, he chalked up another coverage tackle against Tennessee in Week 16.
That prompted the coaches to activate him for the NFC Wild Card playoff game against Minnesota, and Manning came through. He recorded two special teams tackles, one each on punt and kickoff coverage.
He also buried Vikings returner Marcus Sherels with a big hit when Sherels muffed a fourth-quarter punt. Fellow rookie linebacker Dezman Moses secured the turnover, the second fumble recovery in the game for the Packers after they had just one fumble recovery over the final six regular-season games.
Manning had made a strong statement at the end of a long rookie year, so the term “contribution” was not cliché. He called it “a blessing.”
“It was big. It was big,” he said. “I was excited about being out there. My coach was excited about me being out there. It was a good feeling.”
Thus far in year two he has felt pretty good, too. Looking back, he believes all the stress from trying to learn the schemes, combined with not eating the best at all times, might have factored into his illness.
So, he said during OTAs he was on a “power trip” health-wise, eating right and avoiding germs at all costs. He’s had no recurrences or setbacks, and he’s eager to show what he can bring to the field when all of his energies are focused on football.
That’s the point he finally reached at the end of last season, and he wants to resume from there.
“I would say I’ve really played on the edge,” he said. “I’ve really played like I have nothing to lose, and I think people noticed that from my special teams play. I go out there, and it doesn’t matter who has the assignment to block me, but I’m going to give whoever that is a problem.”
Manning’s attitude and approach are perfect for special teams. He’s also realistic, understanding that his path to a defensive role at inside linebacker begins with becoming a core player on special teams, the same way linebackers Desmond Bishop and Brad Jones did earlier in their careers.
He moved up another spot on the depth chart recently when Bishop was released, but it should be noted that during OTAs, when Jones sat out a practice that was open to the media, third-year pro Jamari Lattimore took the snaps alongside A.J. Hawk with the No. 1 defense.
“It always starts on special teams for a guy like me, especially with the guys in front of me,” Manning said. “We have all veteran guys in front of me, all guys that deserve their props.
“My role starts on special teams, and I’m going to go out there and learn more about our defense every day, try not to make the same mistakes twice and be better every day, and we’ll go from there.”
Manning has traveled the road to recovery before. A severe knee injury in his final high school game forced him to redshirt and rehabilitate his first year at North Carolina State, where he eventually played three seasons.
The fact that he got on the field as an NFL rookie puts him ahead of his college pace, and 2013 would be Manning’s rookie year had he not entered the draft early.
There’s a lot in front of him, and he hopes the worst is behind him.
“For me, it’s all just putting it on the line,” he said. “I know what it takes to come back from an injury. I know what it takes to fight back from the bottom. So when I get to the top and taste victory, I want to stay there.”