EJ Manuel opted to keep private his mother’s battle with breast cancer this fall. Florida State’s senior quarterback did not want anyone to blame family concerns if he didn’t play well.
Manuel learned in early September that his mom, Jackie Manuel, was diagnosed with the disease. He kept it in as he was crushed on message boards for the Seminoles’ failures in the second half against N.C. State and again after he threw three interceptions against Florida.
He broke down before kickoff of the Gators’ game when his mother walked on to the field for Senior Day in Tallahassee.
“I didn’t want people to feel bad for me,” Manuel said. “I’m not the only person who has dealt with it. I’m sure I’ve had teammates who have had parents go through this as well. I wasn’t going to allow that to be an excuse.”
Manuel’s emotions will be tugged again during Tuesday’s Orange Bowl when No. 12 Florida State (11-2) faces No. 15 Northern Illinois (11-1) in his final collegiate game. Jackie’s eighth and final chemotherapy treatment is Monday and it will prevent her from coming to the game. She will undergo surgery in one month.
EJ’s father, Erik, will represent the family at Sun Life Stadium. Jackie will watch the game in Virginia Beach, Va., surrounded by family.
“I will be locked in on our game and my mom wants that,” EJ said. “Being in a BCS game (like) the Orange Bowl, this is what you work for and we’ve gotten to this point and I’m not going to allow our team to fall short.”
Manuel admitted he was overwhelmed before the Florida game, in which he matched his career high in interceptions.
“If my mom didn’t have cancer I don’t think I would have got that emotional,” he said. “Seeing my mom out there. … She looked great. That’s a long trip. For her to be dealing with that and still come down for my last game at Florida State meant the world to me.
“I was definitely tearing up. I was trying to stop. (I kept saying) ‘EJ, stop crying.’ I couldn’t hold it back.”
Manuel has been a target of critics since taking over the starting job in 2011. Yet he is 24-6 as a starter and will take over the lead at FSU (and be No. 3 in ACC history) in completion percentage, which is 66.8 entering the Orange Bowl.
His 46 touchdown passes are tied for sixth in FSU history.
Still, Manuel takes much of the blame from fans who believe the Seminoles had enough talent to play for a national championship this season.
“We just write it off as ignorance,” said kicker Dustin Hopkins, one of Manuel’s closest friends on the team. “Fans are going to be fans. They can be ruthless.”
Hopkins said Manuel can handle the pressure.
“That goes back to his character,” Hopkins said. “If you have that background, if you know football is not your defining factor, it’s a lot easier to deal with things like that.”
FSU coach Jimbo Fisher is like a second father to Manuel and has constantly praised him for his character and leadership. But Fisher has never been prouder of Manuel than this season, despite FSU falling short of expectations.
“What he went through and the leadership and what he had on his back and the criticism he takes,” Fisher said while shaking his head. “Amazing.”
“But he learned that’s part of the position. I think it’s only going to build his character for the next level.”