On Sept. 22, in what was the highlight of his career, Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel showcased a Heisman-caliber performance in a 49-37 nationally televised win over No. 10-ranked Clemson. With over 300 yards passing and 100 yards rushing, he accomplished a stat line Florida State had seen only one other time -- in 1992, by former Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward.
On Nov. 24, before what was easily the most disastrous and emotional performance of his career, Manuel was honored on Senior Day with his mother by his side, just days after she had received another chemotherapy treatment for Stage 1 breast cancer. Manuel threw three interceptions and lost one fumble in a 37-26 loss to rival Florida, his last game in Doak Campbell Stadium.
On the surface, the dichotomy of those two games explains everything about Florida State's 2012 season -- the fluctuation of a team that tends to follow its leader -- and everything most fans think they know about EJ Manuel.
The more important story, though -- the one that happened behind the cameras and offline from the message boards -- is the one that got Manuel to the Discover Orange Bowl and helped him mature as a player and a person. Through those two polarizing performances, and his mother's season-long battle with breast cancer, Manuel gained more than any national title could ever give him. He gained perspective -- something that's in short supply these days in Tallahassee.
"I knew nobody else was going to care, to be honest with you," said Manuel. "People will say, sorry, and this and that, but you've still got to go out and play. I understood that. That's why I never really said anything publicly about it, because Florida State fans may say sorry, but when you're not winning games, they're still going to have things to say negatively or just be upset. They just won't be happy, just like I won't be happy. It was tough. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't. It was definitely tough, but God got me through it. I did a lot of praying and my parents did the same."
Somebody was listening.
Jackie Manuel, 48, is beating the cancer. No. 12 Florida State (11-2) won its first ACC title since 2005, and as FSU prepares to face No. 15 Northern Illinois in the Discover Orange Bowl, Manuel is looking for his fourth straight bowl win, having already beaten West Virginia, South Carolina and Notre Dame (the last time the No. 1-ranked Irish lost). This is only Manuel's second season as a full-time starter, but if FSU beats Northern Illinois, he will become only the second quarterback to win four straight bowl games, along with former West Virginia star Pat White (2005-2008).
Florida State fans may say sorry, but when you're not winning games, they're still going to have things to say negatively or just be upset.
”-- FSU QB EJ Manuel, on playing while his mother was battling cancer
Manuel is 24-6 as a starter (16-3 against ACC opponents) and his career pass efficiency rating of 150.78 is slightly behind the ACC career mark of 151.15 set by former FSU Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke. FSU's offense has racked up over 6,000 yards for only the fourth time in school history. Despite everything he has gone through with his family this year, Manuel has helped lead Florida State back to national relevance.
Much of the attention this year has been focused on what the Noles didn't do -- win a national title.
Manuel, meanwhile, had a different perspective.
"I've seen my mom the same way my whole life: smiling, pretty, doing fine," he said. "I was the one with the cold, and she'd take care of me. In some situations you can't change the outcome. You have no control over it. You just have faith and pray. That's the biggest thing it taught me. That's why I told my teammates, 'don't take anything for granted, don't wait. If you can go ahead and do something now, if you can go study and watch film now, go do it. Don't try to say I'll put it off until tomorrow because you don't know what will come tomorrow.'"
Jackie Manuel was diagnosed just one week before the season opener against Murray State. Armed with information and answers to his many questions, she and her husband, Erik, told EJ on Sept. 16, one day after he led FSU to a win over Wake Forest. Jackie said her son reacted "with a little bit of shock," and asked questions like if she was going to be all right, what the treatments would be, how often, and how they would make her feel.
"It was tough, very tough," he said. "My dad and my mom and my sister really helped me out a lot. I really thank them for my career thus far, being such a great supporting cast. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them. My mom, trying to make it sound like she was feeling good even when I knew she wasn't. You can tell when your parents aren't feeling well on the phone, just by the tone of their voice. I knew she was tired, but she would make it seem like, 'oh hey, son, oh sweetie,' trying to make it seem like she's OK, and that made me feel better. The coaches were there, too, but it's nothing like having your parents there and helping you get through that situation."
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher could relate. His son, Ethan, was diagnosed last year with Fanconi anemia, a rare genetic disorder that causes bone marrow failure.
"It's been amazing," Fisher said of Manuel's maturity all season. "And I feel for him -- as a grown-up who has a son who has some issues -- but then to be a 21-year-old young man, you don't know how to handle those situations. Your mom, who is very young, and you're close to -- and his family is so important to him, and they're all so close -- to be able to deal with that, and the pressure of being a quarterback who is trying to lead you to a national championship, to fight through the adversity which he's fought through, and have to deal with it, he's unbelievable."
Florida State entered 2012 loaded with talent and in legitimate contention for a national title, ranked No. 7 in the preseason, and favored to win the ACC title. By midseason, FSU was the No. 3 team in the country. They were for real. And then reality hit -- hard. The shocking 17-16 loss at NC State derailed any hopes of a national title -- and brought the naysayers out in full force.
The family's private struggle was never an excuse.
"I wasn't as concerned about how he was going to play football," Jackie Manuel said. "I just didn't want him to worry about me. Breast cancer survivors, it's hard on their families. They feel so helpless. There's nothing they can do but support you and watch you go through it. My main concern was not so much how he was going to play on the field; my main concern was his well being. I wanted him to know I was going to be OK and he could stay there and do good in the classroom and do good on the field and just take care of himself. I'm in God's hands.
"He did it better than I thought he would," she said. "Football is just a small picture. Life is huge. This is his life. I can't say if I wasn't diagnosed with cancer that he would have had a different season because it takes more than one person for a team. He can't do it all, even though he is the leader. I can't say that my diagnosis really impacted his season."
It did, though, because it inspired him.
"We pushed through, and the best thing I felt I could do for my mom was to have a successful year," Manuel said. "We didn't win a national championship, but we won the ACC championship, and now we have an opportunity to win the Orange Bowl, too."
Following the loss at NC State, Florida State went on to win its next five games and clinch the Atlantic Division title for the second straight season.
"I'll be happy with it," he said. "I'll be satisfied. At the end of the day, it's my last season here at Florida State. We've done things that haven't been done at this school in 10, 12 years. We should have a 12-win season, an ACC championship. A lot of times, people will look on the bad things in every situation too often instead of just being proud of what you have done. We have done quite a lot."
So has his family.
Jackie Manuel has had seven chemotherapy treatments and still made it to all but four Florida State games this year. When she didn't make it to the game, she would talk with EJ via Skype and on the phone, and insisted her husband go to every game. She stayed in the hotel in Blacksburg, Va., because it was too cold at Virginia Tech, but she was determined to get to the Florida game.
Erik Manuel called it "a feat" for his wife to travel from their home in Virginia Beach, Va., to Tallahassee to see her son play for the last time in Doak Campbell Stadium. She was still exhausted from a recent chemotherapy treatment, and the 11½-hour drive was the last thing she needed. It was also the only thing she wanted -- to walk with her son on Bobby Bowden Field for Senior Day.
Manuel said his performance that day "was a mixture of everything." After the loss, the critics howled.
All Manuel heard was his father in the locker room after the game, telling him to 'shower off, handle the media, and move on.' Not once in the postgame news conference did anyone mention his mother.
"He's a mentally tough kid, and he believes what God's word says, that she is healed by his strength," said Erik Manuel, who has been married to Jackie for 28 years and calls her his best friend. "EJ and I are very, very tight. We talk maybe two or three times a day. I just told him, 'Hey, I'll tell you everything, anything you want to know.' And his mom said the same thing. There was no hidden agenda. Even though he was 700 miles away from home, he knew everything that was going on. The games she was able to come to, she was there. I'm sure it was in the back of his mind, and he still wears it a little bit, but we're all right, and that's what I continue to tell him, that's what his mother continues to tell him."
Jackie Manuel has one more chemotherapy treatment remaining, on Dec. 31 -- the day before the Orange Bowl. EJ Manuel has one more game remaining.
With a little perspective, it's easy to see Manuel has won far more than he has lost.