NOVATO, Calif. — Manny Wilkins
had hit rock bottom.
The current San Marin (Novato)
senior and Arizona State-bound quarterback was only 15-years-old.
His father had died of a drug addiction five years earlier. His family moved from scenic Marin County in California to the heat and humidity of Texas. His freshman year at Fort Bend Elkins (Missouri City, Texas)
was a complete bust.
Oh, he made the varsity football team, the only freshman to do so. That was cool. But that turned out to be a very sharp double-edged sword.
"I got caught up hanging out with the cool kids and seniors and doing what cool kids do," he said. "I was going to a lot of parties and losing focus of what was right and wrong."
He got expelled from school, lost a all freshman credits and wound up in Wallenburg, Colo. on his grandparent's ranch. There, Wilkins said, signaled the low point.
"There was nothing for 45 minutes in any direction," he said. "I remember sitting by myself, wondering what am I doing with my life? How can I make something out of myself to make my family and friends proud? Something clicked there. I wanted more."
He found much more thanks to his aunt and uncle, a sincere commitment to school and football, and an opening himself up to friendships, mentors and advice from all walks of life.
When the highly gifted 6-foot-3, 190-pound senior now needs an emotional lift, he often calls two seemingly unlikely sources: Morgan Mahalak
and Johnny Manziel
Yes, reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Football, Johnny Manziel. Makes sense
Mahalak, the star quarterback at rival Marin Catholic (Kentfield, Calif.)
(9-0), which San Marin (8-1) hosts Saturday to decide the MCAL title, makes some sense.
The two competed as kids growing up in Marin County and each showcased their talents last spring and summer at quarterback camps, including the prestigious Elite 11 finals in Beaverton, Ore.
Mahalak earned a scholarship to Oregon and Wilkins to Arizona State. They carry a common bond and carry similar burdens and pressures.
"We talk almost every day," Wilkins said. "He's a really good guy and really good quarterback. He's very aware of what's going around him. He stays calm in the pocket. He's strong and smart."
How Wilkins got hooked up with Manziel took some initiative.
Manziel was a trainer at the Elite 11 finals in Beaverton and Wilkins, never shy to make friends and who someday wants to be a sportscaster, approached the Texas A&M star.
"I just told him I wanted to sit down and have a conversation with him, to learn about life and playing quarterback," Wilkins said. "I told him I really respect him as player and individual."
This was before all the NCAA autograph investigation and media barrage that ensued. Not that any of that would have mattered, Wilkins said.
Manziel, who was a star prep at Tivy (Kerrville, Texas)
, has been nothing but a mentor and good friend to him since the July 1 camp.
"We just kind of clicked," Wilkins said. "He's been a very cool inspiration in my life. He told me just because you reach a certain level that you can't work just as hard, but you have to work even harder."
The two had a candid talk about reaching an elite level and dealing with fame, a topic that Manziel has talked about openly since winning the Heisman and drawn scrutiny for doing so.
"He's talked about the frustration, walking through malls, having pictures taken constantly," Wilkins said. "But he told me, it's what we asked for. It's what we dedicated ourselves to get to this level. He told me to be prepared for it." Slowing down
Wilkins appears prepared for anything because he's had to grow up so fast.
It wasn't until he left Colorado and moved back to Novato before his sophomore year to live with his aunt and uncle, Chris and Nicki Casanovas, and their three younger, did everything slow down and make sense.
Wilkins found a stable family environment and was reconnected with sports, both football and basketball. "I don't know where I'd be without my teammates and coaches," he said.
His sophomore football season he played receiver and defensive back, and moved to quarterback the following spring when he was discovered at an Elite 11 camp. His football life began to take flight.
Wilkins led surprising San Marin to five straight wins late in the season and all the way to the North Coast Section Division IV finals where it lost to Justin Siena-Napa.
"That gave us a lot of confidence heading into this season," Wilkins said.
Under first-year coach Steve Stanfel the Mustangs gained momentum and are favored to win their fourth NCS title and first since 2001.
Wilkins has led the way, passing for 1,703 yards and 17 touchdowns while rushing for 727 and 11 more. Besides a big arm and excellent speed and feet, Wilkins also possesses a powerful foot. If he doesn't play on Sunday as a quarterback it may be as a punter.
Stanfel, though grateful for his star's talent, is more appreciative for his makeup.
"He's improved in all areas, but really so as a leader," Stanfel said. "He's always had a great personality. The kids love to hang out with him. But he practices to perfection and is constantly complimenting guys."Better or worse
There's plenty to compliment.
The team's offensive line is vastly improved and not only pass blocks for Wilkins, but senior running back Kyle Chernoff
has rushed for 1,125 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Wilkins spreads the ball around to a trio of solid receivers in
(28 catches, 326 yards, 4 touchdowns), Vince Sbragia
(21, 335, 6) and Grant Shepardson
(15, 25, 4).
Defensive lineman Erik Borders
(6-1, 240) leads a defense that has recorded two shutouts and just a combined 14 points the last three games.
"We have a strong brotherhood of players and we all play loose and confident," Wilkins said. "My line has done special things to open holes for Nick and keep me protected. Everyone has a purpose."
Wilkins said he has found his purpose and that's why he received so many Division I offers. His finalists included Arizona, Colorado State, Wyoming and Utah State.
The choice of Arizona State, with a partying reputation, came with special consideration, Wilkins said. He leaned on Manziel for a little advice there as well.
"For better or worse the choices I make are mine," Wilkins said. "I'm 18 now. I have to be good enough and smart enough to make good decisions no matter where I go. I have to think, ‘Is this going to jeopardize my future?' I'm ready."
Everything hit him recently on his 18th birthday.
"It was sort of surreal," he said. "It was a pretty big deal for me. I realized how much my life has changed in the last three years. It's been like night and day. I feel very blessed to be in my shoes."