LOS ANGELES -- On a cold, drizzly Tuesday afternoon in Westwood, No. 33 was hard to ignore. The redshirt freshman and third string-ish running back out of Valencia High School was waiting for his turn during one-on-one drills on the UCLA Bruins' practice field.
Steven Manfro took his position and sized up the much larger defender standing in his way — his hands twitched in anticipation. When the ball was snapped, Manfro fired out of his stance and ran right at the defensive back. After dipping his shoulders and executing an NFL-worthy shake-and bake move, Manfro broke down field and caught a perfect 30-yard spiral from quarterback Brett Hundley. It was beautiful.
The Manfro family. From left: Marc, Terry, Steven and Marc Vincent.
He trotted back to the sideline and absorbed a teammate's congratulatory punch to his shoulder as he took a swig of water. Through the mask of his helmet — flecks of dirt, grass and sweat were all over his face — you could see a slight smile emerge from the 19-year-old.
That he's even on the field practicing with a BCS football team is remarkable. But how he landed at UCLA is something only Hollywood could script.
The day that changed his life forever
It was a beautiful morning with clear skies on Long Island, N.Y., and like most Tuesday mornings, 8-year old Steven was at Ridge Elementary School.
The classroom routine was as usual, and then over a period of a few hours, it wasn't.
"I noticed a few kids in my class start to leave at separate times," Manfro recalled.
"A teacher or [school official] would come to the classroom and say [to a student], 'You need to go up to the office, you're leaving.' I was wondering what was going on. Then everyone started leaving. I was nervous. School got out and I needed to find out what was going on, so I took the bus home."
When Steven arrived home, he noticed his mom and brother, Marc Vincent, staring at the television, so he turned his attention toward the screen as well. An 8-year-old little boy watched, in horrifying detail, as men and women from all walks of life spent their last few desperate seconds of life.
"We could see people jumping out of buildings," he said.
It was Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.
His father, Marc, wasn't there when Steven arrived home from school — he had already left for work. Marc had been Steven's coach starting from his Pee Wee football, days but coaching wasn't his professional occupation — Marc was an NYPD officer.
The elder Manfro was sleeping when his wife Theresa — she goes by the name Terry — woke him up. He watched the news broadcasts of the chaos in Manhattan and knew it was "an act of war." It was time for him to go to work.
Steven doesn't remember much about that day. It's probably for the best.
"Where do you even begin?" Terry asked rhetorically. "I had to explain this to them. And it was all over the TV, so it's not like I could shield them from that. I explained to them that their dad was safe, he was OK, so they were happy about that."
That happiness was short-lived.
"We were assigned to the subway tunnels so that if suicide bombers came, we would be able to neutralize them," Marc explained.
A young Steven Manfro, ready for action.
But eventually he was assigned to the grim recovery effort at Ground Zero — "The Pile," as cops, firefighters and other rescue workers called it. The still-smoldering, toxic Pile.
"You're breathing this air for six months," Marc said. "They were fighting fires regularly, and you're working through this six-inch ash."
Daily decontamination washes reinforced how hazardous Marc's work area had become.
"But of course that stuff is still in your lungs, even though they're trying to clean your clothes," he said. His lungs became compromised — the "World Trade Center Cough" had set in.
In August 2002, Marc moved the family to California. But Marc stayed. The third-generation New York City civil servant worked double-shifts — with only one day off a week in the worst possible conditions — for another year.
"I wanted my wife and kids to have a chance at a normal life, and I didn’t think that was possible at that juncture in New York City," he said.
As Steven recalled, "It was heartbreaking. He moved my family out to California while he had to continue to work."
The family settled about 40 minutes north of Los Angeles and Steven immediately picked up where he had left off in New York — playing football. He was named captain of his youth football team.
But while Steven was thriving, his father was dying from Atrial fibrillation. His lungs, after a year of inhaling toxic ash and fumes, were impeded. Of the eight days he was hospitalized, three of those days were spent in cardiac critical condition.
"They didn't think I was going to make it," he said.
His wife Terry flew out to be at his side while Steven and brother Marc Vincent stayed in California.
"He didn't want us to see him in that condition," Steven said quietly.
Marc eventually recovered and, after 17 years on the force, retired to join his family in California.
He had received 57 commendations and awards — including the Medal of Distinguished Duty — during his law-enforcement career, but he experienced some heavy losses. Like his friend John Perry.
"He was retiring that day," Marc recalled. "He went over to the emergency, and when the buildings fell, they fell on top of him and killed him. It was the worst circumstances."
Reunited in California
Marc, now 50, works in specialized security, and while he still has some lingering health issues, he looks healthy. His New York accent is still thick. His pride over his family unwavering.
Steven Manfro, in action at Valencia High School.
"He's everything that I wanted my son to turn out to be, but most importantly is being of good character," Marc said, his voice cracking with emotion as he talks about his Steven.
Both Marc and Terry knew Steven would be playing competitive football at the college level.
"He's been MVP on every team that he's ever been on," Marc said.
Said Terry, "I remember when he put on his first football uniform ... he was 5 years old. I think they started him out on defense. This kid would literally come from one end of the field and go clear across to the other side and [tackle the ball carrier]."
The following year he played on offense. Terry said the coaches "literally had to carry him off the field," because "they'd had enough." Ever since then, he's been an inspiration on the field. And off.
As Terry said, "It's the craziest thing, but if I'm at the gym or trying to exercise and I want to quit I — the mom — ask myself, 'What would Steven do?'"
While Steven always excelled on the field and in the high-school classroom, his recruitment from schools was very light. He was still undeterred.
"I try to have a positive outlook on everything," he said with a shrug.
He had a two-star rating from Scout.com, despite being the No. 1 all-purpose running back in the state of California. He also set a Foothill League single-game record, rushing for 420 yards on 15 carries. He bench-pressed 310 pounds, lifted 420 pounds from the squat and ran a 4.42 in the 40, yet the 5-foot-9, 180-ish-pound running back only had one scholarship on the table.
"Wyoming was my first offer," he said.
When UCLA started recruiting Manfro, then-head coach Rick Neuheisel told him he reminded him of another small-statured football player, the New England Patriots' Danny Woodhead.
As it turns out, the 5-7 inch Woodhead is one of Manfro's favorite athletes. Neuheisel offered Manfro a scholarship on his birthday, Jan. 23, and he accepted immediately.
Manfro watched the Bruins' 6-7 season last year from the sidelines. He saw a complete change of staff and a brand new playbook. Yet through all of this turmoil and uncertainty, the kid kept grinding.
During the end of that Tuesday practice, when exhaustion and soreness set in, new head coach Jim Mora stood in the middle of the field and ran the dreaded conditioning drills. Comprised of players sprinting from sideline to sideline with about 20 seconds of rest in between sprints, it's not unusual to see some players vomit toward the end of the drill.
After about 10 minutes of this grueling exercise, several winded first-team players could be heard cursing under their breath.
"I don't see anyone bending over," Mora yelled. "You must not be tired ... let's do five more!"
The moaning and groaning continued on the sideline. One player bent over. And one player, of course, was ready to sprint again.
During every sprint, Manfro was one of the first players to reach the other side of the field. Every. Single. Time. And he was smiling.
Suddenly, it becomes infectious and you start smiling. He keeps reminding you of someone familiar. You can feel it. And then it hits you — the chants of "Rudy" reverberate in your head. We have another Rudy Ruettiger? Really?
When practice ended and most of the players had left the field, Manfro stood in the end zone shagging machine-simulated kicks and punts. Over and over again he caught balls while almost all of his teammates were catching streams of water from hot showers.
When he finally had enough, he jogged over to me and apologized for being sweaty. He was smiling, of course, and happy to talk with a reporter. When we were finished, it struck me how incredulous it is that this football player got overlooked by 118 schools. But that was then.
Never give up
And this — a sneak preview of The Steven Manfro Show at the Bruins spring game on May 5 — is now. Give him two thumbs up.
Manfro finished the game with 20 rushing yards, 105 receiving yards and a 100-yard kickoff for a touchdown, complete with the obligatory back flip in the end zone. That's 225 all-purpose yards in two hours. He could've run all day. Even coach Mora was impressed.
"It's funny, right before that long catch and run [Manfro] had in the two-minute drill ... I told the offense the one thing we don’t want to do in this situation is put our defense back out on the field," Mora told me.
"[Manfro] says, 'Does that I mean I have to run it out of bounds or can I score?'
"I said, 'Well of course you can score' and then he breaks it. I thought he was going to score. He's electric out there."
Steven Manfro, during UCLA's recent spring game.
Mora also rated his back flip.
"He didn't make it all the way around," he said with a smile. "After running 100 yards, it's tough to complete a back flip, but I guess we [have to] get him in shape."
Manfro was selected as the first player to give a postgame media interview. There was a line of star-struck kids — and a few adults — waiting for him to autograph their Bruins memorabilia.
He posed for pictures with fans and then took time to take pictures with his entire family. He was soaking it up like he may never get a moment like this again.
He said his father's toughness and resolve under the most trying circumstances have helped him with his positive attitude, and his desire to never give up.
"He's always been there for me," he said.
He's Rudy 2.0.
The underdog. The one who got passed on by 118 schools. The one you can't help but root for.
He hasn't been carried off the field by his teammates — youth football coaches don't count — and fans haven't chanted his name from the Rose Bowl's bleachers. But that could change.
Hollywood needs a sequel.