MIAMI (AP) — When quarterback EJ Manuel takes the Orange Bowl field Tuesday for his final game at Florida State, his mother will be home in Virginia, recovering from her final round of chemotherapy to treat breast cancer.
The turn of the calendar marks the end of an emotional year for the family. Jackie Manuel was diagnosed shortly before the season, and for EJ, trying to win games became a welcome diversion rather than his primary concern.
More than ever, football also became something to celebrate. Many of EJ’s relatives — his mom included — will gather at his grandmother’s house in Virginia Beach to whoop it up as they watch the No. 13-ranked Seminoles play No. 16 Northern Illinois.
And for a few hours, at least, he’ll try not to worry about his mother.
“I’ll be locked in on my last game as a collegiate player,” Manuel said. “My mom wants that. This is what you work for. I’m not going to allow our team to fall short.”
The Seminoles (11-2) have followed Manuel’s lead all season. He endured his worst game last month against Florida, committing four turnovers in a 37-26 loss. He reached the end zone only once in the Seminoles’ other defeat, a 17-16 loss to North Carolina State. But in Florida State’s victories, he threw 20 touchdown passes with only six interceptions.
The Florida game took place on Parents’ Day in Tallahassee, and Jackie Manuel made the 12-hour drive to attend. Watching Mom and Dad walk onto the field before the game, EJ was overcome with emotion.
“For her to come down and support me for my last home game at Florida State meant the world to me,” he said. “That’s why I couldn’t really hold back. I was definitely tearing up. I was like, ‘EJ, stop crying.’ But I couldn’t hold it back.”
He declined to blame the heart-tugging occasion for the way he played, however.
“It just happened to be one of those days,” he said.
Regardless, Manuel won admiration from his teammates and coaches for the way he has performed this season.
“It has been a tough year for him,” offensive coordinator James Coley said. “Whenever you see someone near and dear to you struggling with an illness, especially at a young age, it’s tough. But he persevered through it.”
In more ways than one, this has not been the senior year Manuel anticipated. The Seminoles expected to wind up in Miami, but in the BCS championship game on Jan. 7, not in the Orange Bowl against a Northern Illinois team derided by some as an unworthy opponent.
However, Manuel said he’s happy with his season. After all, he threw for 3,101 yards to lead an offense that averaged 7.01 yards per play, which tied for first in the nation. He helped the Seminoles earn their first BCS bowl berth in seven years.
“I wish we could have been here a week later for the national championship,” Manuel said. “But it didn’t work out that way. We won our conference and had a great season, and I’m proud of the things I’ve accomplished here at Florida State.”
Northern Illinois defensive end Sean Progar, who has 8½ sacks this season, said the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Manuel will challenge the Huskies like no other quarterback they’ve faced.
“He’ll definitely be the best, just because of everything he can do, throwing and running,” Progar said. “He’s a big guy. He’s not going to go down lightly. He’s going to look to throw first, but he will scramble, and he’s good at it.”
Manuel has a chance to become only the second quarterback to go 4-0 in bowl games, joining West Virginia’s Pat White. A year ago he led Florida State to an 18-14 victory in the Champs Bowl over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who haven’t lost since. He ranks third among Seminoles QBs with 24 career victories.
“His legacy will be that he’s a winner,” Coley said. “He’s a competitor, he’s a fighter, and his teammates love the guy. They’ll run through a wall for him.”
They also respect the way he has coped with his mom’s illness. Only recently did he begin to discuss the matter publicly, and he has done so with grace and candor.
“He’s a guy you want to be like,” receiver Rodney Smith said.
Manuel and his family are encouraged about the prognosis for his mother, who turned 49 Thursday. She has responded well to chemotherapy and will undergo surgery in about a month.
“Once something like this happens to somebody you’re close to, it hits home,” Manuel said. “It opened my eyes to a lot of things. But she’s doing well. That is the thing that has helped me out the most.”
(©2012 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)