WOODSTOCK – Grayson Manning can still remember his first varsity start at Central vividly.
The Central senior offensive lineman was thrust into the Falcons’ starting lineup in a playoff game against Buffalo Gap as a freshman after one of his teammates had suffered an injury the week before.
“It was one of the coldest games,” Manning said. “I don’t know if I was just so nervous and shaking or it was actually just windy and cold. It definitely gave me chills, and I still think about that game.”
Manning said his teammates did a lot to help him get through that game and it was a great learning experience.
“It was really cool to see,” Manning said. “Even though we lost that game we just didn’t miss a beat. Even though the next guy stepped up, I feel like everyone knew what they had to do. The offensive lineman around me kind of knew I was in that new spot and being a younger guy, so that kind of helped me out.”
Manning said he started at offensive guard in his first game of the sophomore season, but halfway through the game was moved to center and he’s stayed there ever since.
He said he loves playing at center because he’s more involved in every play, whether it’s a run to the right or the left. Manning said he also enjoys being the first one to touch the ball on every play.
Manning said that he’s played at center for most of his football career, but when he began working with Central senior quarterback Zeb Dyer snapping the ball presented a different challenge – Dyer is left-handed.
“Zeb being a left-handed quarterback, he likes it a little different than (right-handers),” Manning said. “That was a big change for me. (Snapping the ball) has always had its learning curve. You try to be the best you can.”
Central coach Mike Yew said Manning does a great job handling the responsibility of being the center.
“He’s a center; he’s got to touch the ball and make the snap every play,” Yew said. “With that, it can’t just be any ordinary kid. It’s got to be someone who can handle the challenge and responsibility every play.”
Manning, along with Declan Franklin, Jacob France, and Ezra Smith, is one of four returning senior starters on the offensive line, and he said that the offensive line group is very close.
“Myself, Declan Franklin and Jake France, the three of us have always played together,” Manning said. “We were always the big, oversized guys in Little League and then (junior varsity). And we were just kind of the ones that you knew you played offensive line. And then Ezra Smith, he came in my eighth-grade year, and he’s just been working in, and he fell right into the groove with everyone. Camden Zirk, he’s a year younger than us, a junior this year, he’s always just been a year behind us. But still, we’re a close-knit group. All the lineman are real tight. We have dinner together. We’re all friends.”
Manning said the thing he loves most about football is seeing all the players doing their jobs and then coming together to be successful. That’s part of the reason he doesn’t mind if offensive lineman doesn’t get as much attention as some of the skill position players. Manning said he knows that every player plays a part in the team’s success.
“We have this one memo that says ‘it’s all work, no glory,’” Manning said with a smile. “So a lot of times the only ones that thank you are those players that ran right behind you or scored the touchdown because you were blocking for them. A lot of times it is that quarterback or the wide receiver or the running back that gets that glory. But as players, I think we all know that we all have our jobs and the glory is shared between all of us. So the work we all put in, it’s all the same in the end. So I think we all realize that it’s a team effort.”
Manning said he hopes to play more on defense this season as well. He is a backup defensive lineman for the Falcons.
Last year was a successful season for the Falcons, who went 11-1. Central went undefeated in the regular season but lost in the second round of the playoffs to eventual Class 2 state runners-up Robert E. Lee.
Manning said the Falcons learned some valuable lessons in the loss to Robert E. Lee.
“I think it sits in the back of our mind a little bit, but I don’t think we’re worried about it,” Manning said. “You just learn from your mistakes. Everyone, we gave our all, but there’s always things you can learn from. There’s always something you can take away. Win, loss, there’s always something you could have done better. I think guys have watched a lot of film and kind of talked to one another about what we could have done differently. And I think we’re mentally and physically better prepared after that loss.”
Being a senior, Manning said this season would be even more special to him. He said the most important thing for the Falcons is to not take any game lightly.
“Looking at last season the expectations are high, I think for the community and for the players,” Manning said. “The bar is set pretty high for us. Our standards are high for ourselves as well. But I think we just learned from the Robert E. Lee game that every game counts once you get to those playoffs. The 10-0 (last year) it means a lot in the regular season, but I think this year our big expectation is to play every game like it’s our last, especially being seniors. It’s emotional for me personally. It’s probably the last time you’re going to play football for a lot of these guys, and it’s all or nothing. It’s emotional. I know a lot of guys are psyched up already this year and I know we’re just excited.”