Set them cheek by jowl, the way a photographer has done today,
and the identical-twin football players put together quite an
unbroken swath of eyebrow, from Sean Manuel's right temple, over
the bridges of two noses, to Sam Manuel's left. This is rich
material for any portraitist, yet the photographer wants more.
He tells the brothers that in a few days, when they will play
against each other for the first time in their lives, "I'll need
you on the pitch in your kit."
The unibrow pops, and only after someone supplies
subtitles--"pitch" is field, "kit" is uniform--does it return to
home. The Manuels have been playing across the pond, you see, in
the recently completed season of the NFL's Europe League, Sam
for the Scottish Claymores and Sean for the England Monarchs.
Ringers from the States and ringers for each other, they have
matching desires to get back to any team in the mother league,
where they both once were.
Yet it would be a mistake to regard Sam and Sean as the same,
though each stands 6'2", weighs 240-odd pounds and majored in
psychology at New Mexico State. Sam, an outside linebacker, is
on defense. He's analytical and deliberate, like his dad,
Samuel, a World War II veteran who worked as a physical
therapist in El Sobrante, Calif., before leukemia killed him in
1982, when his boys were nine.
Sean, a tight end, is on offense. He's passionate and impulsive,
like his mom, the former Francine Catolico. A physical therapist
too, Francine fell in love with Samuel even though their
interracial marriage would cause her to be shunned by several of
her Sicilian-American uncles.
June 28, 1998
Francine sent the twins off to camp during that summer 16 years
ago when her husband, whom everyone called Buddy, was ill. She
wanted to spare her sons the anguish of watching him slip away.
When she showed up at camp with the news of his death, each took
it after his own fashion. Sam ran off to be by himself and then
broke down. Sean dissolved on the spot.
Still, people confuse the one with the other. Sometimes even the
twins confuse themselves. The photographer produces a Polaroid
shot, this one of them in profile, nose-to-nose. "Which one's
you?" Sam asks Sean.
"Just don't mix our names together," he adds. "That would be
Sham," and Sham would get each of these two terribly wrong.
We're in Birmingham--Birmingham, Ala. It's three years ago.
Spring break is over, and the Manuels, vacuum-packed into a
rented Geo, are pulling into the airport for a flight back to
college, where they're finishing their senior years. The cell
phone rings. The San Francisco 49ers are calling with word that
they've chosen Sean in the seventh round of the draft, as the
239th pick. "I didn't celebrate just yet," Sean says.
Not a half hour later, at the gate waiting to board, their phone
rings again. "It's the Niners, wanting to know if they can speak
to my brother," Sean recalls. "They tell him he's the last pick
of the draft, Number 254." Sean, born first by several minutes,
is drafted first by a few more. He and Sam hardly need a plane
to fly back to campus.
It seems fantastical, although not much more so than the story
the Manuels had lived out to that point. Going back to Pop
Warner, they had always played on the same team, lived under the
same roof, shared the same bedroom. In virtually all-white El
Sobrante, other kids weren't quick to accept them and often
goaded them into fights. Yet the Manuel boys weren't fully
embraced when they encountered blacks, either. Even when they
paid visits to their father's family in rural Forest, Miss.,
something about the twins--the way they talked, their suburban
demeanor, those Catolico eyebrows--betrayed their differentness.
So they found themselves turning to each other even more. "We
understood each other, even if we weren't understood by anybody
else," Sam says.
By the time the Manuels finished their schoolboy careers at
Pinole Valley High, in 1991, Sean had come up short of the
NCAA's initial-eligibility requirements. So Sam passed up
scholarship offers from such schools as Cal, Fresno State and
Nevada to accompany Sean to Laney Community College, just down
the highway in Oakland. Sam broke his collarbone in fall
practice before the Manuels' sophomore season at Laney and took
a medical redshirt; this time it was Sean who turned down a
major college offer, passing up the chance to play at Colorado
after his sophomore season, to stay with Sam.
"It had to do with our dad not being there," says Sean,
explaining the twins' unusual devotion to each other. But their
decision to attend New Mexico State together had as much to do
with a request made by their mom. As Sean and Sam entered their
second season at Laney, Francine was discovered to have colon
cancer. In the spring of 1993, with her other child, a
14-year-old son named Neno, demanding all the attention she
could spare as she fought a disease that she couldn't know would
go into remission, she pleaded with the twins to stick together;
to be each other's surrogate parent--each other's Buddy.
Rather than wait a few months to see what big-time interest each
could scare up, Sean and Sam eased Francine's mind and took the
best offer available, signing with New Mexico State. There Sean
tore up his knee before he could play a down. But his redshirt
year yielded a blessing: It allowed the Manuels to merge back
onto the same eligibility track. They played two full seasons
together for the Aggies, 1994 and '95, and each took a turn on
the All-WAC first team, Sean as a junior and Sam as a senior.
Sean made the 49ers in 1996 and even started the first two games
of the season. San Francisco let Sam go at the end of camp,
immediately signing him as a practice player. Yet in training
camp last August, San Francisco cut Sam again, and this time
decided not to keep him on the practice squad.
Sam was crestfallen, but Sean was devastated. Thumbing through a
Bible, he came upon 2 Corinthians 2:12-13: I found that the Lord
had opened a door for me, [yet I] still had no peace of mind,
because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye
to them. The words could not have spoken to Sean more directly.
With Sam's release, that's exactly how he felt--he had no peace
of mind. Friends and family urged him to suck it up, to focus on
football, telling him, for example, "A door like this doesn't
open very often." His brother didn't have to be named Titus for
Sean to get the message. He would walk into the office of
general manager Dwight Clark, turn in his playbook, and say
goodbye to the 49ers.
Sam recalls the aftermath of Sean's leaving camp: "Our home was
flooded with calls from people--strangers--who just got our
number and thought nothing of giving him advice: 'I'm a twin,
too, and when we separated, made our own ways, it was the best
thing to ever happen to us.' That sort of thing. People calling
out of the blue, leaving their life stories."
Several days later, at the behest of Francine and Sam, Sean
called the Niners to say he was sorry and to ask to be allowed
back. (Given Sean's pride, Sam says, "To apologize was the
hardest thing for him to do. But he did.") But San Francisco had
just hired a new coach, Steve Mariucci, who faced plenty of
pressures of his own. The last thing he needed was some flighty
reserve receiver who confused professional football with The
Patty Duke Show. Mariucci declined Sean's offer. Sean and Sam
were still together.
We're in Birmingham--Birmingham, England. It's a spring Sunday,
and as the Claymores and Monarchs are to play here this
afternoon, the Manuels are in different kit. Sam has hooked on
with Scotland, one of six teams in NFL Europe, the rebranded
World League of American Football that serves as both the NFL's
developmental league and its stalking horse for possible
Meanwhile, Sean has signed with the Kansas City Chiefs. Yet
instead of prevailing on them to allocate him to the Claymores,
he realizes the value in weaning himself from Sam by sharing
similar experiences apart. So he went to the Monarchs and will
report to Kansas City on July 23 when training camp opens,
though he'll start the season on injured reserve. For his part
Sam, as a free agent, signed with Denver and will be at the
Broncos' training camp next month.
As Sean limns his future, he backfills his past with
explanation. "Everybody trying to influence me a year ago
emphasized two things," he says. "One was, This is your chance
to get ahead. The other was, This is your chance to make money.
Well, I didn't grow up around selfishness, and I didn't grow up
around wealth. I watched the example of my mom sacrificing for
her sons, for simple things, for the love of her family. But I
see now why people couldn't understand why I left the 49ers. I
see everything in a different light."
That different light floods through another door, a door behind
which Sam may not be found. Yet Sean is disposed to push it open
anyway, for peace of mind of a different kind may be waiting
there. With Francine getting older, with Neno leaving the nest,
Sean understands how making his way, alone if necessary, would
benefit his family. "There was an area in my life in which I
wasn't growing," he says, "and that was in being on my own,
without my security blanket. So this is like an adventure in
growing. Sam and I will come back to each other in God's own
time. Ecclesiastes. Just take what comes, and try to learn the
lessons that life teaches you."
In NFL Europe training camp, for the first time in his life,
Sean had a new roommate. He lets out a laugh as he recalls their
many incompatibilities. "I'm definitely growing," he says.
In Birmingham's not-half-full Alexander Stadium, a track and
field oval with 15,000 seats, the Manuels play out their
psychodrama in relative privacy. Sean throws an open-field block
on Sam during a rushing play in the first half. In the second he
finds his brother matched against him on a pass route. But
that's it. Claymores coach Jim Criner has surprised Sam by
calling for a defensive scheme that keeps the twins apart. Sam
is grateful, for this puts him at ease and allows him to play
better. "It was a lot tougher on me before the game than during
it," he says after the Monarchs' 14-10 victory.
"You know, we do this again in three weeks," Sean tells him
after the game.
Sam hadn't known the rematch would come so soon. His face falls
in disappointment. "Three weeks?" he says. "That is tragic.
Tragic." The tragedy is averted only because Sean misses the
game with a leg injury and the season is over. But Sean's
postgame statement reminds us.
He is still on offense, Sam on defense.