Last year, Scotland High School graduate and current NFL linebacker Terrell Manning visited a Carver Middle School lunch period.
During his time there, he shook hands, signed autographs and encouraged students to pursue their dreams as he did. But more importantly, Manning wanted to show kids that they have options in life, and how a single decision can affect their future in a positive or negative way.
It was a lesson Manning himself learned at the same age.
“I call middle school students swingers, because they can go back and forth either way,” said Manning, who is a current member of the Green Bay Packers. “A few years ago I was one of them. You can be just another guy off the street that doesn’t do anything with yourself, or you can turn it all around. Fortunately for me I had my turnaround when it was still early enough.”
The story of Manning and his road to becoming an inspirational community figure almost never happened. And it all dates back to a fateful day during his time at Spring Hill Middle School.
A simple dispute with a former classmate turned into a scuffle, which concluded with Manning slamming the student to the ground. It was supposed to be the end of the issue, but Manning’s neighborhood associations would come back to haunt him and nearly change his life forever.
“Where I’m from you always grow up around a tight group of kids, and when they heard I was in an altercation they took matters into their own hands,” Manning said. “The kid that I fought with ended up being hurt really bad, and all because of a choice that I made.”
The student who was assaulted by Manning’s friends suffered a concussion and several other injuries, which brought a slew of legal repercussions down on the 8th grade football standout. Though he took no physical part in the beating, Manning was labeled a “gang leader” by the prosecution and was ultimately given the option to choose his fate.
Manning would either be sent to boot camp or the East Laurinburg Alternative Learning Academy, a school which gives troubled students one last chance to right their wrongs. Opting for the latter, it didn’t take long for Manning to realize the path he was traveling wasn’t meant for him.
“I remember my first day there because I saw a gang war about to erupt right in front of me,” Manning said. “What I did was bad enough to land me there, but I also knew right away that I didn’t belong in that place. And from that point on I knew I had to change.”
For Manning, change involved a reexamination of his priorities inside and outside of the classroom.
“I was all about my schoolwork after my experience at the Academy,” Manning said. “And while I didn’t completely cut my neighborhood friends off, I definitely fed them with a longer spoon and kept my distance a bit. The people you hang around can be a huge influence on you.”
While he admits to “not being perfect” in his early years at Scotland High School, Manning continued to focus on fulfilling his potential as a student athlete. He would go on to reach unparalleled heights as a member of the Fighting Scots, notching 219 tackles in his 2007-08 senior season en route to being the most recruited defensive player in North Carolina.
“The funny thing is that I wasn’t the most talented guy coming out of Scotland County,” Manning said. “I saw kids better than me that never made it, but I was the one who received recognition for my accomplishments because I chose to keep my head on straight.”
Manning would suffer an ACL and MCL meniscus tear in his knee the final game of his high school career, a career death sentence for many a player before him. But after a life of battling back from circumstances both unforeseen and self-inflicted, Manning was prepared for the arduous road back to recovery.
And recover he did.
As a member of the NC State Wolfpack, Manning amassed career totals of 27 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, five interceptions, five forced fumbles and two all-ACC conference selections.
With the 28th pick in the fifth round (163rd overall) of the 2012 NFL Draft, the Green Bay Packers made Manning’s sports dreams come true.
“I get chills even talking about it to this day,” said Manning, who is currently a special teams player and reserve linebacker for the Packers. “I realized at a young age that no matter what your condition may be, you can’t use it as an excuse to stop pursuing something you love. It’s not about how bad things are, it’s about how bad you want to rise above them.”
These days, Manning spends his time building his athletic reputation and getting acclimated to something entirely new to a lifelong Laurinburg resident: Cheesehead culture.
“People up here in Green Bay are serious about their cheese, they sell it everywhere including at games,” said Manning with a laugh. “I can get used to it though, it’s pretty good.”
But nearest to Manning’s heart is both his accessibility to the hometown he’s made proud and his efforts to reach local youth. He’s made appearances at youth football camps, delivered speeches about his upbringing and has plans to introduce a football camp of his own to Scotland County. Manning has tentative plans to debut his camp next summer and promises that it will be “really big.”
The theme of his future camp? There’s bigger lessons to be learned in life than what can be done on the football field.
“I never dreamed about being famous when it came to wanting to be a football player,” Manning said. “I’m a hometown guy who loves interacting with people, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to be a good example for the kids here in Laurinburg. I’m proud to say I’m from here, but at the same time there’s a lot of room for improvement, and it starts with children deciding early on to help make it a better place.”