09/15/06 — He's still Manny

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He's still Manny

By Gabe Whisnant
Published in Sports on September 15, 2006 2:14 PM

Manny Lawson has a swagger that is, well, distinctly Manny.

Heading into Lawson's senior year at N.C. State, the Wolfpack wasn't on anyone's short list to play in the BCS Championship Game.

Except, of course, Manny's.

"It's my final year dancing with the Wolves, and my only goal is to get us to the national championship," Lawson said after a season-opening setback to Virginia Tech in 2005.

He hasn't changed.

He's still confident -- and he still speaks his mind.

After he signed his first pro contract with the San Francisco 49ers in late July -- a five-year deal worth in excess of $10 million -- Manny met the press.

So, Manny, now that you're a millionaire, what are you going to buy?

"My first big purchase has got to be a place to stay," Lawson said, undoubted with a large smile. "That's going to be hard, because I'm from Goldsboro, N.C., which is the country. I have been looking out here, and I found a townhouse for $800,000. Do you know what I could do with $800,000 back in North Carolina? I just stood there. I didn't want to touch anything in the townhouse. For $800,000, I could probably buy Goldsboro."

Those who know Lawson knew he wasn't dissing his hometown -- he was simply expressing his cost-of-living shock in a way only Manny can.

Instead of saying, "It's expensive here," Manny chose to be Manny.

Lawson made his pro debut with the San Francisco 49ers this past Sunday. The defensive end turned outside linebacker finished with six tackles -- good for third-best on the team in the 49ers 34-27 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

In his rookie campaign, Lawson finds himself on a team with little expectations except improving after last year's 4-12 finish under first-year coach Mike Nolan.

But simply improving isn't good enough for this Wayne County native.

"I'm shooting to help us get to the Super Bowl as I always have," said Lawson, who was taken No. 22 by San Francisco in the first round of the 2006 NFL draft. "I can't just shoot for improving or getting to the playoffs and be satisfied. We all want to get that ring.

"I still need that pinkie ring. If we win it, I'll probably get it sized to fit my pinkie."

Learning the ropes

Before any trophy-hoisting or ring-fitting, Lawson was just relieved to finally get that first regular season game under his belt. He admits the pre-draft workouts, training camp and preseason schedule was a grind. But he continued to battle, and it steadily became more and more clear that the Eastern Wayne graduate would be No. 1 on the depth chart at right outside linebacker in the 49ers 3-4 defensive scheme.

"It was a pretty long process. I was so anxious to get out there and show the fans and coaches why I was such a good pick for them," Lawson said. "It's not extra pressure, really. It's motivation more than anything. This is a blessing. It's something I dreamed about doing for years. To play on a Sunday ... words can't describe the emotion to be a part of something like that."

The biggest adjustment?

Lawson is used to going up against some of the best in the country as he bumped heads with some of the top offensive players in the nation in college. Sure, the competition went up a few notches at the pro level, but Lawson believes the biggest transition has been in the film room.

"It's not what happens on the field. It's what happens behind the scenes," Lawson said. "It's knowing how much homework you have to do on your opponent ... not just the guy you are going up against but the coach and offensive coordinator. You have to know what they like to do in certain situations."

But Lawson hasn't had to do all of the homework on his own. Veteran leaders like Bryant Young, a former All-Pro, and Derek Smith have shown the 6-5, 240-pounder the ropes on defense. Several of San Francisco's offensive linemen have given the rookie words of advice during practice on how to take on blockers and backs around the league.

"They've taken me under their wing and showed me the tricks of the trade," he said. "They've treated me like a brother and showed me the things I need to learn in order to help us be a great football team.

"It's not just the communication by the defensive players. I have players on the offensive side helping me. I go against those guys every day in practice, and they try to make me look bad just like I'm trying to make them look bad. Even those guys are teaching me what I'm giving away."

Making strides

The 49ers gave away too many yards and too many points in 2005. San Francisco finished dead last in the NFL in yards allowed per game at 391.2 and were near the bottom in most defensive categories. Take away Arizona's 21-point first quarter on Sunday, and the 49ers defense showed positive gains in week one.

Still, it's a long season and Lawson and his teammates have another stern divisional test on Sunday in their home opener against St. Louis before hosting Donovan McNabb and Philadelphia in week three.

Not just Lawson, but the passionate San Francisco faithful seemed to have taken notice of the team's improvement.

"I was up early at 5:30 trying to greet the fans on Tuesday. I was getting applauded for what seems to be a loss, but a huge stepping stone that we overcame against Arizona," Lawson said. "We could have laid our heads down. But we fought back and made the game close. It really shows the caliber of team that coach Nolan has brought together."

Living the dream

As Lawson spoke Tuesday, he was basking in the late-summer, northern California sun.

"The weather here has spoiled me. It's always sunny. I haven't seen a drop of rain since I've been here," he said. "The weather is wonderful ... 90s with no humidity. There's a cool breeze and the sun is shining."

On top of the pristine weather, Lawson has been pleased with the people he has met, as well.

"They're very laid back," he said. "I've talked to a few people that don't know anything about me and the fact that I'm an NFL player. They're just cool people in general. The biggest difference is the living expenses. The cost of living here is really expensive."

As for the million-dollar question, "What is the first thing you bought with your contract money?"

Lawson replied, "I finally got my big body 2006 Lincoln Navigator and I bought my house in San Jose."

This time, he was serious.

But he was still distinctly Manny.