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Jumping through hoops: Chris Manhertz's journey from Canisius College basketball to Carolina tight end

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Imagine all those football dreamers who grew up in the system, from Pop Warner through high school and into college stadiums, to maybe get a shot at the NFL.

All those snaps and whistles and twisted joints and bruises from cracking pads and chasing, chasing, chasing.

What must they think when they look at Chris Manhertz?

He participated in an NFL practice the same day he put on a helmet for the first time in his life. Beyond that, about the biggest inconvenience Manhertz needed to overcome was locking the keys inside his car in Cheektowaga when the New Orleans Saints wanted him to fly down and sign.

"It baffles me," said retired NFL offensive lineman Scott Peters, one of Manhertz's blocking tutors. "I always tell him, 'I don't know how you're doing this, man.' "

Manhertz experienced nary a down of organized football until last summer. He played basketball at Canisius College, a school that dropped football in 2002 and hadn't sent a non-replacement player to the NFL in nearly 70 years.

He was impressive enough on and off the court to make a permanent imprint at Canisius, but not exactly dominant within the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

Yet Manhertz will be on an NFL field Sunday, playing tight end and special teams for the Carolina Panthers against the Buffalo Bills.

"Did I think initially I could do it, never playing a down or putting on pads in my life?" Manhertz said after Thursday afternoon's practice outside Bank of America Stadium.

"No, but I was open-minded and was going to attack it head-on."

In last week's victory over the San Francisco 49ers Manhertz played 12 offensive snaps, already equaling his four-game total last season after the Panthers claimed him off waivers from the Saints.

He was startled to learn that.

"You know what I call that? Progress!" Manhertz said.

To call it "progress" almost belittles what the 25-year-old Bronx native has accomplished.

Manhertz has been on a 53-man roster for the past 13 months. He's not some training-camp body or member of a practice squad .

"There's too many jobs on the line to just have somebody on the 53-man roster, taking up space," Manhertz said. "That's a responsibility you have to uphold as a member of this team, detailing your craft, doing the right thing, knowing what to do, playing hard."

Manhertz's football evolution is striking and falls well outside the parameters established by more famous examples of college basketball players who've become NFL tight ends.

Pro Bowl tight ends Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham and Julius Thomas are most frequently mentioned. You also could name Demetrius Harris, Darren Fells, Rico Gathers or Erik Swoope, who are on rosters despite no college football experience.

What differentiates Manhertz is the counterintuitive transformation. He did not make the NFL because he could catch and teams simply hoped they could teach him to block.

Manhertz is in the NFL because he does the dirty work.

All 12 of his snaps last Sunday were run plays. Of his 55 combined snaps with the Saints and Panthers last year, he ran only 12 pass patterns, catching his lone target for 10 yards to convert a second-and-8 play.

"Of the tight ends I've played with and worked with, he's got to be one of the top blocking tight ends in the NFL," said Peters, an instructor and founder of the Safe Football development program in Cave Creek, Ariz.

"When I get my hands on Chris, I can tell he's as strong as 70 percent of the offensive guards I train, and those guys deal with the largest defenders in the game."

Granted, Manhertz was blessed with athleticism and size, listed at 6 foot 6 and 235 pounds his senior season at Canisius.

Despite a physique ideal for football, Chris Manhertz never donned a helmet until his first NFL tryout. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News}

His frame back then generated enough questions from out-of-town media that Canisius assistant athletics director of communications Matt Reitnour inserted a line in Manhertz's hoops bio that read, "Despite being built like a linebacker, he has never played organized football."

Although Manhertz is Canisius' fourth all-time rebounder, he ranked just seventh in rebounds per game in the MAAC as a senior. If he can score a touchdown and a two-point conversion in the same NFL game he will have eclipsed his career basketball scoring average of 6.5 points.

He did lead the MAAC in personal fouls his junior season and ranks ninth in conference history.

"It was one of those jokes from teammates and coaches: 'You're playing the wrong sport. You're too physical,' " Manhertz said. "Then senior year comes, the Buffalo Bills reach out, and it was, like, 'Wow.' "

Canisius basketball coach Jim Baron connected with the Bills through executive Russ Brandon about giving Manhertz a look-see. General Manager Doug Whaley brought Manhertz in for a tryout in April 2014, a couple of weeks after Canisius' final basketball game.

Manhertz wasn't worth a contract then, but he continued to train in earnest. The intrigue around him began to grow as respected instructors gained more exposure to traits that went beyond athleticism.

As word of mouth circulated, connections began to grow.

Jim McNally, the legendary NFL offensive line coach from Kenmore West High and the University at Buffalo, was consulting for the Cincinnati Bengals. He referred Manhertz to longtime St. Francis High assistant John Scibetta locally and Peters in Arizona.

"When McNally picks up the phone, people listen to him," said Peters, who played left guard for McNally with the New York Giants. "If he's not the best offensive line coach in the history of the NFL, then he's in the top two."

Even so, initial impressions of Manhertz's foundation were sketchy.

When the New Orleans Saints put Manhertz on waivers, the Carolina Panthers were quick to pounce. (Getty Images).

"There was no technique from passing, running, blocking, nothing," Scibetta said.

Added Peters: "We took a guy from zero, but he's a sponge. That's what has been so rewarding about this process."

Scibetta and Peters quickly discovered Manhertz treated his new sport like a vocation. Manhertz easily could have dismissed football as a lark that wasn't worth the trouble.

But two hours a day, Manhertz trained and studied, whether in the gymnasium of the shuttered Our Lady of Pompeii grammar school or within spiral notebooks at the dining-room table of Scibetta's house in Depew.

"It could be with a tennis ball and a patch of dirt," Scibetta said. "Didn't matter if it was wet or cold. We'd get work done, any place, any time."

Those close to Manhertz praise his focus more than his athleticism.

He earned his undergraduate degree in health and performance and then his master's degree in sports administration. He's one of only three three-time captains in Canisius' 114-year hoops history. He served on the school's student-athlete advisory committee.

"What about the mental aspect?" Scibetta asked. "We're talking about a tight end. You've got to know all the blocking, all the schemes, all the dogs, and then you've got to know all the patterns.

"We were cracking up going into this season because he's been doing this for two and a half years and has been asked to learn three NFL offenses! A couple years ago, he didn't know what football was!"

Buffalo signed Manhertz to its 90-man roster at the end of 2014. He practiced throughout the offseason but was waived Aug. 19, 2015, without a preseason appearance.

But he didn't view the Bills as some kind of hometown courtesy and resumed workouts with Scibetta.

Manhertz was dumped on a Wednesday but went through hard sessions the next three days at Stiglmeier Park in Cheektowaga.

Scibetta, a shade under 5-foot-4, brought in former St. Francis players to give Manhertz resistance. That Saturday, two-way Duquesne end Matt Glose handled the blocking pads, while St. John Fisher quarterback Nick Suchyna shot some video with Scibetta's phone.

"Chris was blocking against a 9-technique, a guy on his outside," Scibetta said. "We call it a dip, duck and lift drill. He's just engaging the hips and covering the man up.

At Canisius, Manhertz carved a reputation out of his willingness to do the dirty work. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

"Right at the end of the workout I innocently sent it to McNally and said, 'I really liked this clip. He looked quick and big.' "

When Saints head coach Sean Payton was offensive coordinator for the Giants, McNally was the O-line coach.

But when Manhertz got to his 2003 Honda Accord after the workout, he realized his keys were locked inside.

AAA took longer to arrive than for the Saints to summon him.

"My phone is blowing up," Manhertz said, "and my agent said, 'Your flight's in three hours. Pack whatever bag you can.'

"I went to New Orleans, worked out and never came back home."

That's how quickly Manhertz became a commodity. The whirlwind -- he weeks later scurried back to empty his Elmwood Village apartment in one day after joining the Saints' practice squad -- hasn't stopped.

He made the Saints' opening 53-man roster last year.

"To make the practice squad was one thing, but to make the 53-man roster blew my mind," Billy Baron, his Canisius teammate, wrote in an email from Turkey. "You can sit there and say, 'Well, yeah, of course, just looking at him on the basketball court you knew he was a football player.'

"Just by passing the eye test doesn't mean you'll be playing on Sundays. There's guys who have dedicated their lives to this game."

The Saints deactivated him on opening day, but he started his first two NFL games. He played another game before the Saints waived him; tight end Josh Hill returned from an ankle injury and receiver Jake Lampman was promoted from the practice squad.

The Saints hoped Manhertz would survive waivers so they could re-sign him, but the Panthers snatched him. He went from a team that had won the Super Bowl seven years earlier to the defending NFC champs.

Manhertz expressed humility about his status with Carolina. He's a grunt, now up to 255 pounds, who plays on the unglamorous kickoff, kick return and punt return units.

He's behind three-time Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen and Super Bowl champ Ed Dickson.

"A lot of guys would want to be where I'm at right now," Manhertz said. "For me to complain about that I'm not getting any catches? Really?

"It's just as good a feeling, having [Panthers running backs] Christian McCaffrey or Jonathan Stewart run the ball off my back."

Many basketball skills translate to football, but the chatter almost exclusively revolves around catches.

Not so much when it comes to blocking, and certainly not pass blocking.

"One of the most difficult things to ask is to pass block," Peters said, "when you're backpedaling with someone charging at you at full speed and who's probably bigger and stronger than you, trying to hit a target behind you that you can't see.

"But he does it. He's someone the team can count on in third-and-long against some of the best pass-rushers in the world."

Manhertz caught five passes for 42 yards in the preseason finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

He insisted he's not seduced by those Gonzalez, Graham, Gates stats.

"As a tight end in this league you're supposed to know how to catch, right? But not all have the ability to catch and block," Manhertz said. "This is the perfect offense for me to learn and grow, the way they use their offense here.

"These types of abilities will keep you around. You might not stay in the same place for five years, but there will always be a place for you in the NFL if you embrace that role here."

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