Photo courtesy Tarleton Athletics
Zimari Manning has never taken the easy road on his football journey. The Wilson High product has always been a gifted wide receiver, but since his days as a Bruin he has had to work his way through injury, navigate the junior college ranks, and prove himself at the Division II level. He now finds himself at the precipice of professional football, with another hurdle standing before him.
After finishing up a terrific career at Tarleton State this past fall, Manning was preparing to make the leap to the professional ranks. He was a two-time Division II All-American with the Texans, breaking a number of school records while helping Tarleton State to a combined 23-2 record during his two seasons in the Lone Star State.
“Zimari made a major impact for us in so many different ways,” said Tarleton State wide receivers coach Tate Whitten, who also recruited Manning to the program. “On the field he obviously was a super competitor and a highly productive player who took over the game. But off the field he made just as much of an impact by being a fantastic teammate and person while at Tarleton. He’s truly one of a kind.”
The on-field numbers speak for themselves, with Manning setting school records in both receiving yards (1,462) and touchdown receptions (22) during the 2019 season. He had multiple touchdown catches in eight of his 12 games played last year, including a 257-yard, three-touchdown performance against UT Permian Basin which earned him National Player of the Week honors. At the close of the regular season, he had the best numbers of any wide receiver in the country at any level of college football.
When asked how his historic season came to fruition, Manning responded with humility.
“It was the grace of God, honestly,” Manning said. “It was hard work for sure. I definitely gave it my all, but I was blessed with an ability to do these things.”
Manning was also a finalist for last season’s Harlon Hill Award, given annually to the best player in Division II. He was the first player in program history to earn that recognition, and posted the highest finish for a wide receiver since 1991 by finishing third in the voting.
That sort of notoriety put his name on NFL Draft boards, and put the 6-foot-2 wideout in a position to earn a shot at the next level. However, with the sports world on lockdown amidst a global pandemic, his road to the NFL has become fraught. Colleges across the country have had to cancel their pro days, and prospects are unable to work out for NFL teams and scouts during these crucial spring months leading up to the NFL Draft, still scheduled for April 23-25. That leaves Manning with question marks about his future.
“That’s the hardest question ever,” Manning replied when asked about his draft preparation. “I’ve been talking to my coaches and we’ve just got to sit down and figure it out. We’ll probably just ended up recording a smaller pro day with a third party and sending the film out. You’ve just got to take advantage of your opportunities and get in where you can. (The events) aren’t on the schedule anymore so I’ve just been in the house working out.”
The limitations on pre-draft workouts, pro days, and scouting combines hurts guys like Manning more than the average Division I prospect who has the benefit of more publicity and resources coming from a larger athletic department. Playing at a Division II school means that despite his gaudy numbers, Manning will have his fair share of doubters and naysayers, but those aren’t unfamiliar circumstances.
Following high school, Manning attended Golden West College, where after a grey shirt season he became a First Team JUCO All-American in 2014, scoring 23 touchdowns in two seasons with the Rustlers. He was also forced to sit out a redshirt season while at Golden West after injuring his LCL. As an unheralded recruit out of high school, grinding at a junior college and then to a Division II school, it has never been easy or glamorous for Manning, but that’s how he prefers it.
“I would actually rather have it that way so you can have a little under your teeth and under your belt,” Manning said of his road less traveled. “You know how to adjust to things and different situations. It makes you able to adapt in any environment you go into.”
So as the entire world faces an unpredictable, unprecedented challenge, Zimari Manning finds himself, both literally and figuratively, right at home, awaiting his next opportunity to prove himself.