By David Willis
DERRY — It should have been a day for giving thanks. In fact, it was the day for being thankful — Thanksgiving Day 2009.
And 14-year-old Manny Latimore had plenty to be thankful for that day.
Latimore, his mother Adine and sister Nichell were spending the holiday in Florida, where the dynamic halfback had led his Derry Wolverines to the Youth Football Nationals, the crowning achievement of his already memorable young football career.
The family had just sat down for Thanksgiving dinner, and the giddy Latimore — nine days removed from celebrating his birthday — was already dreaming of his matchup with a team from Nebraska the following day.
Then the phone rang with the call that is every child’s worst nightmare.
Phillip Latimore, Manny’s father, had suffered a heart attack while driving home from Thanksgiving dinner with Manny’s other sister and nephew. His car veered off the road and struck a tree.
Phillip, 52-years-old, was dead.
“It was just a shock,” said Manny. “It brought so many thoughts rushing to my head. It was the first big loss I experienced in my life. I really didn’t know how to react.”
'As great as I've coached'
Now three months shy of his 18th birthday, Latimore is 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds with jet-quick speed. His shoulders are wide enough to carry Pinkerton Academy to a state title, and his legs evoke memories of NFL legend Earl Campbell. They are the source of his immense power as a runner, which is often overlooked due to his quickness.
In short, Latimore is the player every opponent in New Hampshire dreads. He torched the state for 1,504 yards and 29 touchdowns last season.
“I honestly believe Manny is, at least talent-wise, as great a back as I have ever coached,” said Brian O’Reilly, who is entering his 36th year as head coach.
That’s quite a compliment from the man who has probably coached more great backs than any coach in area history or New Hampshire history.
They include Notre Dame’s Ryan Mihalko, Holy Cross All-American Joe Segreti, UMass national champion Matt Jordan.
“Manny has everything that Division 1 college football programs are looking for,” said O’Reilly.
‘Help me, Dad’
The football field is where Latimore is most at home. It is his sanctuary. It is where, since he first strapped up a helmet as a youngster, he has befuddled defenders and wowed fans.
It is also where Manny feels the greatest connection to the father he lost. Where he feels that link to his idol who introduced him to the game so long ago.
“I always think about him,” said Manny. “During games I talk to myself as if I was talking to him. When I am struggling I will say, ‘Help me out on this play, Dad. Get me through this.’”
It was Phil who introduced Manny to football when he was 7, much to the initial horror of his mother.
“At first, I thought it was touch football when his father signed him up,” said Adine. “Then I saw my little guy out there in his little pads and I realized people were trying to hit him. I didn’t like that at all.
“But Phil promised me Manny would be OK. I didn’t want to watch anyone tackle him, so I told Manny to just run and not let anyone catch him.”
Manny did exactly that from his first moments on the gridiron, growing into a dominant running back.
“The first time I saw Manny play was in the fifth grade,” said O’Reilly. “And he stood out from everyone else on the field. You could see something special.”
Did it together
Standing on the sidelines every day in those younger years was Phil, guiding his son through the rough world of football.
“The two of them definitely did it together,” said Adine. “His dad coached him in every game growing up. He always looked out for him. Manny’s dad was his biggest supporter. He talked about Manny everywhere he went. He would always show people videos of him running.”
Latimore emerged as a star in the youth ranks, posting monster numbers and leading the Wolverines to success that culminated in the trip to Florida in 2009.
While Manny, his mother and sister Nichell were in Florida, Phil — a computer operator for Fidelity Investments — had remained in Derry to spend Thanksgiving with older daughter Shari and his 3-week-old grandson. He had just left dinner with them and was headed to another family gathering when tragedy struck.
“We were just about to eat and my mother’s phone rang,” said Manny. “It was the police and they told her what had happened. He had a heart attack on the highway and was dead. I couldn’t believe it. Reality just hit. It was very overwhelming.”
The Latimore family was soon on a plane back to New Hampshire to deal with the passing and face reality without their 52-year-old husband and father.
“It was all very traumatic,” said Adine, a nurse. “It was such a shock. It was Thanksgiving and Manny had just celebrated his birthday. It was right in his formative years, when a boy really needs his dad. He doesn’t talk about it too much, but I know it still bothers him now.”
Going it alone
Reality hit Manny once again the following fall.
A freshman at Pinkerton Academy, Latimore would be asked to immediately step up and contribute to the powerhouse varsity football team. It was a daunting task for any youngster, but even tougher for Manny.
For the first time, he faced football without his dad.
“I definitely wanted to get back to football,” he said. “But it was very different. I was scared that him not being there would hurt my play. He gave me so many tips and told me what to do during every water break. I was afraid, without him there, I would forget how to play football.”
But Latimore quickly proved that the gridiron remained his home.
In the Astros’ home-opener, the freshman carried five times for 69 yards including a 20-yard touchdown run. Six days later, he ran a kickoff back 99 yards for a touchdown late in the third quarter to spark Pinkerton to a come-from-behind victory over Nashua South.
“That was my first real big play as a varsity player, and my first since my father passed away,” he said. “It was great to have the attention back on football instead of what happened.”
That propelled the Astros to a 10-2 record that season and their most recent Division 1 state title. A year later he continued to contribute to the squad that again finished 10-2 and advanced to the title game before falling to Exeter.
Last season was Latimore’s true breakout campaign, earning Eagle-Tribune All-Star honors after rushing 1,504 yards and scoring 29 touchdowns and again leading the Astros to the title game.
If he repeated those numbers this fall he’d finish with 3,976 rushing yards and 72 TDs. That would place him 10th in rushing and fifth in scoring in the modern area all-time leaders.
It may require a year of prep school or time in junior college to lift his grades, but with numbers like those, Latimore is certainly on the radar of all the New England 1-AA colleges.
Father in his heart and on his feet
All the while, he has run with a reminder of his father close to his heart — and feet.
“Every time I buy a new pair of cleats I write ‘Phil’ on them,” he said. “A few people have asked me, ‘What’s Phil?’ I just tell them not to worry about it. What matters is I know what it means. It’s there every game.”
While his father may not be there to cheer him on, the Latimore family is still a major presence from the stands.
“Oh, we can be very, very loud,” said Adine. “He used to tell us to be quiet, but he finally realized it was a losing match. He’s used to it now. I am always on the edge of my seat yelling, ‘Run Manny, run!’ I think that’s why he runs so fast. He knows I want him to.”
Latimore now plans to run and give his family plenty to cheer for this fall, and hopefully into his college career.
“I love to run the football,” he said. “I love the emotion of football. I love playing for this team and the will to win. I may not be as fast as some people think, but I think I am quicker. I am big, but I want to get bigger. Coach O’Reilly thinks I can play Division 1 college football and I would love to. I am willing to do anything it takes to do that.
“I wish my dad was here to watch me, but I know he is looking down on me and he is proud.”
Here’s a look at Manny Latimore’s career at Pinkerton, which has at least advanced to the Division 1 state title game every season:
2010: 432 rushing yards, 7 total TDs, 2 on kickoffs.
2011: 536 rushing yards, 7 total TDs, 2 on kickoffs.
2012: Eagle-Tribune All-Star. 1,504 rushing yards, 29 total TDs. Returned three punts and a kickoff for TDs and had four TD catches.
Totals: 3,972 rushing yards, 43 total TDs
Pinkerton leaders: Matt Jordan (PA ‘94) 4,099 rushing yards, Jordan 76 TDs, Ryan Mihalko (PA ‘87) had 68 TDs and 520 points as fullback/kicker