‘He’s the real deal’: Tongan origins, family sacrifice propel UBC’s Giovanni Manu to NFL opportunity

In a historic iteration of the NFL draft, the Detroit Lions orchestrated one of the event’s biggest surprises by trading up to select Giovanni Manu.

A surprise nearly as big as the 6-foot-7, 350-pound offensive lineman from the University of British Columbia, himself.

Flying quietly under the radar throughout the pre-draft process, little was promised to Manu ahead of the three-day spectacle hosted in Detroit.

“I didn’t know if I was going to be drafted, but I knew I was going to get a shot,” Manu told CBC Sports. “And I told myself, if I get that shot, I’m going to prove to people that I deserve to be in the NFL — I’m going to make a roster.”

WATCH | UBC blocker Manu readies for NFL opportunity with Detroit Lions:

U Sports lineman Giovanni Manu on getting drafted by the Detroit Lions

The UBC Thunderbird became the first player from UBC to get drafted into the NFL.

Not only did Manu get his shot, but his opportunity arrived with an abundance of security, as the Lions dealt a coveted future third-round draft choice in order to pick the Pitt Meadows, B.C., product with the 126th-overall selection.

Manu became the first ever UBC player drafted to the NFL, as well as the first NFL draft pick directly out of U Sports since 2016 — when Manitoba Bisons defensive lineman David Onyemata was chosen by the New Orleans Saints, also in the fourth round.

Manu credits Thunderbirds head coach Blake Nill for instilling in him the belief that the NFL was a height he could aspire to reach upon entering the school’s football program.

“He saw the potential within me and he and he told me, ‘Hey, kid, if you take this serious for the next four to five years, you could be the next big thing out of U Sports; you could be potentially drafted into the NFL.’

“To hear that from an experienced head coach, a well-decorated coach, I told myself at that young age, my first year of college … if he believes in me that I could do it, then I should push and strive for it. I just locked in and I made my dream come true.”

A coach and player speak during a game.
UBC Thunderbirds head coach Blake Nill, left, was an influential figure in the development of Manu, right, throughout his collegiate career. (Photo courtesy of University of British Columbia)

Nill, a converted offensive lineman who played for the Montreal Concordes / Alouettes between 1983-86 and three-time Vanier Cup-winning head coach, understood Manu was different from the outset.

“When you saw him, and compare him to the athletes who [I’ve] had over the years that have also played in the NFL, you just knew that he had the physical skill-set to do that,” Nill told CBC Sports.

“Gio is very close to me because he reminds me of myself a lot. No high school football experience. Both big guys. … He had my experience and my background to help shape his development. I truly believe he’s going to be the real deal,”

Despite Manu’s unexpected fourth-round selection, Nill insists his opportunity was destined.

“His movement skills for a man [his] size are just incredible,” he said. “It wasn’t going to be if the NFL guys were going to look at him, it was just going to be [about] what kind of vision they have for this kid and what they feel they could do for him.”

Proudly Tongan

Manu, 23, was born and raised in the Polynesian island country Tonga before moving to Vancouver at the age of 11. Joining his two older siblings — brother Burnaby and sister Madelene — who had already made the move, he was sent to live with his aunt, Sela Tu’inukuafe, in search of better education and opportunity.

He would go on to find both, as sports opened doors to one of the country’s top academic and sporting institutions in UBC.

Despite drastically uprooting his life at such a formative age, Manu’s Tongan heritage would remain a central theme in his evolution.

“I was taught the values of just being humble, being true to myself … the family aspect — that’s huge in Polynesian culture,” Manu said.

“I think that’s why I love football, as well. Being a part of a team, all these guys are considered brothers. It’s a family to me, and when I consider something family, I want to do everything I can do for those people.”

WATCH | Manu becomes 1st UBC player drafted to NFL:

UBC football player describes getting drafted to the NFL as a ‘dream come true’

Giovanni Manu was picked by the Detroit Lions in the fourth round of the NFL draft, making him the first player to be picked after playing for the UBC Thunderbirds.

As a blocker, Manu protects and provides pathways for teammates. But he’s had to forge his own journey, alone at times, while maintaining focus of his familial motivations.

“My first [day] of high school, all the kids are lined up with their parents, and they’re all taking pictures, and I’m just standing there by myself trying to see how I fit into this,” he said. “It was extremely tough, but I just kept telling myself this is the sacrifice my parents are paying for, so that I could put them in a better position.”

With the stewardship of his sister off the football field and coach Nill overseeing his development on it, Manu possessed a measured parental amalgamation that would ensure he had the tools to succeed.

Looking ahead to what awaits Manu at the pro level is arguably the best possible situation he could’ve hoped for in an NFL team.

Under the guidance of head coach Dan Campbell, the Lions have gradually gained notoriety as a franchise with a gritty, hard-working mentality befitting the image of the Motor City — culminating in a division-winning 12-5 record and unexpected conference championship appearance last season.

Nill anticipates his protégé will fit in seamlessly with his new team as he embarks on the next chapter of his story, remaining that same kid from Tonga who arrived with the ambition of fulfilling his dreams.

“He’s not going to be afraid of hard work, he’s not going to have some kind of phony self image,” Nill said.

“Giovanni knows that he will still need to prove himself.”

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