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Tough turn on road to NFL

Truck accident took a toll on new Patriot Mankins

CATHEYS VALLEY, Calif. -- The winding mountain roads in this part of the Sierra Nevadas are peppered with warning signs. From the standard caution of deer crossings to the simple yet double take-inducing extreme curvature in the highway for ''the next 38 miles."

In a state that was the first to designate a state rock, the numerous ''falling rocks" signs -- not to mention the host of fallen stones along the shoulders, make one hesitant to take in the often-breathtaking views of the mostly green mountainside.

One of the more harmless passageways in this region is Mount Bullion Cutoff in Mariposa County. The 3 1/2-mile patch that runs north-south (and at times east-west) between California State Routes 49 and 140 leads to and around the Mankins ranch.

This is where Logan Mankins grew up, where he became a man; a 6-foot-4-inch, 307-pound mountain of a man who one day would be a first-round draft pick of the New England Patriots. It is also where he would face more pain than he likely will ever see on a football field.

It was a warm summer day in 2000, a few weeks before Mankins was scheduled to enroll at Fresno State, which to his surprise had offered him a football scholarship.

As Logan and his younger brother Morgan made their way down Mount Bullion Cutoff, Logan at the wheel, something happened. Probably a busted tie rod on the front end of the pickup truck.

The steering wheel locked. Logan lost control. The truck went airborne.

Logan and Morgan -- neither wearing a seatbelt -- went airborne.

Into a bank -- down a hill -- two brothers and a truck.

The sun was up, but Tim Mankins was home, anyway. Rather unusual for the hard-working rancher, who taught his three sons that as long as there is work to be done, one must work.

''The boys have always worked hard," Jill Mankins said of her children. ''There weren't any allowances for them. They had to earn it."

From the time they were old enough to take to a horse for a full day (about 5 years old, their mother estimates), Logan and Morgan Mankins tagged along with their father as he baled hay, repaired fences, rounded up cattle, and performed other assorted jobs on his and other nearby ranches.

On this August day, Tim Mankins's work was closer to the house, and his two oldest boys, Logan, 18, and Morgan, 15, were in a truck on Mount Bullion Road.

When a neighbor pulled up and yelled at Tim Mankins to dial 911 because there had been an accident, Mankins had no idea anyone he knew was involved.

When he arrived at the scene, he found his oldest son disoriented, with a separated shoulder, busted chin, and some scratches. Morgan, the middle son, was in worse condition. He had flown through the rear window and landed in a horrible, fateful position. A few inches left or right, and maybe he would have walked away unharmed. Instead, the bed of the truck landed on his head.

Logan Mankins would later tell his mother that he remembers trying to lift the truck off his brother with his one good arm. Tim Mankins jacked the truck off his son, and held him, as he clung to life, until emergency medical personnel arrived.

The Mankinses' lives haven't been the same since.

A no-stoplight town
In April, Logan Mankins told his family to go light on the NFL Draft festivities. Despite most predictions that he would be at worst a third-round selection, he didn't want to get everyone's hopes up just in case he wasn't picked on the first day.

A difficult thing, reining in civic pride in these parts. This isn't a place where everybody knows your name. It's a place where everybody knows your blood type.

Heard of a one-stoplight town? How about a no-stoplight town? This gold rush settlement an hour north of Fresno, and just over 150 miles east of San Francisco, has maintained its small-town charm and rustic nature.

You can get Wi-Fi access to go with a double-meat burger and a beer at the Happy Burger Diner down the road in the city (Mariposa: population under 1,800).

But if you have a cellular phone addiction, it is quelled by the omnipresent cold turkey message: ''searching for network."

Catheys Valley is home to fewer than 1,000 people. When Jill Mankins says, ''Meet me at the gas station at 12:30," she assumes you'll know what she means. If not, you'll likely figure it out when you arrive in town and there's the Oasis, which according to its sign offers a market, feed store, propane, breakfast, lunch, and dinner on one side of the highway, and a ''76" gas station on the other.

Other than a small park where Logan Mankins played peewee football for one season (before it was determined that he wasn't peewee enough and was asked to play against older boys), the small elementary school (four rooms for 83 students) and the local bar (the Tap Room), that's pretty much all there is to Catheys Valley.

The sign at the end of Mount Bullion Cutoff, near the Mariposa-Yosemite Airport, lists the historic community of Mount Bullion with a population of 325, and an elevation of 2,176.

The Mankins ranch is closer to the Mount Bullion population sign, though they say they live in Catheys Valley and their address reads Mariposa. But if you mail a letter to Tim and Jill without an address or road name, they'll get it, so long as you pick a city in the area.

As you would imagine, any ''local boy makes good" tale couldn't go unnoticed or uncelebrated. The Mariposa Weekly Gazette says 250 people gathered around two big-screen televisions at the Strathearn Pavilion to watch Mankins and the Fresno State Bulldogs play Oregon State on Sept. 2, 2001.

Not only was it just the second career game for Mankins, then a redshirt freshman, he was starting at offensive tackle, a position that involves mostly blocking and grunting. And even on a big screen TV, you can't hear the grunting. Plus, it was the same day as the junior livestock auction at the Mariposa County Fair.

But the contingent of locals who would come to be regulars at Fresno State games and who have already started making travel arrangements to get to Gillette Stadium for this fall, couldn't miss that game.

No one around here knows of another young man who even received a scholarship to play Division 1 college football, let alone start in a game on national television and make it to the NFL.

''Everyone here is so proud of Logan," said Janet Bibby, supervisor of District III in Mariposa County and Logan's aunt. ''And he's so humble and quiet, you would never know he's anything but a cowboy."

Actually, Mankins doesn't even talk much about being a prize-winning cowboy. The summer after his sophomore year of high school, he banked $10,000 in rodeo prize money in team roping competitions. No bragging.

''It wasn't that big a deal," Mankins says.

College an afterthought
Logan Mankins didn't play football his first year at Fresno State because of NCAA academic eligibility rules. He is what the NCAA dubs a ''partial qualifier," which is partially a misnomer in his case.

A solid student, Mankins didn't post the necessary college preparatory test score to play college football because he didn't bother to take the SAT or ACT.

The future NFL first-rounder, No. 32 overall, hadn't envisioned himself being a Division 1 prospect. He wasn't a blue chip recruit. He wasn't even a sleeper. He was an unknown, 240-pound tight end/linebacker who believed his future involved working a ranch and being a professional cowboy on the rodeo circuit.

''I figured it was a waste of time to take the test," he said. ''People from my school hadn't really gone to college for football. A few went to a junior college, and didn't go anywhere after that. I wasn't expecting anything."

Besides Fresno State, the only other school interested in Mankins was Merced College, a community college about 30 miles southwest of Catheys Valley.

Fresno State coach Pat Hill said Mankins didn't slip through the cracks because of a lack of talent; he was MVP of his high school league in basketball, averaging a double-double, and baseball, where he was Mariposa High's best pitcher. It was because of where he is from.

''That's not exactly a place where a lot of [college recruiters] go," Hill said. ''And he wasn't the 'oh-my-God' 300-pounder then, either."

But after catching the eye of Bulldog assistant coach Tim Simons, who recruited the area, Mankins was given an opportunity at Fresno State.

With the terrible accident barely behind him -- Morgan was in a coma in a Modesto hospital -- Mankins was off to the big city alone.

''I told him that it may sound harsh, but we can't worry about you too," Jill Mankins said. ''He had always been a good kid and a mature kid, but I think he got more serious about stuff. I think he set a goal that he had to do something special."

Having his brother hospitalized (for six months, it turned out), with doctors unsure whether he would survive, was difficult for Logan, particularly since he walked away from the accident with minor injuries.

''It was really tough at first," he said. ''It took me quite a while to get over it. I didn't go crazy or nothing; I still did what I had to do. But you think about it a lot. [You wonder] if you could have done something different, if there was some way to prevent it."

Immediate impact
Ineligible to play that fall, Mankins worked out with a small group of players under the eye of assistant weight room coach Eric Mahanke. He impressed immediately.

''You look at him and he's not cut like weightlifters and he's not built like big-time athletes," Mahanke said. ''Then he'd surprise you with his strength and athleticism.

''He always lifted the most, worked harder than everybody and was such a talented athlete with great hand-eye coordination. Gifted. I didn't think much of him at first, but by the end of the fall, I was bragging about him."

Mankins's year off from football proved beneficial. After months of lifting and working out, adding technique and football-specific training to his natural strength, he said he swelled to 290 pounds, though he was listed at 320 on the Fresno State roster.

It took all of three days of practice for Mankins to be named the starting left tackle, which is considered the most demanding position on an offensive line, particularly when the team's best player is a high-profile quarterback.

David Carr, the first pick of the 2002 NFL Draft by the Houston Texans, remembers Mankins challenging teammates in seven-on-seven drills that are usually reserved for skill position players.

''He wanted to be the quarterback, or receiver, he would do it all," Carr said.

Carr's best guess is that Mankins, whom teammates took to calling ''Wolverine" because of his scraggly beard, was responsible for just one sack he suffered during the 2001 season. The school says it was two.

''I'd take that now," said Carr, who was dumped on his backside an NFL-record 76 times in 2002. ''Other than being country -- and he's as country as it gets -- the thing I think of when it comes to Logan is someone working hard, giving 100 percent every day and being all about team.

''That's kind of what the Patriots have been about the last few years, so what better place for him to be? Here would have been OK."

Word is, the Texans had their eyes on Mankins as a possible second-round choice. But the Patriots snapped him up earlier than most projected.

Closer together
Morgan Mankins is the same fun-loving little brother that he was before the accident.

The accident that Tim Mankins had nightmares about. The accident that Logan Morgan doesn't talk about much. The accident that, whenever mentioned, even by her, brings Jill Mankins to tears.

The accident that left Morgan unable to speak, and in need of assistance to walk, because of a traumatic brain injury. He communicates by hand signals, some sign language, a little writing, and occasionally through a computer that he doesn't like to use.

But the sadness that overwhelmed the Mankinses in 2000 has made a family that already was a model of togetherness even closer.

And on a routine May day in a small town that few know exist, wondrous and everyday things are happening.

Kelsey, the Mankinses' youngest son, is a sophomore at Mariposa High, the quarterback on the football team, a pitcher on the baseball squad.

Jill Mankins, the proud mother, wants to wear a Patriots jersey to show support for her eldest, but on this night she doesn't because her youngest is pitching against an opponent that has Patriot-like colors.

Logan, 23, is about to become a wealthy professional athlete and a husband. He and his high school sweetheart, Kara Brindley, are parents to two small children, 4-year-old daughter Kaylee and 1-month-old son Case.

Lavish spending when he signs his contract? Hardly.

A new car for mom. A new car for the future wife (he bought her a 2003 Saturn a year ago, but with the new addition to the family, a size upgrade is in the offing).

And a new truck for Logan -- ''the biggest one Ford makes out there," not necessarily because he wants to treat himself, but because his 1987 Ford, with nearly 220,000 miles on it, might not survive the trip to New England.

Morgan Mankins, who sported Logan's jersey and Bulldogs cap to almost all of Fresno State's home games, is already thinking of traveling to Massachusetts to watch his brother play.

Jill Mankins says her mischievous middle son is wondering whether the seats at Gillette Stadium are as strategically located as the family seats at Bulldog Stadium in Fresno (seems the cheerleaders were not far away).

Tim Mankins, the father, is working.

The roads are winding up and down the mountains. The sun is up.

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