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Nov. 20, 2002

In eighth grade, Raymond Mann was shooting baskets with the junior varsity squad of his middle school. Watching him from across the gym was a coach who would change his life forever.

“Raymond thought he was a basketball player,” said Mike Smith, head football coach at Hampton High School. “I talked to him when he was in eighth grade, but he didn’t seem too interested in football. The next year I pursued him more. He’s a nice kid, but very shy.”

“I had played (football) in the rec league when I was younger, but I stopped when I started to play basketball,” Mann said. “I thought I was going to play basketball; that’s what I wanted to do. But Coach Smith convinced me to play football.”

Mann hung up his hightops and tried on a pair of cleats and pads.

“After freshman orientation, we got Raymond out there on the football field, and he’s been out there ever since,” Smith added.

At Hampton, Mann was a part of Smith’s legendary teams that won four state championships. Recording 70 tackles and 10 sacks as a junior, Mann worked his way to a No. 1 rating in the state and a No. 10 ranking at linebacker in the country. Named an All-American and the Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Virginia as a senior, Mann learned a lot from Smith in a very short time.

“Coach Smith taught me a lot. I looked at him like a father-figure,” Mann said. “He taught all of us discipline. He was very supportive of us, regardless of what we did.”

Smith has a poem Mann wrote when he was in ninth grade.

“Raymond’s English teacher sent me this poem,” Smith recalled. “It was titled, ‘Coach Smith is a Hero’.”

Mann also has been guided by several family heroes.

Raised by his mother Jennifer Mann and his grandmother Imogene Hubbard, the 6-1 soft-spoken only child has overcome a lot of adversity in his personal life. His father, Anthony Mann, died when Raymond was just 12. His grandfather Hubbard died during Raymond’s senior season at Hampton High.

“Raymond had a tough senior year,” Smith said. “His grandfather died after our fifth game, and it was very difficult for Raymond. But he handled it well.”

“My uncles are really supportive of me,” Mann said of his uncles Tony Mann, who wrestled at Florida State, and David Hubbard, who played basketball at Albany State. “(Uncle David) comes to all the games. He told me, ‘if you want to play basketball, play basketball. If you want to play football, play football, but do your best.’ He told me to stay focused on whatever I’m doing and always set goals.”

Although football was the new goal, Mann had one critic who didn’t like the idea.

“My grandmother didn’t want me to play football,” Mann said. “She was scared I’d get hurt, and I didn’t want to play at first.”

“Yes, Raymond’s grandmother is very protective,” Smith said.

After she saw the effects football had on her grandson, Imogene Hubbard finally came around.

“His grandmother came up to me and said, ‘I’m so glad Raymond’s out for football. He’s starting to blossom,'” recalled Smith.

The blossoming had only just begun. After graduating from Hampton High, Mann moved on to the University of Virginia to play for George Welsh.

“I picked Virginia because it was an in-state school,” Mann said. “I really didn’t want to leave the state. It’s a good academic school and the football program was on the rise. I just wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to help them win.”

As a true freshman in 2000, Mann played in all 11 games, including the O’ahu Bowl. But with a new school and a new coach came a new system.

“My biggest adjustment wasn’t necessarily the size or the plays, it was mostly the speed of the game,” Mann said of his first collegiate experience. “Everything was a lot faster than in high school. There were a lot more things you have to learn.”

Learning on the football field took yet another turn during Mann’s sophomore year as Al Groh took over as head coach of the Hoos.

“Well, Coach Groh came in from the NFL. It was a whole different system I had to learn,” Mann said. “It took a while to grasp all the different concepts and changes. It took part of the season to get adjusted to it.”

As a sophomore, Mann started 11 contests at outside linebacker and led the team in quarterback hurries with 13 while making 80 tackles. For the second consecutive year, he earned the team’s Rock Weir Award as the Most Improved Player following spring practice.

For a football player to learn three different systems in three years, and to flourish at it, is simply amazing. Mann credits each coach.

“Coach Welsh was more laid back. He taught us discipline, but he had a more laid back approach to it,” Mann said. “Coach Groh’s a little stricter. He demands a lot from his players. He wants us to get in there and watch tape as much as we can. The more you know about your opponents, the better off you’ll be and the better chance you’ll have of winning.”

As a junior this season, Mann started the first two games before being sidelined for five contests with a knee injury. But the even-keeled linebacker adjusted.

“The hardest part of sitting out is watching everyone else play. It’s hard to sit on the sidelines,” Mann said. “I’m not used to sitting on the side and watching the game. That’s been the hardest adjustment. I’ve been supporting my teammates and hoping they do well. I just couldn’t wait to get back.”

Mann returned to the defense in the win over North Carolina and is working to regain his starting position. He’d also like to play in another bowl game.

“That’s what we’ve been striving for,” Mann said.

Off the field, Mann maintains his quiet personality.

“He’s always quiet, but he jokes around with the guys,” said roommate Art Thomas. “Raymond gives the team a lot of toughness, strength and versatile speed.”

Nicknamed “Rain Man” by his teammates, Mann is setting goals for his future after football.

“I’m interested in forensic psychology,” the psychology major revealed. “I’m interested in what criminals think and why they do what they do, what goes through their minds.”

With someone as motivated as Mann on the case, criminals better beware.

“Raymond’s always been a person of few words, but of high moral character,” Smith said. “He’s very mature and very sensitive. He’s a deep-feeling person with a lot of respect for people. I love him like a son.”

Raymond Mann has come a long way in seven years.

Article written by Cathy Bongiovi

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