Fewer than two weeks removed from the end of the 2015 season, the Yale football team has already begun to look ahead to next year: linebacker Darius Manora ’17 was announced as the next captain of the Yale football team at the Bulldogs’ annual banquet last Monday.
Manora is the ninth defensive player elected as captain over the past 10 seasons and replaces safety Cole Champion ’16 as the Elis’ on-the-field leader.
“A lot of us, when we first come in, dream of being captain and being one of the best players,” said Manora. “Over time, you put your head down and just grind. I was surprised over the past year about how much I’ve developed as a leader and as a person.”
The six-foot, 235-pound linebacker has played in all 30 games since arriving in New Haven, including starting all 20 contests in his sophomore and junior seasons. This past year, he notched 52 total tackles, 24 of which were unassisted, in addition to a sack, an interception and a fumble recovery.
Manora comes from a football lineage: his father, a former personnel officer in the Air Force, played professional football in Europe and his older brother played high school football when the family lived in Texas. His older brother, who Manora called his “biggest inspiration,” was a senior in high school when Manora began playing organized football at age seven.
Given this football heritage, it is unsurprising that Manora developed a natural ability to play on either side of the ball. Originally a running back who set a league rushing record with over 4,500 career yards at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School in Alexandria, Virginia, Manora spent three years in the backfield before adding strong safety and outside linebacker to his high school resume.
“I had a meeting with him and said, ‘Darius, I know you really love playing running back, but if we’re going to win, I need you to do more,’” Bernard Joseph, Manora’s high school football coach, said. “And he just responded, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to win.’”
Joseph described the ease with which Manora slipped into his new role in the secondary, adding that in his first game playing safety, Manora picked off the opposing quarterback. Since he expected Manora to add 15 or 20 pounds once he got to college, Joseph said, he was not surprised that his former standout starred exclusively on defense for the Elis.
It was not just Manora’s build or his abilities on the field that impressed Joseph and the rest of the high school coaching staff.
“He was outstanding [as a] student and on the football field,” Joseph said. “He never missed the weight room or missed a workout in the offseason. He was always holding his teammates accountable. It was a natural thing for us as coaches to say, ‘Hey, this is our leader.’”
Manora’s ability to lead by example was evident from the start, Joseph said, and the 139th captain in Yale history developed into a more vocal leader by the time he graduated after serving as captain his last two high school seasons.
Vocal leadership was one area in which Manora said he hopes to improve before assuming the captaincy on the field. He pointed to his year on the football team’s Leadership Council, an eight-man body that advises the captain, and his older teammates as sources of experience.
“[Center] Luke Longinotti ’16 taught me a lot about leadership and leading by example, and how, by being a vocal leader, you can accomplish a lot of things,” Manora said. “Being the only starting lineman who was never hurt, he became central piece of the line. He’s a quiet guy, normally, who figured out to be a vocal leader. That, I think, is key to being a good leader.”
But Manora has always had leadership capabilities. Coming off a one-win season in Manora’s junior year of high school, Joseph recalled the opening game of the following season.
In the contest, St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes’ opponent, which was favored to win the game, struck first.
Manora, Joseph said, gathered his team on the sideline and told his teammates that they had all worked too hard to lose the game.
“At that point our whole season turned around when he spoke up and he talked to the team,” Joseph said. “He said, ‘I’m there for you, you have to be there for me.’ We went 6–4 that year, the best record the school had in 10 years.”
Yale football finished its 2015 season with an identical 6–4 record, a step down from 2014’s 8–2 mark. Despite the drop-off, Manora and the rest of the defense made significant strides between the 2014 and 2015 campaigns.
This year, the Bulldogs held opposing teams to 5.2 yards per play and 24.2 points per game, both decreases from last season’s 5.8 yards per play and 29.9 points per game.
Next season, the team looks to improve across the board while rehabilitating the injuries that afflicted the Elis throughout the 2015 season.
“Coach Reno and the training staff have put a good regiment together for getting everyone healthy,” Manora said. “Usually we work out pretty hard and prepare for the upcoming season, but [for] next season we’re doing more yoga and core strengthening. It should be helpful.”
This “preventative rehab” will include advice from former running back Tyler Varga ’15, last season’s Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year and current member of the Indianapolis Colts, Manora said. He also expressed excitement at the possibility of having all his injured teammates return with an additional year of experience under their belts.
At the banquet, head coach Tony Reno, meanwhile, emphasized the unique authority that comes from being elected by one’s teammates.
“This vote was done solely by the players,” Reno said. “It’s the highest honor you can receive outside of Leadership Council.”
Team 144 started its offseason regimen Tuesday morning, a little more than nine months before kicking off its season.