By now most Bills fans are aware that Hall of Famer Bruce Smith is EJ Manuel's godfather. Both grew up in the Tidewater region of Virginia that has produced a bumper crop of professional athletes for a few generations now. Manuel is part of the latest string of NFL caliber talent that keeps streaming from the 757 area code.
That area of Virginia is also known as the seven cities and includes Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk and Virginia Beach. Bills players alone from that region include Smith, Arthur Moats, Keith Goganious and Scott Norwood. Ruben Brown also hailed from Virginia.
Growing up Manuel remembers watching pro athletes that once played on the same fields as he did. He doesn't deny it served as added motivation.
"You see so many athletes from the area, DeAngelo Hall, Kam Chancellor, Allen Iverson in basketball, Michael Vick, Percy Harvin," said Manuel. "You see all those guys excelling as they move on to college and then make it to the NFL, it kind of gives you confidence moving forward and tells you that you can do the same thing."
"We know that we have the potential," said Moats, a Portsmouth native. "The guys we're talking about are or could be Hall of Famers. These are people that have been there and made it. We know we've competed in that same type of atmosphere and that same area."
Bills Assistant GM Doug Whaley says when an area has a track record of talent like the Tidewater region, it only helps younger athletes, provided those that reach the professional level explain what it took to get there.
"I think there's some validity to that because it's a role model and this guy came from where I come from," said Whaley. "Hopefully those guys go back and talk to the next group coming up about the sacrifices they made and work they put in and that's it's not just showing up and making things happen."
Bruce Smith served in that capacity as EJ's godfather, especially when it came to preparing himself for an NFL career.
"He digested the information that I was trying to provide for him, considering I had walked down a similar path," said Smith. "He's done an excellent job of executing while becoming a better person than a football player. This is an incredible man that Jackie and Eric (Manuel) and the rest of his family are extremely proud of and the Hampton Roads area is extremely proud of along with Florida State."
Bills eight-time Pro Bowl guard Ruben Brown cautions however, that gaining the acceptance of the top Virginia athletes that come before you requires some work.
"In Virginia that's a big deal, but you have to earn it," said Brown. "He's still got to do some work. I know my first year with the Bills Bruce didn't say much to me at all. He never befriended me. He said, 'You have to have a season and three games before you're not a rookie.' And Bruce reminded me that second season and I took that as a challenge because I wanted him to notice."
Moats, who graduated high school the same year as fellow Virginia talents as Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor and receiver Percy Harvin, believes the degree of talent and competition from that region is so high that it convinces them they can play at any level.
"For the most part athletically you know if you can come out of there that you can play with anybody," said Moats, who also has a tattoo of Virginia with the area code 757 written inside it on the right side of chest. "I always describe it this way. Texas has all the big guys, Florida has all the fast guys, but we have all the playmakers. There's a lot of versatility in that Tidewater area."
Manuel appears to possess plenty of versatility himself, but he's not counting on the history of his hometown area to contribute to his measure of success in the NFL. He's prepared to make that happen on his own.
"I've just got to go out and learn," he said. "I think that's the best thing I can do as a young guy coming in. I think that's the best way to earn the respect of your teammates. There is a lot of hard work to be done yet."