Jacksonville super
enough for Manuwai

The former UH guard is spending
the week defending his home

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. » Celebrities including SpongeBob SquarePants and Brooke Burke are in town this week for the pre-Super Bowl parties. We'll let you guess who is entertaining young fans at the NFL Experience, and who is helping host a soirŽe featuring Playboy Playmates at a spot called "Plush" (Hot rumor: T.O. is expected to attend).

Somewhere in the middle of all of it, Jaguars guard Vince Manuwai is making the public appearance scene, too.

"I've been busy pretty much every day this week, going to hospitals, doing clinics," the second-year pro from Farrington High School and the University of Hawaii said. "Some are free, I get paid for some. It's like a second job, but it's fun."

Manuwai is like a lot of the people here who are part of the pregame hype, but once the action starts Sunday, they won't be seated in Alltel Stadium. NFL players get free tickets, but Manuwai decided he'll watch the Eagles and Patriots at home and now, home doesn't necessarily mean Kalihi. Manuwai bought a house here, a nice five-bedroom, 3,100-square-foot abode that fits his growing family well; Jaime just gave birth to their fourth child, Ta'imua, six months ago.

Last night, Manuwai braved the elements -- a pesky, chilly rain that peppered North Florida most of the evening -- to have dinner at one of his favorite eateries.

The restaurant's name, "Kanji," sounds like that of a place you might find at Restaurant Row, not in the land of a Waffle House every four blocks.

"Very good Japanese food. There are a lot of good restaurants here," Manuwai said. "People need to give Jacksonville a chance."

Manuwai doesn't really care what people write about, but he is aware that many stories coming out of here this week are of the basic theme "The City of Jacksonville Sucks." And he thinks it's unfair.

"There are worse places you can end up at. This is the first time the Super Bowl is here, and not everything is going to be perfect the first time around. And no one can control the weather," he said.

Manuwai said Jacksonville has grown on him. When he was a rookie, he had a hard time getting used to the weather.

"It'd be 40 degrees, and then the game would be a couple hours later and it'd be 80," he said. "Crazy weather. You can get anything at any time."

This season was a crazy one for Manuwai and the Jaguars. It included Manuwai having what he thought was a dead ball swiped out of his hands by an opponent, and the Jags just barely missing the playoffs. (Not because of Manuwai's miscue; Jacksonville won that game).

"I think we're headed up," he said. "We're becoming the team people want to watch. Our games are always down to the wire. We're exciting."

Fellow starting guard Chris Naeole (Kahuku) and backup running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala (Saint Louis) are also Hawaii high school products.

"It's great having people who understand everything about where you're from as teammates," Manuwai said. Jacksonville doesn't match most people's idea of Florida, that of sunny Miami beaches or the Disney empire in Orlando (which, by the way, many Floridians despise, or begrudgingly accept as an economic necessity the way Hawaii residents view what has become of Waikiki).

Despite its vastness, many people around the country know little about Jacksonville. Some don't even know where it is.

"When I got drafted I thought Jacksonville was in North Carolina," Manuwai said. In some ways, the city belongs to Georgia as much as it does Florida. But it has to be in one state or the other, so it's in Florida. Take the annual Florida-Georgia college football game, played at Alltel Stadium. It is considered a home game for neither team. They had the red state, blue state thing going on way before last year's election. The crowd is split almost exactly down the middle, half wearing blue Gators garb and half in red Dawgs duds. They look like thousands of pieces set up for a bizarre game of Stratego.

That annual war, nicknamed the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, used to be Jacksonville's most consuming sports event. Super Bowl XXXIX was blowing it away before the weekend had even started, much less the game. Last night, thousands of people dealt with horrendous traffic, parked their cars and stood in the rain waiting for shuttle buses to the NFL Experience.

"The Super Bowl is fine, especially for our economy," said Rudy Smith, who directed traffic.

As for the snobby Yankee columnists?

"I'm sure every city undergoes its share of criticism when it hosts the Super Bowl," Smith said. "We were here when they got here, and we'll be here when they leave."

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