When Belleville West graduate Travis Manning felt the NCAA Division II national college football championship trophy in his hands, it was like his entire career had been validated.
Manning was the starting strong safety on Northwest Missouri States 15-0 national championship team that knocked off Lenoir-Rhyne 43-28 in the Dec. 21 title game at Florence, Ala.
"As soon as it was my turn and I finally got my hands on the trophy it was like all that hard work I've put in over the years paid off," said Manning, a junior who had eight tackles in the championship game. "That's probably one of most awesome feelings I've had. When we finally hoisted that trophy and the fireworks were going, that was awesome."
Manning was one of two Belleville West graduates who played on national football championship teams this season. The other was linebacker Pierre Gee-Tucker, a freshman linebacker for NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) national champ North Dakota State.
Manning was a redshirt freshman when Northwest Missouri State won its last national title in 2009. The school has won four national championships.
"This year being a starter made it that much more special," said Manning, who plays football and runs track. "We came into the season ranked No. 2 and having that No. 2 rank all the way throughout made it tough.
"We've always been a team people are taking shots at because we've been on that high level for some time."
Manning said facing a triple-option offense like the one he used to see on a daily basis at Belleville West made him realize he would be in position to make a lot of plays in the championship.
"I'm more of a cover guy, but the previous game they didn't have one pass attempt," Manning said. "I figured that was going to be one of my higher tackle games and I tried to do what I could to help my team win. We all just stuck to our reads as far as that goes."
Manning said football has been his priority at Northwest, but he still enjoys running track. It does make his spring schedule a little busier when he has to divide his time between track and spring football workouts.
Manning came a bit late to football, only playing his freshman and senior year at Belleville West.
"(Northwest Missouri) really recruited me more for my athleticism," he said.
Manning has one year of eligibility remaining and has seen time at both safety and cornerback. Manning was sixth on the team with 57 tackles this season and also had three interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
He was an honorable mention All-Missouri Intercollegiate Athletic Conference selection as a sophomore last season.
"My goal for next year is I definitely want to be an All-American and have a chance to play at the next level," said Manning, who also was recruited by Western Illinois and Southeast Missouri. "Northwest allowed me to run track, too, so that was a big part of the decision."
Choosing the right school
Gee-Tucker still has to give his friends geography lessons on finding North Dakota State, located in Fargo, N.D. and is a member of the Missouri Valley Conference with Southern Illinois University Carbondale and others.
But there's no denying the attention that comes from a 15-0 program that won its third straight national championship Saturday with a 35-7 victory over Towson in Frisco, Texas.
"Once I tell them the success we've had, they said 'You're at the right place then," said Gee-Tucker, whose team also has a 24-game winning streak. "It was the same thing with me, but once I realized there weren't as many distractions as at other places, I realized that helps us have as much success as we have."
Gee-Tucker got a lot of playing time earlier this season, then suffered a torn labrum and missed the final few games. He dressed for the title game, but did not get to play and finished with six tackles in eight games.
"It was really emotional," Gee-Tucker said. "Since I was 4 years old and first started playing football, I used to watch it on TV and dreamed of myself being on the field and holding up the trophy. Being able to do something like this on the national stage my freshman year is just overwhelming."
Gee-Tucker injured his shoulder against Missouri State, then decided to have surgery to help him get ready for spring football.
"I got a lot of playing time early," said Gee-Tucker ,who hopes to resume weight lifting in February and be cleared for contact in early March. "It was real humbling and I really learned a lot."