WARREN, Ohio If you want to ingratiate yourself to someone from this town 15 miles outside of Youngstown, simply ask about the "Massillon game" and watch their eyes light up like pinwheels.
The game took place Oct. 19, 2002, and it represented deliverance from a decade of dark times for the proud Warren G. Harding High School football program and for a former steel town whose collective mood is determined by the stadium scoreboard.
The hometown hero that night? A skinny sophomore named Mario Manningham, who caught two passes for touchdowns, returned a punt for a touchdown and also scored on a kickoff return against hated rival Massillon Washington, the school from the right side of the tracks that had beaten Harding 54-2 the previous meeting.
The final score this time as chants of "Mario! Mario!" rained from the stands: Harding 31, Massillon 27.
"That was his coming-out party here in Warren," said Paul Trina, the school's athletic director and one-time quarterback. "Just unbelievable. We beat a Massillon team that was supposed to be a state championship team."
Manningham returned this week to his hometown, a short drive from where the 49ers practiced at Youngstown State. While teammates slept at a Holiday Inn early in the week, Manningham went home and spent the night on the street where he grew up.
Friday, he invited the Harding football team to watch the 49ers' final practice before they play the New York Jets on Sunday.
"I know how tough it is to get out of this area," Manningham said. "I want to come back here to give back anything positive to kids or whomever. . They need someone to tell them how it's done and that anything's possible and to stick with their dreams."
It may be tough to get out of Warren, which has seen its steel mills close one by one and its population drop from about 75,000 in the 1970s to a little more than 41,000 today. But Manningham has found it tough to stay away.
Since being drafted by the New York Giants in 2008, he's regularly returned to help run football camps. He's also bought jerseys and cleats for the football team.
In February, he was given the key to the city after his now-famous 38-yard catch helped propel the Giants to a Super Bowl victory.
He also spent a week here last month after his grandfather, Gerald Wayne Simpson, died of a heart attack.
It's hard to put into words what Simpson, a deacon at the local church who was known to everyone in Warren as "Big Daddy," meant to his grandson.
"Lost for words I just lost a man that knows me better than anyone can imagine have mercy on me!!! Rip Big Daddy," Manningham wrote on his Twitter account Aug. 24, the day Simpson died.
By all accounts, Simpson was Manningham's rock. He pushed Manningham in high school. He made regular, seven-hour-round-trip drives to Ann Arbor, Mich., when the wide receiver needed him in college. And he served as Manningham's NFL manager.
"He was the backbone of that family, no question about it," said Steve Arnold, Harding's football coach.
Arnold recalled a scene in the summer of 2002 when Simpson and Manningham's mother dragged the 15-year-old Manningham out of a car and into Simpson's office.
It seemed that young Mario, who wasn't too eager about the sweltering two-a-day practices that awaited him, decided he wanted to drop football and concentrate on basketball.
At the time, Arnold was the school's basketball coach, and he knew it was in his own interest to grant the 160-pound rising sophomore his wish. But Arnold also had watched Manningham score 31 touchdowns for the freshman football team that fall, and he knew Manningham's future, his fortunes and his ticket out of northeastern Ohio were on the gridiron.
After a long back-and-forth with the stubborn Manningham, Arnold attempted a bluff.
"Finally I said, 'Listen, if you don't play football, I'm cutting you from the basketball team,' " he said. "Now, I wasn't going to cut him, but I had to come up with something on the spot."
As Arnold says, "Obviously, the rest is history."