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Manning the man on opening kickoff
By Joe Aguilar | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 12/12/2008 12:25 AM

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Danieal Manning is freaky fast.

Runs fast.

Starts fast.

The latter certainly has proven out in the last week.

The Bears' third-year safety returned an interception 42 yards on the third snap from scrimmage against Jacksonville on Sunday, setting up Kyle Orton's short touchdown pass to Desmond Clark and providing an immediate impetus for a team in a must-win game.

The Bears went on to capture a 23-10 victory.

Manning needed even less time to make an impact Thursday night against New Orleans at Soldier Field.

He fielded the game's opening kickoff at the 17-yard line, burst up the middle, made a couple of quick cuts and didn't stop sprinting until he reached the end zone, again providing an instant spark for a Bears team knowing a loss would all but officially end its playoff hopes.

"I don't believe I was touched," Manning said. "That has to go to great blocking. All I had to do was beat the kicker. Once I beat him, I knew it was over."

Manning's 83-yard return was his first NFL touchdown.

It was the first time a Bears player returned the opening kickoff of a regular-season game for a TD since Ron Smith in 1972. Devin Hester pulled off the feat in Super Bowl XLI.

Manning started celebrating 50 yards in advance, raising his left arm in triumph after deking and then speeding past kicker Garrett Hartley, who was the Saints' last line of defense.

With no one near him, Manning pumped his free arm again around the 25, finally strutting into the end zone with just 12 ticks off the game clock.

"I was a little excited," Manning said with a sheepish grin of his extremely premature celebration. "I just did the first thing that came to my mind."

"He's been showing signs of being able to break one all the way for a while," coach Lovie Smith said. "We want him to celebrate when he gets in the end zone, but we'll work with that."

Manning, a former Texas high school track star who returned 3 punts and 3 kickoffs for touchdowns in college at Abilene Christian, showed off his kick-return talents again in the second quarter.

His 52-yard kickoff return, after New Orleans pulled even at 7-7, gave the Bears the football at the Saints' 41.

Four plays later Matt Forte burst in from the 1 to put the Bears back on top.

By early in the fourth quarter, the Saints were giving Manning the Hester treatment, squib-kicking after a Hartley field goal from 30 yards out pulled the visitors within 21-17.

So while Hester has yet to return either a kickoff or punt for a touchdown this season, and has clearly not played at the Pro Bowl-level he has the last two years, despite catching 4 more passes against New Orleans to give him 43 receptions, the Bears' return game - at least on kickoffs - hasn't suffered.

Credit goes to Manning, the other burner the Bears drafted in the second round in 2006 (42nd overall, 15 picks before Hester).

Manning entered Thursday night's game with a 28-yard average on 21 kickoff returns. His efforts helped Bears prevail 27-24 in overtime thanks to Robbie Gould's 35-yard field goal.

"This (win) means we live to fight another day," Manning said. "And also we put a little pressure on Minnesota."