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The Kevin Manning I knew back in the 1970s loved tennis and the Redskins and fucking with people.
Manning died earlier this year in Florida at 53. By all accounts, he was still in love with all three. In the end, he taught tennis and even played the game at a high level after losing an arm, a lung, and half his tongue to the cancer that finally killed him. He died like he lived: Outrageously.
Manning grew up in Northern Virginia, where he played for Yorktown High School’s 1974 championship tennis team. He ranked among the Mid-Atlantic’s best junior players.
But Manning was a legend for his off-court behaviors.
As a teenager, Manning was Ferris Bueller meets Bluto Blutarsky, a devious kid who did whatever he wanted. He was always on the verge of flunking out, but everybody wanted to be around him.
“The stories about Kevin Manning are endless, and make me laugh ’til I cry,” says Bill Scott, a Yorktown classmate and lifelong friend of Manning’s.
There’s the one about Manning turning the Fort Myer Officers’ Club into a Yorktown hangout. “Kevin just talked his way onto the base somehow, then made sure he got to know all the bartenders,” says Scott. “So you have a bunch of 17-year-olds starting off every Friday night drinking at the Officers’ Club of a major military installation.”
Manning also entertained his friends at the media’s expense. Back when Ken Beatrice was the only sports talk radio host in town—and before the Internet and caller ID—Manning would call into Beatrice’s show. Using a variety of names and voices, he’d exploit the host’s inability to admit he didn’t know something. I remember once hearing a “Sparky from Arlington” tell Beatrice that “this kid Jack Schore just beat McEnroe over in Europe.” The voice was Manning’s. “Sparky” was one of his nom de fucking-with-yous. And Schore was a thirty-something local tennis teacher, not an up-and-coming player, and wasn’t anywhere near Europe or John McEnroe at the time.
Beatrice couldn’t help himself.
“Well, I’ve only seen Schore play once,” he fibbed.
Sure, Ken. Mission accomplished.
Joe Wysor, a Yorktown tennis teammate, remembers Manning showing up as an audience member for “Redskins Sidelines,” Glenn Brenner and Sonny Jurgensen’s weekly football show. The show featured a trivia segment in which a random audience member got a chance to win a prize.
“One night, they picked some woman and ask a question like ‘Who wore number 43 on the Redskins?’ and before she says anything I hear Kevin yell out, ‘Larry Brown!’ or whatever the answer was,” says Wysor. “I remember seeing Glenn and Sonny look at each other like, ‘What do we do now?’ Then Kevin showed up the next week and did the same thing. They threw him out.”
Wysor and Scott attended tennis tournaments with Manning in hopes of watching him, not the professional athletes, perform
“We never paid for anything, not tickets or anything,” says Wysor. “We knew Kevin would talk us in. He’d go to the box office and say we were the Australian or New Zealand Junior Davis Cup team, and he’d have an accent and make up names and next thing you know we’re sitting in a courtside box and getting introduced to the crowd. Or Kevin’s heckling Martina Navratilova from all over the arena, and then he’s flashing a fake media credential and you’re with him at the press conference and he’s making grunting noises to make sure he gets called on and asking crazy questions of [Navratilova] and these big-name players, like ‘Do you think in the course of a week you consume more than 20 Budweisers?’”
One night at Winston’s, the Georgetown underage-imbibing hotbed where I first met Manning, then-President Gerald Ford’s teenage daughter was having a party. Her posse included a slew of Secret Service agents. The agents were on the alert: Ford had been targeted by the Symbionese Liberation Army. But they couldn’t save her from getting punk’d by Manning.
“Kevin convinces the Secret Service that we’re the U.S. Junior Davis Cup team,” says Wysor, “and pretty soon we’re throwing back Budweisers with the president’s daughter and Kevin’s inviting her and the Secret Service to the match he told her we were going to have the next day.”
Such low-level anarchy doesn’t wear well into adulthood, of course. Friends say Manning had trouble after high school, in part because his study habits didn’t include studying. Bad grades prevented him from getting a major tennis scholarship. After dropping out of Flagler College, a Florida school with a strong National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics tennis program, he tried making it on the pro tour. Given Manning’s generous use of performance dis-enhancing substances—specifically Budweiser—it’s no surprise he never reached the upper levels.
Scott, his high school buddy, remembers watching Manning play in a 1982 U.S. Open qualifier. “We’d partied the night before,” says Scott, a former Yorktown and College of William & Mary football captain. “The other guy was a lot better than Kevin, but Kevin stayed in the match by yelling out old Redskins players’ names after every winner, like ‘That’s for Diron Talbert!’ and ‘Billy Kilmer!’ The other guy was totally psyched out by Kevin’s craziness. But Kevin ended up losing in five sets. I think that was the highlight of his career.”
Manning eventually became a teaching pro at tennis clubs and a star on the age-group circuit. He won a 1990 United States Tennis Association doubles title for 30-and-over players and a 2007 world singles title from the United States Professional Tennis Association, a sanctioning body for teaching pros. The peak of his late-blooming tennis career came in 2008, when Manning was named to the U.S. team that competed for the Fred Perry Cup, an international age-group team championship.
But weeks before the squad was to travel to Turkey to compete, Manning went to the doctor complaining of a burning sensation in his mouth. Malignant tumors were causing the pain. He had half his tongue and his lymph nodes removed. He was released from the hospital just eight days before the tournament. He played, helping the U.S. team finish third.
Manning kept playing as the disease spread. He had a chunk of a lung removed, but continued to play in tournaments and give clinics at the Shipwatch Yacht & Tennis Club in Largo, Fl., where he’d moved.
“I’d heard stories about how he was as a kid, that he’d do anything, but I really didn’t know that side of him,” says longtime girlfriend Mary Jane Evertz. “But now, it was like that same guy, somebody who wasn’t going to listen to anybody. He was going to do what he wanted to do, and he wanted to play tennis. He got me to bring his stringing machine to his hospital room so he could work on his racquets, even though that was against the rules. He couldn’t eat because the radiation destroyed his mouth, but he had to play. He’d have food injected into his stomach between matches.”
Manning broke his right arm playing tennis in November 2009. New tumors had caused the fracture. The arm—his playing arm—was amputated last July.
“He went back to work two days after the amputation and was holding clinics hitting balls left-handed,” says Evertz.
After the amputation, Manning called David Eddy, his old coach. There was an upcoming exhibition at Shipwatch featuring top USTA players, guys Manning could hit with back when he had a right arm. He wanted to play.
“Kevin said, ‘I want to do the old workout!,’” says Eddy, who flew down from New York. “So that’s two-and-a-half hours in the morning, two-and-a-half hours in the afternoon, day after day. And we’re doing sets of 150 balls, side to side, all the usual drills. This is a guy who’s missing his tongue and a lung and now an arm, and after each set he’d sort of collapse and lean on his racquet, then say ‘keep feeding me more balls.’”
Manning didn’t tell anybody at Shipwatch that he was preparing for the exhibition, the club’s major event of the winter.
“When Kevin walked out there and played with those guys, played at their level, there weren’t too many dry eyes,” says Todd Whitney, a friend and playing partner in Florida. “It was amazing.”
Word of his fight against cancer got around to the highest levels of tennis. Pam Shriver, a former star on the women’s pro tour, made Manning guest of honor at her annual charity tournament in Baltimore. He posed alongside Shriver, Billie Jean King, and Chris Evert. It’s quite likely that all of them had once been targets of Manning’s teenage heckling.
Manning died at his home in Seminole, Fla., in early May. He’d spent the previous day giving clinics at Shipwatch.
Manning’s childhood friends had said their goodbyes by phone. Manning wanted Scott to tell his dad thanks for hitting balls with him on the courts at Tuckahoe Elementary School when he was nine years old.
“Kevin was special,” says Scott. “There was definitely a Peter Pan thing going on with the guy. You talk to the people down in Florida who saw him at the end, and they talk about him like he’s a god. Pretty cool way to go out.”
I tell Scott that I tried looking up Manning’s career stats on the pro tennis tour. One database lists his record at 0-5.
“Kevin was only 0-5?” he says. “Maybe that’s right. But I’m not so sure he always played under his own name back then. What’s ‘Larry Brown’’s record?”
Read Cheap Seats Daily every weekday at washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk.