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Coming home: Rock Bridge grads prepare for Homecoming game

A trio of Rock Bridge graduates are preparing for a Homecoming unlike any other.

Senior defensive back Martez Manuel, senior running back Nathaniel Peat and fifth-year kickoff specialist Sean Koetting will potentially play their final Homecoming game in a Missouri Tigers uniform Saturday, signaling the beginning of the end for the former Bruins.

Fans will have the opportunity to see the hometown trio when the three of them step onto Faurot Field Saturday afternoon. Their presence will mark yet another milestone in the history of Rock Bridge graduates at MU and will give them an opportunity to cement their legacies in Columbia.

“I just want kids from here to bet on themselves,” Manuel said. “As Columbia kids, we hear so much that you got to be from Kansas City, got to be from St. Louis, got to be from Texas [or] Florida. But a lot of times we pass up on kids that are right in our backyard … Hopefully when they see me, or see my story, [they will] know that I went to the same middle school they did, or same high school. Hopefully, that'll be the motivation they need.”

Together, as Manuel says, they’ve created a legacy of homegrown talent playing at MU.

“We kind [of] just got a little Rock Bridge gang,” Manuel said. “Even Will Norris, Bryce Jackson [is] on the team, Nate Norris is now on the team, so we all have that connection of us experiencing Rock Bridge. It was a really special place to all of us.”

The trio’s hometown Homecoming finale is a story that has been years in the making and will culminate in Saturday afternoon’s 3 p.m. kickoff against Southeastern Conference rival Vanderbilt.

Koetting and Manuel, two of MU’s most veteran players, joined the Tigers in 2017 and 2019, respectively.

The former did not actually play football throughout high school, instead excelling as a standout soccer player. After playing forward and center back for Rock Bridge, the kicker decided to join MU as a placekicker.

The latter earned first-team, all-state and all-district honors as a senior defensive back with the Bruins. A three-star recruit, Manuel received offers from Michigan State University and Iowa State University as well as the Tigers.

Alongside his impactful high school football career, Manuel ran track under Rock Bridge coach Neal Blackburn. The multi-sport athlete finished as a state champion on the 800-meter relay and 1600-meter relay teams, and notched a couple of top-three finishes: second in the 300-meter hurdles and third in the 110-meter hurdles.

The last of the seniors, Peat, chose to attend Stanford for football, where he earned back-to-back Phil Moffat Awards as the nation’s most outstanding special teams player. After leading the Cardinals in rushing yards last season, he transferred back home with a little help from Manuel.

“I was probably the biggest recruiter in his process,” Manuel said. “Even before he got into the portal, and he told me he was having thoughts about it, I was already recruiting him.”

"I just want kids from here to bet on themselves."

For Blackburn, who also coached Peat at Rock Bridge when the tailback notched all-state honors in track for three consecutive years and was a state champion in the 100-meter during the 2018 season, there was little doubt Peat would come back home.

“It was not a surprise at all,” Blackburn said. “I was super pumped when Nate decided to come back, just to have those two guys [Manuel and Peat] join forces. Cause, my gosh, they’ve done a lot of damage on athletic fields and tracks when they’ve been together.”
So far, that damage has continued into 2022.

Peat has 379 rushing yards and two touchdowns, ranking top-15 in the SEC in rushing. The rusher is coming off back-to-back 100-yard performances, including a career-high 117 yards against Florida on Oct. 8.

Manuel, meanwhile, continues to build off his 77-tackle season last year with 24 tackles, one sack and a forced fumble. Arguably his best performance of the season occurred on opening night against Louisiana Tech when Manuel racked up four tackles, including three for losses.

The sights, sounds and feelings of that night provided a glimpse of the past for Manuel, who celebrated one of his first Homecoming games under the lights of Faurot Field in 2019.

"It was a dream come true," Manuel said. “You never really get that feeling back. I’ll speak on Homecoming against Ole Miss because that wasn’t COVID, and we were 4-1 at the time, ranked No. 24 or something and it was a sold out game. That was my first real Mizzou experience.”

The Homecoming experience for Koetting, however, continues to be unique because of the festivities he took part in during his childhood.

“It means a lot to me [and] it’s really exciting,” Koetting said. “I always, growing up, would go to the house decs and do the whole Homecoming shebang. So, it’s super exciting [and] really cool to be a part of it.”

After growing up in Columbia and being a part of the celebration, the trio’s impact has started to extend beyond the football field. Blackburn and Manuel both believe the decision to play at home will serve as inspiration for the next generation of Columbia athletes who dream of playing in a Mizzou uniform.

“I think now that dream is much more of a reality because you have those people in your community who have done this,” Blackburn said.

The Columbia Missourian is a community news organization managed by professional editors and staffed by Missouri School of Journalism students who do the reporting, design, copy editing, information graphics, photography and multimedia.