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LaMantia A&M's main 12th Man

Oakland Tribune,  Dec 27, 2006  by Jay HeaterSTAFF

SAN DIEGO -- Traditions are nice, but nothing sustains a program like winning.

So when Texas A&M; lines up to kick off against Cal on Thursday evening in the Holiday Bowl, don't be surprised if Nick LaMantia is wearing No.12 for the Aggies.

At A&M;, home of the 12th Man, the No.12 is handed out each game to a walk-on player whose determination and hard work lands him a spot on the kickoff team.

LaMantia, a sophomore linebacker out of Mission, Texas, has worn his assigned No. 55 only twice this season. The other10 games, he wore No. 12.

"Of course, I want to wear the number every game," said LaMantia, a 6-foot-1, 215-pounder. "You want to hold on to it as long as you can. It shows that you have heart and grit. It shows that you are willing to give everything that you've got. It shows that you have earned the coaches' respect."

Aggies coach Dennis Franchione loves traditions, but he also realizes he is living in a different world than the one Jackie Sherrill occupied back in 1983 when he started the all-walk-on kickoff team at Texas A&M.;

Sherrill, who coached A&M; from 1982-1988, was so inspired by his student body while helping them construct that Aggie Bonfire that he decided to form his non-scholarship kickoff team.

That team never allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown while Sherrill was in charge.

Over the years, coaches have put more emphasis on special teams and have devoted much more talent to those squads in order to produce a game-breaking play.

Once Sherrill left and R.C. Slocum took over, the non- scholarship players started to slip off the kickoff team, which eventually fell into its current form, where one player is honored with the No.12 and a spot on the team.

Franchione said he loves Sherrill's idea, but traveling restrictions make it tough to take non-scholarship players on the road. He does, however, keep an all-walk-on kickoff team ready to play and said he has used that unit three times this season.

"I think one of the great things about Texas A&M; is that we're home of the 12th Man and every one of (the walk-ons) would like to wear No.12 sometime during his career," Franchione said. "That makes all of our walk-ons purposeful about coming out and doing a good job and that helps your football team all the way around."

No one has been more purposeful than LaMantia, who is listed as a third-string linebacker. "Everyone wants to wear the No.12," said LaMantia, who added Franchione probably will announce today who is wearing No.12 in the Holiday Bowl. "It's the first thing our fans notice when we come on the field. They don't know who is wearing it, but they know what it means."

The story of the 12th Man goes back to January 1922 when Texas A&M; was facing Centre College in the Dixie Classic in Dallas. E. King Gill, who doubled as a football and basketball player, wasn't going to participate in the Dixie Classic because basketball had begun.

Gill attended the game, but sat in the press box. Legend goes that coach Dana Bible called Gill down to the field after several injuries left the Aggies shorthanded. He changed into one of the injured player's uniforms under the stands and was ready to go, but was never sent into the game.

However, the thought of someone in the stands being able to help the program was born.

Sherrill's kickoff team built on that tradition. "My older brother, Michael, was a walk-on here," LaMantia said. "He never got to wear No. 12. I feel very fortunate. I will bring this up to my kids as long as there is a breath in my body."

Franchione has allowed only one other walk-on to experience that feeling this season. In the two games that LaMantia didn't wear No.12, his roommate, senior linebacker Nathan Haile, earned the reward. Talk about keeping an honor in house.

Haile, a senior, wore the No.12 in the Army contest and in the Aggies' final home game on Nov. 11 against Nebraska. "It's the biggest honor you could have," he said. "It meant so much to me."

Unlike LaMantia, who is a regular member of A&M;'s kickoff and kickoff return teams, Haile said the honor is different for him.

"It means I am going to play," he said.

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