Set them cheek by jowl, the I way a photographer has done today, and the identical-twin football players put together quite an unbroken swath of eyebrow, from Sean Manuel's right temple, over the bridges of two noses, to Sam Manuel's left. This is rich material for any portraitist, yet the photographer wants more. He tells the brothers that in a few days, when they will play against each other for the first time in their lives, "I'll need you on the pitch in your kit."
The unibrow pops, and only after someone supplies subtitles—"pitch" is field, "kit" is uniform—does it return to home. The Manuels have been playing across the pond, you see, in the recently completed season of the NFL's Europe League, Sam for the Scottish Claymores and Sean for the England Monarchs. Ringers from the States and ringers for each other, they have matching desires to get back to any team in the mother league, where they both once were.
Yet it would be a mistake to regard Sam and Sean as the same, though each stands 6' ", weighs 240-odd pounds and majored in psychology at New Mexico State. Sam, an outside linebacker, is on defense. He's analytical and deliberate, like his dad, Samuel, a World War II veteran who worked as a physical therapist in El So-brante, Calif., before leukemia killed him in 1982, when his boys were nine.
Sean, a tight end, is on offense. He's passionate and impulsive, like his mom, the former Francine Catolico. A physical therapist too, Francine fell in love with Samuel even though their interracial marriage would cause her to be shunned by several of her Sicilian-American uncles.
Francine sent the twins off to camp during that summer 16 years ago when her husband, whom everyone called Buddy, was ill. She wanted to spare her sons the anguish of watching him slip away. When she showed up at camp with the news of his death, each took it after his own fashion. Sam ran off to be by himself and then broke down. Sean dissolved on the spot.
Still, people confuse the one with the other. Sometimes even the twins confuse themselves. The photographer produces a Polaroid shot, this one of them in profile, nose-to-nose. "Which one's you?" Sam asks Sean.
"Just don't mix our names together," he adds. "That would be Sham" and Sham would get each of these two terribly wrong.
We're in Birmingham- Birmingham, Ala. It's three years ago. Spring break is over, and the Manuels, vacuum-packed into a rented Geo, are pulling into the airport for a flight back to college, where they're finishing their senior years. The cell phone rings. The San Francisco 49ers are calling with word that they've chosen Sean in the seventh round of the draft, as the 239th pick. "I didn't celebrate just yet," Sean says.
Not a half hour later, at the gate waiting to board, their phone rings again. "It's the Niners, wanting to know if they can speak to my brother," Sean recalls. "They tell him he's the last pick of the draft, Number 254." Sean, born first by several minutes, is drafted first by a few more. He and Sam hardly need a plane to fly back to campus.
It seems fantastical, although not much more so than the story the Manuels had lived out to that point. Going back to Pop Warner, they had always played on the same team, lived under the same roof, shared the same bedroom. In virtually all-white El Sobrante, other kids weren't quick to accept them and often goaded them into fights. Yet the Manuel boys weren't fully embraced when they encountered blacks, either. Even when they paid visits to their father's family in rural Forest, Miss., something about the twins—the way they talked, their suburban demeanor, those Catolico eyebrows—betrayed their differentness. So they found themselves turning to each other even more. "We understood each other, even if we weren't understood by anybody else," Sam says.