For those who knew Emmanuel “Manny” Christopher, every interaction was met with a smile.

For as big as his heart was off the field, he was as undersized as a defensive lineman on the Dakota Wesleyan University football team. He developed into one of the Tigers’ best pass rushers, with his positive energy exuded on the field with him screaming toward the DWU faithful after a big play.

It was Manny being Manny.

Christopher, a 2020 DWU graduate, recently died. The DWU football team held a gathering on Monday night for former and current football players.

“The guy was as genuine as they come,” DWU football coach Ross Cimpl said. “He went out of his way to make people feel welcome, to say ‘Hi,’ to give them a wave. He was intentional about that. It was genuine. That’s who he was.”

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An infectious smile

Whether it was during a post-game interview or walking around campus, Christopher’s smile was infectious.

The heart and energy he injected into the DWU defense could be seen wherever he went. Cimpl remembers professors raving about his activity in the business department as an accounting major, and he’d be in the front row of the Corn Palace student section wearing a DWU basketball jersey to cheer on his peers.

He loved football, but equally the schools he represented.

“He was a kid you just gravitated toward. He was a kid our coaching staff gravitated toward. He was a kid our student-athletes gravitated toward,” DWU Athletic Director Jon Hart said. “... Always had a smile on his face, and he was the first to greet you and call you, ‘Mr. Hart.’ He was always the ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, ma’am’ type. He was really professional. He just respected everyone he came into contact with.”

That respect helped him as a leader, along with his athletic gifts that made him an asset on the defensive line.

At Sioux Falls Roosevelt and DWU, he’d be the player on the sidelines giving high-fives and pats on the back after a good play. It wasn’t about him, more so the desire to see his teammates excel and the team continue to get better.

When a player would stop showing up to high school practice, Christopher would find them and say, “Hey, we need you here.” He was coach Kim Nelson’s go-to player when he needed someone to talk to another player.

“He always did that the right way. I really appreciated him for that. I don’t think I told him enough times how much I appreciated that,” Nelson said. “... Manny was always good at talking to his teammates and convincing them to do the right thing. I think sometimes he was frustrated because he found out not all of his teammates cared as much as he did. He never gave up.”

The way he worked and treated others made him loved by his peers. The outpouring support on social media is evidence, as people in-and-out of the program referenced his positive energy, glowing personality, and of course, that smile.

He loved football, but also his teammates. He loved winning, but even after losses, his glass-half-full personality shined.

“Manny’s a competitor. He didn’t like losing,” Cimpl said. “He didn’t like not doing things well, but there was always a silver lining with Manny, in terms of progress he was making as an individual or the team was making.”

An undersized beast

At 5-foot-10, 215 pounds, Nelson said he’ll “never get over how crazy” it is that he lasted four years on the DWU defensive line, let alone becoming a force. He finished his career with 119 tackles, 22 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks.

Nelson saw his enthusiasm during Roosevelt practices, which doubled during game days. Despite being undersized, Cimpl never heard him complain about going up against bigger offensive linemen. He just worked.

“He was undersized, not a great athlete, but a big heart and a huge effort scale that was off the charts,” Nelson said. “Who doesn’t like coaching a kid like that?”

He took in coaching, oftentimes giving credit to Cimpl after a big game, and his work ethic showed on the field. He became an all-Great Plains Athletic Conference honorable mention selection as a junior.

“It’s incredible to me when I look back on it, how many short yardage situations and stops that he made being an undersized, small (lineman),” Cimpl said. “The measurables that he maybe didn’t have, all of a sudden in those situations in the most critical times, that’s where Manny Christopher would show up and make those plays against all odds. In the times the little guy wasn’t supposed to win, Manny would pull those situations out consistently.”

And he made sure the crowd knew it, too. Christopher would yell toward the crowd and wave his arms up and down to give life to a Joe Quintal Field crowd.

“I’m emotional because I love this game,” Christopher once told me after a game during his senior season.

That was evident. And he shared that love with the Roosevelt football team this season as a volunteer assistant coach. Nelson hired him to bring “some juice to our practices.” The plan was to have him help the offensive line, but Christopher wanted more responsibilities.

He’d warm up quarterbacks, run routes and stay after to cover a wide receiver. During 7-on-7 drills, he’d rush the passer, cover someone or even play receiver if needed. He was everywhere, and eventually started helping more with the defensive line. The fire, energy and enthusiasm he brought to practice is what Nelson envisioned.

It was only one season, but he left a lasting impression on the current team.

“He was one of my all-time favorites,” Nelson said. “Even just one year coaching at Roosevelt this past year left a big impression on our players. We met as a team today, and it was a tough half hour. We shared stories about him and talked about him a lot. A lot of hugs and a lot of tears.”

In many regards, he was a natural leader by example and vocally. He proved that during his playing days, and even when he hung up his cleats.

“I think vocally he was a great leader for us. And not only was he a great vocal leader, but he did it with action, too,” Hart said. “He did the right things on the field, the right things in and out of the classroom. He led by example in a lot of regards, too, as much as he led vocally for us. He was always there for his teammates.”

There is a GoFundMe page in honor of Christopher to raise money for funeral and cemetery expenses. The remaining money will go toward supporting the family. There is a goal of $30,000.