NEW ORLEANS — Mario Manningham hobbled into the Superdome stands on crutches and found an out-of-the-way seat to watch his San Francisco teammates go through media day frenzy on the field below, his emotions mixed.
It’s been nearly two weeks since the 49ers wide receiver underwent reconstructive surgery on his left knee and almost a year since he made the catch of his life in the New York Giants’ Super Bowl victory.
Manningham — a Warren native and Warren Harding High School graduate — hoped to be playing on the New Orleans turf Sunday, when the 49ers face the Baltimore Ravens in the franchise’s first Super Bowl in 18 years and with a perfect 5-0 championship record to protect. Instead, the soft-spoken wideout could win another ring, this time as a spectator.
“Possibility,” he said of capturing back-to-back titles. “This is different for me right now. I’m not down, I just wish I could help my team. You’re never down. It’s not bitterness. It’s not like I did something for me not to be out there. I’m not out there because of injury.”
Yet this is hardly how Manningham envisioned it when he left the Giants and headed out West to play for Jim Harbaugh and the team he helped beat in last year’s NFC championship game.
He did his very best not to sound glum. The crutches and bulky knee brace said it for him Tuesday morning.
As much as Manningham wants to be out there to help the NFC champion Niners (13-4-1) this weekend in the Big Easy, he realizes it’s rare enough just to return to the NFL’s showcase in consecutive years — with different teams.
That’s something special to take from this unique Super Bowl experience.
“I don’t think that’s by coincidence,” fellow injured wide receiver Kyle Williams said. “Mario’s a great player. Any team that he gets on he’s instantly going to make better.”
While having the appreciation of his teammates sure helps, that doesn’t make it easier now. Not after that spectacular over-the-shoulder 38-yard catch between two defenders in which he managed to stay inbounds to start the game-winning, 88-yard touchdown drive in last season’s 21-17 Super Bowl victory against New England.
The reception highlighted a five-catch day for 73 yards. Manningham also caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from Eli Manning with 8:34 remaining in regulation of the NFC title game to help New York reach the Super Bowl — beating the 49ers 20-17 in overtime on their home field of Candlestick Park.
All the big plays from his memorable 2012 postseason are still plenty fresh.
“I think about it,” Manningham said. “Good thing I got a chance to come back. There aren’t too many players who leave one team and go back the next year.”
The 26-year-old Manningham had 39 catches for 523 yards and four touchdowns last year before leaving New York. He made 42 receptions for 449 yards and one touchdown in 12 games and 10 starts this season, his fifth in the NFL.
“Mario Manningham has his fingerprints all over our success, as do a lot of people,” Harbaugh said. “The players on our team, this is a shared thing. Everybody doing a little adds up to a lot.”
Manningham and Randy Moss joined the 49ers in the same week last March, significant upgrades by general manager Trent Baalke to a receiving corps that had just one catch for 3 yards in the 2012 NFC championship game.
His plan is to watch Sunday standing up, while keeping pressure off his knee. Manningham said there’s no way could possibly sit down through a Super Bowl, even if his healing knee would be better for it.
“I’m going to be alright,” he said. “Injuries are part of the game, I’m not mad. I wish I was playing. Everything happens for a reason.”
Manningham hurt his knee in a 42-13 loss at Seattle on Dec. 23, tearing the anterior cruciate and posterior cruciate ligaments.
For now, he will offer up any insight he can for those teammates who haven’t been to a Super Bowl — which is most of them.
“I know it’s a big stage. We’re going to treat it like it’s just another game,” Manningham said. “I just tell them don’t worry about the crowd. Don’t worry about the crowd, because you are the only game that’s going to be watched on Sunday, so there will be people watching and you’re going to hear everything. You’re going to see flashes and stuff. Just don’t worry about it. Just go out there and play.”
For Manningham, getting back on the field — the goal is in time for the 2013 opener — is all about baby steps. Literally.
“It’s going good. I started light walking on there a couple days ago,” he said. “Just trying to get stronger and come down here and root for my team.”
He typically uses just one crutch, but brought two for this trip considering how much he’ll be moving around.
Next up in his rehab: wiggling his toes and doing quadriceps raises.
“That’s the only thing I can do right now,” he said.
That, and hope for one more sparkly souvenir championship ring.
“I know that my team is going to win it,” Manningham said. “I would be wrong if I said they weren’t.”