Johnny Manziel’s debut season at Texas A&M defies conventional football wisdom. His run into the records book, and likely onto the stage to accept the 2012 edition of the Heisman Trophy is so improbable, it even defies what Manziel himself dreamed when chasing gridiron glory in the cyber world.
“I created a 6-foot-6, 230-pound player [when playing the EA Sports NCAA Football franchise],” Manziel said. “I didn’t make [a create-a-player] my size. I would make him look more like Cam Newton.”
Six-foot and 200 pounds after a Thanksgiving meal, Manziel may not match the size of the 2010 Heisman winner Newton. But the Aggie redshirt freshman quarterback is bigger than Newton in one notable area: SEC records. In A&M’s regular season finale rout of Missouri, Manziel passed Newton for most total yardage with 4600. And Manziel needed only 12 games to break the record Newton set in 14.
The virtual version of Manziel may have been the prototypical quarterback, but he patterned his real-life style after much different players.
“I wanted to be Michael Vick,” he said. “Run circles around the defense, then step up in the pocket and throw 70 yards.”
Another quarterback Manziel took inspiration from was former Boston College great Doug Flutie. The similarities to draw between Flutie and Manziel are apparent, as both played well above their physical stature. Manziel will likely join Flutie as a Heisman winner.
Manziel’s legend has also outgrown his frame. Johnny Football is certainly video game-like on the field, passing for 3419 yards on 68.3 percent completions with 24 touchdowns, and rushing for 1181 yards with 19 more scores. The Johnny Football mythos erupted when the freshman marched into No. 1 Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium and punched the Crimson Tide in the trunk on Nov. 10.
“This season’s been surreal,” he said. “Beyond my wildest expectations.”
Adding to his lore has been the mystery about him. Manziel was not available to media until Monday, when head coach Kevin Sumlin lifted the proverbial gag order.
“I respect coach Sumlin’s policy,” Manziel said. “I didn’t know when I was going to get to talk to [the media]. It’s nice to let you know who I am.”
Not since Tim Tebow in his Heisman-winning sophomore season has a player’s reputation reached such transcendent proportions. The difference between Manziel now and Tebow in 2007, though, is the nation anticipated Tebow’s supernova-like eruption. He was an integral weapon in Florida’s national championship run the season before, and his first full season as the Gator starter was anxiously awaited.
Just over three months ago, Manziel was a Kerrville kid with zero collegiate game experience, called into offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury’s office after practice. He was in competition with Jameill Showers to take over the starting quarterback job first round NFL Draft pick Ryan Tannehill vacated. Many considered Showers the front runner.
“I thought we were going to go over that day’s practice,” Manziel said. “The excitement…it’s a dream come true, starting for any Div. I college let alone Texas A&M University.”
Kingsbury informed Manziel that the freshman would get the starting nod for the Aggies’ season opener against Louisiana Tech, though the debut was delayed until the Florida game in Week 2 because of Hurricane Isaac.
College GameDay was in College Station, Texas A&M was making its SEC debut, and Will Muschamp was bringing in a defense that has since ranked among the nation’s best. Talk about a pressure-packed introduction to college football.
Manziel went 23-30 through the air, rushed for a team-leading 60 yards and scored a touchdown. But he also saw a 17-10 halftime lead evaporate, unable to lead a second half scoring drive in a 20-17 loss. The Gators made for a fitting welcome committee, providing that much ballyhooed SEC speed.
“[Florida has] great linebackers, a great secondary…that’s a recipe for success,” Manziel said. “The linebackers have unique speed. They give you no wiggle room.”
That first taste of the SEC gave Manziel and the rest of the Aggies a gauge of what was needed to succeed in the league. Texas A&M has built from its opener to no just fit into the conference, but flourish. This season’s 10 wins are the program’s most since 1998.
Skeptics dismissed A&M’s ability to integrate into the conference so quickly, with first-year head coach Sumlin introducing a spread offense.
“I heard plenty about what we couldn’t do [in the SEC],” Manziel said. “It was something I heard, and plenty of others on the team heard.”
Those critiques turned to commendations around the time Manziel hooked up with Ryan Swope for the 11th time against the celebrated Alabama defense. Manziel’s dual threat style, a talented receiving corps with Swope and Malcome Kennedy, and what the quarterback called the best offensive line in the nation have defied expectations.
“Each week, the offense continues to grow,” Manziel said. He cited his early play, like the loss against Florida, as vital to the team’s maturation. “Against South Carolina State, coach Kingsbury would say ‘great run, but you could have done this.’ That made me watch film more.”
It’s been a long road from September to the end of a regular season with Manziel on top of the football world. The Aggies have faced no shortages of challenges on the field, including a late deficit and six turnovers at Ole Miss.
“I’d like to see the statistics on how many times a team turns it over six times and wins,” he said, lamenting his performance in the 30-27 decision.
Keeping perspective on those performances that weren’t so Heisman-worthy will fuel Manziel’s growth through the rest of his career. And that’s a striking realization to come to when talking about Johnny Football — he’s still just a redshirt freshman, and teenager to boot. Manziel won’t turn 20 until Dec. 6.
Sumlin praised his quarterback for determination developed beyond his 19 years.
“He’s a tremendous leader. You really don’t see that from a freshman,” Sumlin said. “Leadership on and off the field.”
Off-field leadership this season is a part of the maturation process, mirroring his growth as a football player. Manziel made headlines of a much more dubious nature in the summer when he was arrested for presenting police with a fake ID after a fight that allegedly started after Manziel’s friend used a racial slur.
A stone-faced Manziel was pictured shirtless in his mugshot, and his police report described him slurring his speech. Former Florida State quarterback Chris Rix posted a since-deleted tweet calling Manziel’s character into question:
Sources have told me that Manziel is a ‘ticking time bomb’ and will eventually blow up off of the field. I really hope not for his sake.
Whether the result of youthful indiscretion or otherwise, Johnny Football paid the penalty for his run-in with Johnny Law. Part of the maturation process is learning from mistakes. Manziel did so on the field by studying game tape and taking the suggestions of Kingsbury and Sumlin to heart. Doing so off it is the challenge every young man and woman who enrolls in college faces.
Now is the time for Manziel to grow, something he said he recognizes: “I’m becoming more of a home body,” he said. But sometimes, kids will still be kids. The Halloween night Manziel embarked on in a full Scooby Doo costume became an internet sensation. For him, it was a fun diversion from the rigors of commanding national headlines.
“Some of the guys wanted to get away from the grind and be kids again,” he said.
America knows him as Johnny Football. He sees himself as Johnathan Manziel, the kid from Kerrville. Whichever he is, he’s broken the quarterback mold. And somewhere in this country, a young boy is creating a 6-foot, barely 200-pound quarterback to win the Heisman on NCAA Football.