Texas A&M doesn’t let its freshman players talk to reporters. The media guide has nothing but high school stats and a bare-bones bio. Johnny Manziel. 6-1, 200. Kerrville, Texas. Son of Michelle and Paul. Business major. Turns 20 next month. Picked the Aggies over Stanford and Oregon. (Can you imagine him at Oregon?)
Actions have to speak. So here’s the action: middle of the first quarter, third and goal at the Alabama 10. Manziel drops back, darts right, is swallowed like Jonah, somehow gets loose. The ball squirts from his hand but he grabs it back, sprinting left. Two defenders chase, but he turns sideways and throws back across his body 25 yards, right into the arms of receiver Ryan Swope, standing by himself in the end zone.
That’s why they call him Johnny Football.
Texas has a lot of songwriters. Some budding Lyle Lovett is surely up early this morning, composing “The Ballad of Johnny Football,” because the kid took the Aggies into Tuscaloosa and beat the top-ranked team in the country. There were seven different times --- I went back and counted -- that I thought Alabama would come back and win. But the Aggies held on, 29-24. And the legend grows.
He threw for 453 and ran for 104 against Arkansas. He threw for 395 and ran for 181 against Louisiana Tech. Against Alabama he had two long runs early as A&M went up 20-0 in the first quarter. Then the Alabama defense held him down almost until the end. But in the fourth, after an Alabama fumble, Manziel took A&M 66 yards on two breathtaking throws: a wheel route down the right sideline to Swope for 42, and a flag route to the left -- the ball arced just over the Alabama defender -- to Malcolme Kennedy for 24 and the score. That made it 29-17, and Alabama never caught up.
“No moment is too big for him,” A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said after the game.
Back in July, at SEC Media Days, Sumlin didn’t even mention Manziel by name. He was the least experienced of three QBs trying to replace Ryan Tannehill, now playing for the Dolphins. But these things can happen all the time in college ball. You’re not trying to dislodge a 12-year veteran, and you’re not playing against any, either. There’s not a whole lot of difference between 19 and 22.
This is why emotion means so much to the game. Last weekend, Alabama dug out of a fourth-quarter hole in front of an LSU crowd straight from Revelations and won the biggest college football game of the season. Coach Nick Saban grinned like a new daddy in the postgame interview. Quarterback A.J. McCarron wept on the bench after leading the go-ahead drive. Even if you just watched from your couch, when it was over you were wrung out and spent.
A team of pros might’ve been able to stoke the fire again on a quick turnaround. A team of college kids -- even a team as great as Alabama -- couldn’t do it. After the game, Saban talked about missed assignments and third-down conversions and straying from the pass-rushing lanes. But pretty soon he got to the heart of it. “I was really concerned about this week,” he said. “We seemed like we were a little bit out of gas.”
You can’t project a football season like Nate Silver projected the election. Every weekend is a van ride down the mountain with burning brakes. Back at SEC Media Days, as Sumlin talked about A&M’s transition from the Big 12, everybody asked him variations of the same question: “You know y’all are going to get crushed in the SEC, right?” The Aggies lost close to Florida and LSU early on, and just took down the team most people thought would win the national title. Ain’t been crushed yet.
(The Tide’s not done yet, either. To get back in the national title mix they’ll have to beat Georgia for the SEC championship, and two in the threesome of Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame will have to lose. But given the season so far, would you bet against it?)
The nature of college sports is that you don’t get to enjoy anyone for long. Players move on to the pros, or head off to more normal lives. Sometimes stars fade right in front of us -- Geno Smith and Matt Barkley will probably play in the NFL, but as college quarterbacks, they’ve already drifted into the agate. So let’s enjoy Johnny Football while we have him. Savor all the scrambles and the pinpoint throws. Appreciate the upset and the young man who led it. Johnny Manziel. Kerrville, Texas. Son of Michelle and Paul. Turns 20 next month.