Something classic happened in the Johnny Football teleconference on Monday. You might know that Johnny Manziel, the freshman quarterback sensation at Texas A&M who suddenly looks like the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy, has not spoken to the media all year. This is per the policy of Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, who does not want to saddle freshmen with media responsibilities.*
* And, I suspect, does not want to put young players in the position where they might say something dumb and, in some way, hurt the team.
That means that all year long, we have only come to know Johnny Football through his play on the football field. I’m not praising Sumlin’s policy, but I will say that this silence has been strangely refreshing. In this new social world where we live, in the whirlwind of a 24-hour news cycle, we come to know everything about everybody. Everything.
See, I just checked into the Twitter blitz and learned:
1. Shawn Marion likes the Food Network.
2. Josh Sitton announced that for Christmas he wants a supper bowl.
3. LeBron was planning to chill and watch some Knicks-Nets.
4. David Price was taking his parents out for their anniversary.
5. Ryan Anderson was chowing down at Matsuisha, his favorite restaurant.
6. Paul Azinger is ranting some politics.
7. Mark Mulder wants to know why football players who test positive for PEDs go relatively unnoticed while baseball players are tarnished forever.
8. Jason Dufner tells Rickie Fowler, “Don’t touch my stuff.”
9. Martina Navratilova is ranting about the press.
10. And finally, Paul Bissonnette of the Phoenix Coyotes reminded us that eating too much kiwi will, yes, make you constipated.
This -- and so much more – all came within just one hour.
So, yes, in a way it has been nice to only know Johnny Football from images on the field. In a way, it’s been great to see him only as this crazy instant legend who makes preposterous runs and insane improvisations and incredible passes, all of it with this exuberance that makes him seem to pop out of the television screen, 3-D style.
The thing that has struck me about Johnny Football is that every part of him -- right down to the nickname -- seems to come from a different time. He’s this old-fashioned quarterback, the kind that used to make sense years and years ago when defensive linemen didn’t move like bullet trains. Go back some years -- really to that time just before I started watching football -- and you see the NFL was FILLED with guys like Johnny Football, guys like Joe Kapp, Fran Tarkenton, Bobby Douglass, Roger Staubach, Steve Grogan, Greg Landry, Archie Manning, and so on. They would run around, duck under, leap over, pull away, look downfield, fake a pass, duck under again, spin around, cut the other way, look down field again, throw the ball. It was nutty.
Yes there have been a handful of quarterbacks like that the last 20 or so years -- Doug Flutie standing out among them, maybe someone like Charlie Ward -- but mostly that kind of play expired. I think the reason is fairly obvious. Defenders got too athletic. Many of them are faster than the quarterback, even though they weigh 325. Have you ever seen old footage of Tarkenton running around back there? He’s making the same defensive lineman miss three or four times on the same play. It’s fun to watch in the same way that it’s fun to watch old movies where, you realize, the invention of the cell phone would have wrecked the entire plot.
In any case, we never heard Johnny Football talk -- and so we could imagine him being that quarterback from another time. He throws off one leg, then throws off the other. He yanks himself away from this defender, spins out of that one’s grasp, hops two steps to the left, sees an opening, splits through, fakes out two linebackers, and he does all of it with so much exuberance, it’s awesome. I mean, sure, we’ve seen amazing athletes at quarterback in college the last few years -- Cam Newton, Tim Tebow, Michael Vick, JaMarcus Russell, RGIII, Andrew Luck, but there’s something about Johnny Football, something that sets him apart, something hard to put your finger on ...
“What do people say to you on the field?” someone asks Manziel.
““Basically the thing they usually say to me is: ‘You’re really small -- you’re a lot smaller than I thought you were,’” Manziel says.
Right, that’s the difference. He’s small. He’s listed at 6-foot-1, but nobody seems to believe he’s that tall. This is a huge part of the joy of Johnny Football. He’s playing an old-fashioned game in a futuristic time, he’s taking on 2012 with guts, some speed, a pretty good arm and whatever goes on in his head.
“What is going on in your head?” someone asks him.
“Try to score a touchdown,” he says.
Oh, yes, Manziel did speak on Monday for the first time. He did not say anything too earth-shattering, but he did give us a deeper picture of his personality. He grew up in Tyler, Texas, and then moved to Kerrville, Texas. He comes from a family of characters -- The New York Times had a heck of a lot of fun talking with his grandmother. He got into the usual mischief, and he was astonishingly talented in numerous sports, and he put up absurd numbers as a high school quarterback but most of the real power colleges didn’t give him a second glance. Too small. Suspect arm. Plays that old kind of Fran Tarkenton football that just doesn’t work in this new era of football.
Oregon did like him a lot, though -- Oregon’s Chip Kelly doesn’t seem trapped by modern convention -- and he thought about going there. He liked TCU a lot, though he says they never offered him a scholarship. Then there was Texas A&M, and the Aggies did offer him the chance. He signed, redshirted, and then Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman got fired for going 6-6 after some big expectations. Kevin Sumlin came over from Houston with a high-flying offensive gameplan. And Manziel won the starting job.
By then, people were already calling him Johnny Football.
“My feeling is it’s something that’s funny,” Manziel says of the nickname that has helped spark his legend. When someone asks why he thinks it’s funny, he gives one of my favorite sports answers of the year.
He says: “Well, my name is Johnny, and I’ve been playing football since I was 6.”
Well, that is funny.
His first game was against Florida -- with one of the best defenses in the country -- and he actually played very well for a first game. Texas A&M led at halftime. But Manziel couldn’t get the offense moving in the second half, and A&M lost.
The next week, at SMU, he threw four touchdowns and scored two more.
And the Legend of Johnny Football was sweeping the nation. One week later, he threw three touchdown passes and scored twice. Against Arkansas he had one of the plays of the year -- a ridiculous escape act touchdown pass -- which was one of four touchdowns he contributed by throw or run.
So it went. Other than a downer against LSU -- where he threw three interceptions and the Aggies lost by five -- he was amazing pretty much every week. Take away that game, he threw 24 touchdown passes against five interceptions. He scored 19 more touchdowns. He set the SEC total yardage record. And, of course, he was the force behind Texas A&M’s stunning victory over Alabama -- probably the most remarkable victory of the season.
And it isn’t just the numbers -- it’s the stories behind the numbers. He rarely failed to do something ridiculous, something ludicrous, something out of Frank Deford’s “Everybody’s All-American.” He ran down a defender who recovered a fumble at the goal line and forced him to fumble well down the field. He made defenders fall down all year with his fakes and jukes. He and receiver Mike Evans converted a third-and-19 from their own 3-yard line in the fourth quarter against Ole Miss with the Aggies trailing by two scores ... and two plays after that, Manziel scored on an amazing 29-yard touchdown run. And, of course, if Texas A&M’s victory over Alabama is the upset of the year (and I think it is), then Manziel’s bobble, pick-up, run around, find Ryan Swope in the end zone touchdown pass might as well be the play of the year.
Yes, you throw it all together -- a nickname like Johnny Football, a throwback to the 1960s style, an old-fashioned power like Texas A&M, a few ridiculous and wonderful plays -- yep, you have a folk tale in motion.
And then, when he finally talks, he SOUNDS the way Johnny Football should sound.
I mean he says stuff like this: “I see myself as a small-town kid -- I don’t see myself as Johnny Football.”
And this: “I’m going to fight with my full heart every single play, every single game.”
And this: “It’s nice to be able to talk to y’all.”
And, listening to him talk I would have thought it really was another time, and television was black and white, and college kids were swallowing goldfish, and people were still talking about the BMOC, the Big Man on Campus.
Only then, Johnny Football was asked what it would mean to him to win the Heisman.
“Well, it’s something you dream about as a kid,” he began ... and yeah, I knew where that was going, yep, those autumn days in the backyard, with kids around the neighborhood, ol’ Biff and Skeeter, yep, dreaming of playing for Texas A&M and winning the Heisman and marrying the cheerleader and ...
“Well, it’s something you dream about as a kid playing all these NCAA games,” he said.
Oh yeah, he’s 19. He’s not from another time. He grew up playing football VIDEO GAMES. He talks about how he really did dream about winning the Heisman as a freshman because he used to create his own quarterbacks on those games, and they were super-freshmen who wandered into the NCAA and shook up the entire nation. He would make sure those freshmen put up AMAZING numbers, numbers so good that the Heisman people would have no choice but to break with tradition and give the trophy to a freshman.
“So did you invent a quarterback that looked like you?” someone asked him.
“Well,” he said, “I probably made him 6-6, 230 pounds,” he said. “I probably didn’t usually make him my size. I would typically make him look something like Cam Newton.”