He’s just a kid. In hi-def, under the bright lights, the TV makeup couldn’t hide that his face is breaking out. He looked slim and small in his suit, like he was headed to the prom. He apologized to his grandma for all the things he broke at her house growing up.
Johnny Manziel was 19 years old at the beginning of the week, he is playing his first season of college football, and Saturday night he won the Heisman Trophy.
It was the right call. Manziel had one of the greatest seasons in college football history. He broke Cam Newton’s SEC record for total yards in a season. He broke Archie Manning’s SEC record for total yards in a game. Then he broke that record again. His highlight reel could run an hour. He led Texas A&M to a 10-2 record and that breathtaking win over Alabama. And he’s a freshman. A kid.
But you know what? They’re all just kids. Runner-up Manti Te’o, the linebacker from Notre Dame, said he hears the NFL is great but “college football is pure.” Third-place finisher Collin Klein, the QB from Kansas State, blushed when ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi asked him if waiting for the Heisman announcement made him as nervous as his wedding day. Because Klein had never been kissed until he kissed his bride.
We forget that when we talk about college football, because the players are so big and strong. But they’re not hard, not yet. A.J. McCarron sobbed on the sidelines last month after leading Alabama on their game-winning drive against LSU. Army quarterback Trent Steelman wept Saturday after he lost his fourth, and last, chance to beat Navy.
Old men run the booster clubs and grown folks run the athletic departments, and the stadiums are filled with fans who have owned their tickets for decades. But on the field, it’s kids. The most physically and mentally ready now leave early for the NFL. So we take all this pressure and passion, all this media doubt and message-board fury, and we stack it on the shoulders of college students who, in just about any other business, would be summer interns.
Maybe this is part of the reason we love college football – in a sense, it’s frozen in time. As the Matthew McConaughey character in “Dazed and Confused” says about high-school girls: I get older, they stay the same age.
Of course, some Heisman winners become NFL stars. But a lot of them don’t. Watching the ceremony show felt like running into long-lost cousins at a family reunion. Johnny Rodgers! How you been? Ty Detmer! Where did you get off to?
Which is another way to say, there’s no telling if this is the first step in Johnny Manziel’s long rise, or if this step is the top.
Time moves so fast. Gray-bearded Earl Campbell didn’t stand with the other Heisman winners -- his body’s too broken to stand that long. Doug Flutie bent slow and stiff to sit after he got up to give tribute to Manziel. Wasn’t it just last week that he launched that bomb to Gerard Phelan? It was not. It happened before any of these Heisman finalists were born. Doug Flutie turned 50 this year.
There’s that little gap in all our lives, but especially in athletes’ lives, between breaking things at Grandma’s house and having your knees crackle every time you sit down. It’s such a short time. And so Saturday night I found myself not wanting them to announce who won the Heisman, because life on pause is so sweet and calm, and once you hit play you can’t go back.
But they hit play anyway, and Johnny Manziel looked down at the ground when they said his name. Then he got up to accept his trophy.
He thanked God and his parents and his coaches and his offensive linemen. He got choked up when he talked about a teammate who died last year. And then he went around and shook the hands of all the former winners, every one a Johnny Football of one kind or another, some of them pro Hall of Famers, some who were never better than their college years. They lined up like a series of doors, like alternative realities, and every one is open right now to Johnny Manziel. He’s the Heisman Trophy winner. But he’s just a kid.
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Questions? Comments? Challenges? Taunts? You can reach me at email@example.com or on Twitter @tommytomlinson. I’m still loopy from looking at Mike Rozier’s suit jacket – plaid on top, solid on bottom. I assume he has another just like it, but in reverse.