COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Johnny Manziel certainly has the statistics worthy of a Heisman Trophy winner. He plays in the powerful Southeastern Conference. He has a signature win – all things Heisman voters typically look for.
The only question is whether the voters will give the award to a freshman for the first time.
Adrian Peterson, running back for the Vikings and the only freshman to finish second in voting, is hoping the jinx ends Saturday.
“Hopefully they don’t rob him like they did me,” Peterson, who lost by 328 votes to junior Matt Leinart in 2004, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I hope he wins.”
Manziel may a favorite this year, but who knows? Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein and Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o are the other finalists and both can make strong cases, too. But neither caught the attention of the fans quite like Johnny Football, who led the Aggies to an upset of off No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Manziel accumulated 4,600 yards of total offense in 12 games to break the Southeastern Conference record for total yards in a season. The record was previously held by 2010 Heisman winner Cam Newton, who needed 14 games to pile up 4,327 yards.
The Aggies, who went 10-2 in their first season in the SEC after moving from the Big 12, certainly hope Manziel is the one to finally break the freshman curse.
He would also be just the second Aggie to win the award and the first since John David Crow in 1957. Crow got a push from his famous coach before the voting was done that season.
“If John David Crow doesn’t win the Heisman Trophy,” then-A&M coach Paul “Bear” Bryant said, “they ought to stop giving it.”
Manziel’s whirlwind season had a modest beginning with him having to beat out two other quarterbacks to win the starting position in mid-August.
As his numbers grew, so did the legend of Johnny Football, a nickname Aggies bestowed him with as he settled in at College Station. When the Aggies beat the defending champion Crimson Tide on national television behind an outstanding performance by Manziel, the phrase seemed to be everywhere.
“I don’t know if I really see it as a legend,” he said. “It’s more of a folk tale, I guess.”
His numbers alone seem like the stuff of some exaggerated Texas football folk tale. He has thrown for 3,419 yards and 24 touchdowns and run for 1,181 yards and 19 more scores to become the first freshman, first SEC player and fifth player overall to throw for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 in a season.
The improvisation is what really sets him apart. Manziel has a knack for evading defenders, staying on his feet and finishing plays that seem impossible. Kind of like Robert Griffin III, the Baylor star who won the Heisman last year.
“I don’t think there’s many people in this world that could do some of the things he did,” Crow said. “He was born to run around back there – at least it looks that way to me.”
Manziel was so disappointed when he came out of spring practice as a backup that he enlisted the help of quarterback guru George Whitfield to refine his skills this summer. He spent a week at Whitfield Athletix in San Diego, training up to five hours a day with Whitfield, who has worked with scores of players including Newton, Vince Young and Andrew Luck.
Whitfield was struck by Manziel’s competitiveness and his desire to soak up every bit of knowledge that the coach had for not just him, but all of the quarterbacks in training.
Whitfield said the only other quarterback he’s seen who can improvise like Manziel is Newton. But he said the 6-foot-1 Manziel might be tougher to deal with than the 6-5 Newton.
“Cam poses a lot of problems because he’s so imposing,” Whitfield said. “Johnny, on the other hand, causes as many problems and it’s more overwhelming to defensive players because they think: ‘If I can just catch him, I can get him on the ground.’ But you can’t get him.”
He’s enjoyed watching Manziel develop this season, and saw some flashes of what he could be when the pair worked this summer.
“He’s got this great sense of awareness and vision. He’s so creative,” said Whitfield, who then offered a James Bond analogy. “There’s always some kind of 007 escape route in mind. If Cam is Superman, I would say that Johnny is like 007.”
Growing up in Kerrville, Texas, Manziel didn’t dream of football stardom. He always pictured his path leading to a baseball diamond.
“I always thought since I was a little kid that I would play pro baseball,” said Manziel, who also starred on his high school baseball team. “My biggest dream was that I wanted to play in the MLB. I wanted to play for the Rangers and wanted to play shortstop.”
But fate stepped in and altered his dream.
“Then football came along and took center stage,” he said.
Manziel’s success on the field seems almost too good to be true. And when he rescued a kitten from the middle of a busy, four-lane road near Kyle Field earlier this season, it only added to the mystique of Johnny Football. (The semi-daring rescue is referenced on his Heisman page.)
“Just rescued a kitten from the middle of Wellborn Rd,” Manziel tweeted in September when he wasn’t allowed to talk to the media because of coach Kevin Sumlin’s ban on freshmen interviews. He added a picture of a scared-looking black cat to prove his story.
Things haven’t always been rosy for Manziel. In June, he was arrested in town after police said he was involved in a fight and produced a fake ID. He was charged with disorderly conduct and two other misdemeanors.
“It was a critical mistake in my life,” Manziel said. “It was something that I learned a lot from. It had consequences with coach Sumlin and my teammates and everyone here in Aggieland. From that I’ve had to make changes in my life.”
Less than six months after his arrest, Manziel has helped the Aggies to their best season since 1998, and made Texas A&M one of the top teams in the nation after last year’s disappointing 7-6 finish.
He’s proud to have helped put the Aggies back in the spotlight and knows winning the Heisman would only add to it.
“To bring a Heisman Trophy back to Aggieland for all these fans since it’s been so all these years since we’ve had a Heisman Trophy winner ... to really bring the excitement and really bring something positive back to Aggieland would be something that is truly an ultimate goal,” he said.
He’s got a fan in Peterson, who ran for an NCAA freshman record 1,925 yards at Oklahoma in 2004 and believes the only reason he didn’t win the Heisman was because he was a first-year player.
“It’s sad when you think about it, because the Heisman goes to the best player in the country so the voters shouldn’t look at it and go over what they’ve done over their career,” Peterson said. “If he’s the best player that year? Then that’s what it needs to be.”