- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
NEW YORK -- One year ago, Johnny Manziel had spent a year at Texas A&M, still hadn't played a down and found himself without a coach. Texas A&M had fired Mike Sherman, the head coach for whom Manziel had turned down Oregon and Stanford, as well as his staff.
"It was heartbreaking to see them go," Manziel said. "For me, that was a tough time."
Nearly six months ago, Manziel spent a night in jail, arrested in the wee hours of a Friday morning and charged with three misdemeanors arising out of a fight outside a College Station bar.
"There was a time when I didn't really know where I was going to go from there," Manziel said. "My fate was kind of up in the air."
It would be fair and woefully inadequate to say that Manziel began this season as an unproven commodity. The uncertain player of last winter, the immature teenager of last summer, stood on the stage of the Best Buy Theater on Saturday night, holding the most recognizable individual award in American sports.
"Never," Manziel said Saturday night, two days after his 20th birthday, when asked if ever thought he would win the Heisman Trophy. "I mean, it's always a dream. You dream about being in New York and hoisting the Heisman Trophy. But for it to become a reality and me to even be here, it's crazy."
Johnny Football became the first first-year player to win the Heisman, winning by a solid margin over Notre Dame senior linebacker Manti Te'o. Manziel received 474 first-place votes and 2,029 points. Te'o, with 321 first-place votes, received 1,706 points, the most ever by a defensive player. Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein finished a distant third.
Since the Downtown Athletic Club of New York began awarding the trophy in 1935, only one freshman had ever finished second, and that didn't happen until Oklahoma tailback Adrian Peterson came in runner-up to USC quarterback Matt Leinart in 2004.
For years, Heisman voters seemed to believe that freshmen should be seen and not heard. It might be that in an age in which college football is universally televised, performance is king.
There is no question that Manziel broke through the freshman barrier with the sheer weight of his performance. He is smaller than his listed height of 6-foot-1. Asked his height Saturday night, Manziel proudly announced, "Seventy-two inches!"
He just played bigger.
In Texas A&M's first season in the Southeastern Conference, Manziel led the Aggies to a 10-2 record, a No. 9 slot in the final BCS rating and a berth in the AT&T Cotton Bowl.
Manziel gained an SEC-record 4,600 yards of total offense. He threw or ran for 43 touchdowns. He became the first freshman to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000. Out of the Aggies' 12 games, Manziel won or shared SEC Freshman of the Week nine times.
It didn't matter that Manziel began the season as an unknown. It didn't matter that he is a redshirt freshman. It didn't even matter that Manziel began the season with a loss to Florida. That loss provides the baseline by which to measure Manziel's growth.
The Aggies scored on their first three possessions against the Gators and led 17-10 at the half. In the second half, Manziel completed 7 of 10 passes for 34 yards and Texas A&M made three first downs. Florida came back to win, 20-17.
"Even though it wasn't what we wanted," coach Kevin Sumlin said Saturday night, "as disappointed as we were about losing, coming back Sunday and Monday and watching the tape, we grew from that game. There were some plays that happened in that game that he knew, probably before we knew, that he could handle it."
Especially the running plays. During spring practice, Sumlin would blow a play dead when it looked as if Manziel would get hit, infuriating the young quarterback. Aggie offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury would patronize him.
"OK, Johnny, sure, they wouldn't have gotten you," Kingsbury on Saturday night recalled saying. "Came to find out they wouldn't have gotten him."
Fast forward to Texas A&M's 29-24 upset of No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 10. Once again, Manziel led the Aggies to scores on their first three possessions. The Aggies took a 20-0 first-quarter lead. In the second half, however, Alabama could not stop Manziel. He completed 8 of 14 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown, and the Aggies hung on to win, 29-24.
"He's been able to handle moments more than most young guys," Sumlin said after that game. "There hasn't been a moment that's been too big for him."
That victory turned Manziel into a national figure. He stopped watching "SportsCenter." He didn't want to hear the raves about Johnny Football. He said earlier Saturday that if he were to win the Trophy, his head would not be turned.
"This should motivate you to work even harder," he said. " There's always a chance you can fail. If you work hard enough and you put in the time and effort, that's not going to happen. If you continue to strive to try to be the best football player in the entire world, which I want to be, I think good things will happen."
Manziel is not the young, uncertain player of a year ago. He said he is not the same person who spent that June night in jail.
"How thankful I am for Coach Sumlin, Coach Kingsbury and Dr. [Eric] Hyman, [the athletic director] and everybody involved in the program," Manziel said, "to look at me and say what a dramatic mistake that was in my life and uncharacteristic of me to do something like that."
Kingsbury marveled at how Manziel had grown.
"To watch him be named the starter and say, 'OK, I've got to be The Man and act like a man and handle my business,'" Kingsbury said. "In the spring he was still figuring it out. To watch him take command of that and just own it was the most special part for me."
Manziel is the second Texas A&M player to win the Heisman. A span of 55 years separates him from Aggie halfback John David Crow. Legend has it that Crow became the front-runner to win the 1957 Heisman when his coach, Bear Bryant, said, "If they don't give it to him, they ought to stop giving it."
More than a half-century later, a new generation of voters said the same thing about Johnny Football.
Johnny Manziel, who began this season as an unproven commodity, stood on stage Saturday night in New York, holding the most recognizable individual award in American sports.