Is it really going to get any better than this for you, Johnny Football, wherever it is you’re off to next? You should’ve seen the smile on your face. It was Nov. 9, after Texas A&M’s win over Mississippi State in the last home game of the season: You up there in the front row of Section 141, still in full uniform, the clock reading triple zeroes, the fans going crazy to have you in their midst, the cameramen encircling you to document it, the big black sky full of stars and fireworks, the first notes of the Aggie War Hymn blasting from the trumpets and snares.
“Hullabaloo, Caneck! Caneck!” You were singing at the top of your lungs in the middle of all those fans — “Good luck to dear old Texas Aggies / They are the boys that show the real old fight” — and you threw your head back, right on cue, to holler “Sounds like hell!” Okay, maybe you muffed a few lyrics here and there, but you jumped right back in — “Goodbye to Texas University / We’re going to beat you all to / Chig-gar-roo-gar-rem! Chig-gar-roo-gar-rem!”
And at the end, when it was time, per Aggie tradition, to “saw ’em off” — to metaphorically saw off the horns of the hated Longhorns (even though, as a member of the SEC now, y’all don’t play them anymore) — you put your arms around the folks to either side of you, just as you’re supposed to do, and swayed in rhythm, each row in opposite directions, like sawblades. “Varsity’s horns are sawed off! Short!”
It was perfect, a picture-postcard, the essence of college football distilled down to a snapshot fit for a time capsule: that time Johnny Manziel leaped into the stands to sing the fight song with 88,504 folks at old Kyle Field who wanted nothing more than for the moment to last forever.
But the moment didn’t last forever. Because at the end of the song, Johnny Football pushed himself back down to the field and sprinted off to join his teammates in the victorious locker room — the Aggies now 8-2 and ranked ninth entering Saturday’s game at LSU. The fans were left there to stare at the trembling hands that had rubbed his head moments earlier, and ask each other: Did that really just happen?
In fact, the moment felt like goodbye. And maybe that was the intention. Everyone there knew the deal. As a redshirt sophomore, three years removed from high school, Manziel is eligible for the NFL draft in the spring. He already owns one Heisman Trophy, from last season — the first ever awarded to a freshman — and he may very well win another this season, if he can wrest it away from Florida State freshman Jameis Winston over these last couple of games. His NFL stock is at an all-time high. He’ll be 21 in a few weeks; his window for earning millions as a pro is about to open, and the nature of football is such that it’s a small window.
And despite the lovefest after the Mississippi State game, Manziel’s time in College Station hasn’t always suited him. There was the disorderly conduct arrest in June 2012 outside a bar, an argument that started when he was trying to be the peacemaker. College Station is a small town, and his celebrity after winning the Heisman was boundless. It wasn’t a great mix, and his exasperation exploded one night this June in the form of a tweet, when he said he couldn’t wait to leave here. It’s fair for people to wonder, even now: Which was his true feeling for this place: that tweet, or that scene in the stands the other day?
He hasn’t said for certain what he plans to do after the season, brushing off questions about his future following the Mississippi State game — in one of the few times all season he has been allowed to address the media. Some of his teammates, though, spoke of him in the past tense, and around town, it is considered a near-certainty that he’s gone.
“He’s got a great future,” said senior wide receiver Travis Labhart, one of Manziel’s closest friends on the team. “But I think he’ll realize even more when he’s gone how special it is here. I don’t know what his decision is, but I know he loves being an Aggie.”
Could it be that Johnny Football is falling in love with this place right when it’s time to leave?
It’s different here at A&M, that’s for sure, and all the hokey traditions and rituals take some getting used to. The way everyone says “Howdy!” to each other. The Midnight Yell — a pep-rally-slash-chant-practice that regularly draws 25,000 fans to Kyle Field the night before each home game. The all-male yell leaders — in their all-white uniforms that make them look like 1950s ice cream men — instead of cheerleaders. The whole “12th Man” thing, where the student body stands for the entire game to honor the outdated notion that one of them might be needed to suit up at any moment.
“Every place has tradition, but the Aggies — their tradition is something that’s almost cult-like,” junior wide receiver Malcome Kennedy said. “When I first got here, everyone kept saying, ‘Howdy!’ I was in a speech class, and people were opening up their speeches with, ‘Howdy!’ You go anywhere else, and if people say that, you’d look at them like they’re crazy.”
Folks can only imagine what it must have been like for Johnny Manziel when he first set foot here in 2011 as a freshman out of Tivy High in Kerrville. A lifelong Texas Longhorn fan who was admittedly disappointed when Coach Mack Brown didn’t want him as a quarterback, he committed first to Oregon to play for Chip Kelly, then switched to A&M when the school made a late play.
They knew all about Johnny Football in College Station long before he even arrived, not only because of the legend he constructed as a schoolboy gridiron star but also because of the legend of his family name — the Manziel lineage being full of cockfighters, wildcatters and convicted felons, as well as a vast oil fortune. Heck, one prized breed of fighting cock — the Manziel Grey — was named after Johnny’s great-grandfather Bobby.
They were already calling him JFF — that’s “Johnny Football” with an additional descriptor in the middle — on the Aggie fan message boards before he even suited up in the maroon and white, so over-the-top was the mythology surrounding him.
And he’s delivered on the field, of course. Nobody around here can recall a period quite like these past two years: The program-defining, life-altering win at Alabama a year ago that announced Johnny Football’s arrival as a national phenomenon. The historic Heisman. The destruction of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. The jaw-dropping succession of jukes, spins, sprints and heaves — often on the same play — that made viewing his highlight reels like watching football nirvana.
“He has spoiled us,” said Kathryn Greenwade, vice president of the Association of Former Students of Texas A&M. “You could bring Joe Montana in after Johnny, and people would say, ‘This guy is boring.’ ”
This year, though it seemed hardly possible, he has played even better. His Heisman case may be undermined by the narrow losses to Alabama and Auburn — two teams that are a combined 20-1 this season — but those can hardly be pinned on Manziel. He put up 42 points on the Crimson Tide — whose next seven opponents put up a combined 43 — and 41 on Auburn.
“Manziel is so hard to defend,” Mississippi State Coach Dan Mullen said after a 51-41 loss to the Aggies. “A lot of times we stopped their offense, but we couldn’t stop him. There he goes. He starts running from sideline to sideline, twisting around, juking one way, juking another way, and all of a sudden he launches the ball 30 yards down the field. I’ll be honest: There’s no way to draw up a defense to defend that.”
But sometimes Johnny seemed to live his personal life with the same reckless abandon with which he played football, and this past offseason was like a four-month train wreck. He was dismissed from the prestigious Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, La., amid rumors of drinking. He was suspended by the NCAA for the first half of the Aggies’ season opener for allowing his autograph to be sold by memorabilia dealers. He did plenty of interviews, most notably with ESPN The Magazine, for a piece that laid bare his family’s rift with A&M and its concern over his drinking.
Everywhere he went, his image got plastered all over social media — and he went everywhere. Spring break in Cabo. Partying with rappers. Courtside at NBA games. Backstage with country music stars. But he didn’t even have to leave College Station to go viral, his every dinner out turning into an Instagram event. He even took his entire slate of courses for spring semester online, because the simple act of walking across campus and into a classroom had become uncomfortable.
He’s been more or less a model citizen this season. He’s turned down almost all interviews — including a request for this story — as have his parents, and he hasn’t tweeted once since the start of fall practice.
“That’s just normal, isn’t it?” A&M Coach Kevin Sumlin said with a smile when this was brought to his attention. “He’s just playing football.”
But even Johnny’s exemplary behavior and dazzling quarterback play hasn’t completely undone the damage he caused with that ill-fated tweet on June 16. Enraged over a parking ticket, he wrote: “Bull[crap] like tonight is a reason why I can’t wait to leave college station . . . whenever it may be.” He deleted the tweet and apologized, but the deletion was too late and the apology may have been worse that the original offense.
“Don’t ever forget that I love A&M with all my heart,” the apology tweet read, “but please please walk a day in my shoes.”
What he didn’t seem to grasp, and perhaps still doesn’t, was how tone-deaf that sounded. Ask anybody: They all would kill to walk a day in Johnny Football’s shoes.
A week ago was Aggie Ring Day, with some 2,100 of Manziel’s fellow students — including some of his teammates — and their families gathering on campus for the ceremony. It is perhaps the most treasured of all the Aggie traditions, dating from 1889 — the awarding of class rings to students who complete 90 hours of coursework and maintain a 2.0 or higher grade-point average.
Johnny is just shy of earning his Aggie ring, and if he leaves now he may never earn it. That ring is a powerful symbol in Aggieland, and if he leaves, folks will be watching to see if he comes back to get it someday.
“There’s this feeling between Aggies that you’re part of this family, and in some ways it’s a duty to acknowledge that,” said the Class of 1978’s Robert Earl Keen, the acclaimed country singer-songwriter and a huge Johnny Football fan. “If you’re an Aggie, you have an Aggie ring. And if you have an Aggie ring, you wear it.” Keen wore his until it started pounding holes in his guitars. “I had a few guitars I don’t want holes in,” he said. “So I wear it when I’m out socially. But at shows I don’t wear it. And I don’t know how many people accuse me of not being Aggie because I didn’t wear my ring.”
The good people of Aggieland have forgiven Manziel all his sins, for the simple reason that he is such a blessed joy to watch. They just want to keep him around awhile longer.
“If Johnny came back,” said Olin Buchanan, a sports-talk host on The Zone 1150-AM in College Station and a columnist for the TexAgs.com Web site, “people here would never ask God for anything ever again.”
But the NFL is waiting, and it has perhaps never been more accessible than now for undersized quarterbacks with running ability. Listed at 6 feet 1, 200 pounds, Manziel himself has cited Seattle’s Russell Wilson as an archetype, and plenty of draft experts have him going in the top 10 in their 2014 mock drafts.
“I think he can succeed in the NFL,” said Hall of Famer Roger Staubach, perhaps the prototype for the modern mobile quarterback. “I think he has a strong arm, and he’s definitely accurate. Above all, he has great instincts. You don’t have to be a big guy to make it; [the Saints’] Drew Brees has proven that.”
Manziel might be a decent pro, or he might be a star. But the folks who fill Kyle Field on fall Saturdays, and who line the surrounding streets 90 minutes before kickoff to watch the Corps of Cadets march in, and who would no more take off their Aggie rings than take off their wedding rings — they’re wondering a few things: No matter how successful he is as a pro, can Johnny Football ever be a legend in Cleveland or Buffalo? Will life at the next level really be better, just because he’ll be getting paid? Will he ever experience anything again like this, like being 21 years old and leading the Aggies down the field in front of 102,500 fans — Kyle Field’s projected capacity after this winter’s renovation — on a perfect Texas fall Saturday?
And if you’re Johnny Football, do you really want to be up there in those stands 20 years from now — singing along to the Aggie War Hymn and sawing ’em off, while some Tommy or Bobby Football crouches in your old spot behind center — and suddenly realize you walked away from your best days two years before they made you?