It seems all too fitting now, that the same year Texas A&M joined the Southeastern Conference (SEC) circus, the Aggies introduced the freak. Even Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum himself would have been amazed at what Johnny Manziel could do on the football field.
The first time I ever laid eyes on him, I thought he looked like a gazelle. Against Florida in his Texas A&M debut, the redshirt freshman from Kerrville, Texas, scampered around right end for a touchdown. I guess it was the way he ran. He was fast, agile, and, well, gazelle-like.
The Aggies didn’t win that day, but I knew they had something special.
As the year went on, I watched him out of the corner of my eye, knowing he would face my beloved Alabama team on November 10. Against Arkansas, he threw for 453 yards and 3 touchdowns and rushed for 104 yards. His 557 total yards was a new SEC record.
He was better than Archie Manning.
What we soon began to realize was that Manziel wasn’t just a quarterback—he was a virtuoso. He did things at the quarterback position that hadn’t been done before. Scrambling. Twisting. Squirming. Firing bullets. Houdining out of sacks and pressure. Whirling dervish-ing. He was like the collegiate poster boy for Chris Berman’s “whoop! whoop!” He was Bob Cousy, Pete Maravich, Stephen Curry—like something before his time.
He painted art on the football field.
And it was the way he carried the ball, too. When he ran with it, he did not tuck it. Rather, it became an extension of him, an appendage. He seemed to run faster with the football than without it.
His numbers for 2012 were absolutely sick. Two weeks later against Louisiana Tech, he beat his two-week-old record by combining for 576 total yards against the Bulldogs. Against Mississippi State, he was 30-for-36 passing (83.3 percent) for 311 yards. He also rushed for 129 yards and 2 touchdowns in a 38-13 disassembling of the Starkville Bulldogs.
Unfortunately, Manziel would have his “Heisman moment” against my favorite team. That week, Alabama was fresh off a hard-fought 21-17 road win over LSU (Tide fans will remember that this was the year T.J. Yeldon caught a screen pass from quarterback AJ McCarron for the winning score in Baton Rouge), so A&M at home was a bit of a trap game for the Crimson Tide.
Before Alabama could sniff, Manziel went scorched earth and the Aggies surged to a 20-0 lead over the undefeated, defending national champions. To put things in perspective, it should be noted that this is the same Alabama team that had Amari Cooper at wideout, Eddie Lacy at running back, C.J. Mosley at linebacker, Nick Saban at head coach and Kirby Smart at defensive coordinator. No matter.
On A&M’s first possession, Manziel picked the Alabama defense apart with a series of quarterback draws and short passes. A 29-yard keeper that put A&M in business at the Alabama 14 demonstrated Manziel’s speed. It was quickly 7-0.
After McCarron threw a pick, Manziel set up shop at the Bama 41. He threw an absolute dart to Kenric McNeal that put the Aggies down at the Alabama 9. After two ineffective runs, Texas A&M OC Kliff Kingsbury decided to put the ball in “Johnny Football’s” hands. And this is what happened:
I watched from the stands that afternoon, first in utter disbelief. I felt like the Crimson Tide severely underestimated the speed and ability of Manziel. And even though I had seen Cam Newton in 2010 and Tim Tebow in 2009, I felt as though Manziel was the best football player I’d ever seen in person.
Alabama would come back and limit Manziel’s effectiveness in the second half, but the damage had already been done. At the end of the game, A&M’s Deshazor Everett intercepted a McCarron pass at the 2-yard line to secure a 29-24 victory.
It was a massive win for A&M and a statement for Manziel. It eventually won him the Heisman—the first-ever freshman to take home that prestigious award.
The next year, Alabama met A&M and Manziel at Kyle Field in College Station. Since it was a revenge game, I was confident that the Tide could and would contain Manziel and post an easy road win. Boy, was I mistaken.
Again, A&M jumped out to an early lead, this time 14-0, and Manziel looked like a magician. They are going to blow us out, I said to myself.
Fortunately, Alabama’s offense got going, scoring four unanswered touchdowns. By halftime, the Crimson Tide led 28-14 and it appeared the defense had figured out the Manziel algorithm—sort of.
Alabama stretched the lead out to 42-21 during the third quarter, but Manziel woke up from his two-quarter somnolence in the fourth. A&M scored two touchdowns—boom, boom—on Manziel passes, the second of which was a 95-yard sideline strike to receiver/beast Mike Evans. 42-35. Uh oh…
After a Bama touchdown, Manziel drove 75 yards on 10 plays to bring the Aggies back to within seven with 15 seconds to play. Alabama recovered the onside kick and time expired with the score 49-42 Alabama forever etched on the scoreboard. Crimson Tide nation could finally let out its collective breath.
I felt like we just defeated Napoleon.
Because, my gosh, take a look at these numbers for Manziel in a losing effort:
—28-for-39 passing for 464 yards and 5 touchdowns
—14 carries for 98 yards
After Manziel declared for the NFL Draft in January 2014, his head coach had high praise for the great showman. “In all of my years of coaching, Johnny Manziel is the most exciting football player I have ever seen,” said Kevin Sumlin.
I agree with Sumlin, but I didn’t miss him quite as much as his head coach did.
Other than him being the best football player I’ve ever seen in person, about the best I can say about Manziel is this: as a fan of an opposing team, he was one of those players that, when he graduates or leaves to go to the professional level, you kneel down beside your bed and thank the Lord he’s gone.
I got props for you though Johnny. Got nothin’ but love for you. You were good.
Oh, Johnny, you were good. H&A
Cover photo: Courtesy Texas A&M Athletics