During a July 26 interview for my story on Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel that ran in last week's issue of Sports Illustrated, Manziel briefly mentioned the Alabama autograph incident that made headlines Monday. At the time, the story was one in a series of anecdotes about dealing with the autograph hounds, both amateur and professional, that Manziel had met during his sudden rise to fame in 2012. As Manziel and Aggies receiver Ryan Swope settled into their room at a Hilton in Birmingham, Ala., the day before Texas A&M faced Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Manziel said, an autograph broker with a stack of items wedged his way into the room as Manziel entered.
It was certainly interesting, but it wasn't even the most outrageous story Manziel told on the subject. That one was about a man who dressed in military fatigues who accosted Manziel and his family in a Dallas airport and asked Manziel to sign some Texas A&M helmet decals for troops deployed overseas. Later, the Manziels found that the decals had been affixed to helmets and sold on eBay. That anecdote made the magazine story. The Alabama one didn't.
But the Alabama anecdote gained additional context Monday when the broker claimed to ESPN that after Manziel signed for free, Manziel's friend and personal assistant Nathan Fitch later told the broker that another session would require a fee. Monday, ESPN posted a photo provided by the broker from the Birmingham encounter. ESPN's Joe Schad also reported Monday that the broker declined six phone calls from the NCAA. Sunday, ESPN reported that the NCAA is investigating an accusation that Manziel was paid to sign autographs for a different broker in January in south Florida. Manziel has not responded to requests for comment since ESPN first reported the investigation on Sunday. Fitch also has not responded to requests for comment.
But Manziel talked about his meeting with the autograph broker in Alabama during our July 26 interview. Manziel said it happened shortly after the team arrived at its hotel on Nov. 9, as he and teammate Swope were getting settled into their room.
"Alabama game, a guy walks into my hotel room with me," Manziel said. "I opened the door. I had a big bag on my shoulder. I opened the door real wide -- he kind of sticks his foot in the door. He kind of comes in with me. 'Hey man, will you sign this bag of stuff?' Swope is in the bathroom. He walks in and sees me mid-signing this guy's stuff."
I asked Manziel if Swope chased off the broker.
"Swope was like, 'Hey, man. What are you doing in here?'" Manziel said. "He said 'Oh, he said he would sign some stuff for me.' I'm like, 'I mean, I didn't really say I would sign it for you. But I'll do it for you. Get the hell out and it won't be too big of a deal.'"
Manziel offered the anecdote after he discussed his surprise that so many people wanted his autograph and talked about his naiveté, at that time last year, about the autograph and memorabilia industry. At that point in the interview, Manziel moved on immediately to another anecdote about another professional autograph seeker following him home from Texas A&M's football complex later in November as well as two separate anecdotes about professional autograph hunters -- including the man in fatigues -- accosting him as he traveled to an awards show in Orlando, Fla.
The broker himself told ESPN that Manziel signed for free in the hotel room, so that isn't the issue here. At issue is whether Manziel or Fitch asked for and/or received money for autographs at any point afterward. That is what the NCAA wants to know, and the answer likely will determine whether Manziel will be allowed to follow up on his Heisman Trophy-winning redshirt freshman season.
Monday, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said Manziel would receive the usual number of reps when the Aggies opened preseason practice. Texas A&M ended spring practice without a firm answer at backup quarterback. Junior Matt Joeckel and redshirt freshman Matt Davis competed for the backup spot in the spring, but with Manziel's future unknown, coaches may try to accelerate the progress of Kenny Hill, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound freshman from Southlake (Texas) Carroll High who enrolled at Texas A&M in June.
If Manziel clears his name, then the backups will have time to develop. If the investigation drags on or if Manziel is found to have committed a violation, the backup may have to lead the offense. Texas A&M athletic department officials and coaches will have to make a tough call if there is no resolution in the next few weeks. Like the Alabama autograph story Manziel told me on July 26, the backup competition in College Station has taken on an entirely new meaning given the information that has come to light in the past two days.