NEW YORK -- The crowd went three deep around Jameis Winston's table during a brief interview session with the finalists before Saturday's Heisman Trophy announcement. For most of the period, good seats remained available at Johnny Manziel's table.
Remember Manziel? Plays quarterback for Texas A&M? Won the Heisman Trophy last year? Has a catchy nickname? Big Drake fan? Five months ago, ESPN delivered wall-to-wall coverage of Manziel oversleeping and getting bounced from the Manning Passing Academy. Saturday, Manziel was a sharply dressed observer as Florida State's Winston -- the recent subject of far more unpleasant wall-to-wall coverage -- became the second redshirt freshman to hoist the Heisman. The first redshirt freshman winner? He was just happy to be there.
In interviews on Friday and Saturday, Manziel seemed at peace with the way his college career unfolded. The intense fascination that began in October 2012 lasted all of 11 months. Then we were on to the next thing. This past July, Manziel seemed almost angry at times that his old life had been taken away by fame. But after the lights stopped burning so hot following Texas A&M's loss to Alabama on Sept. 14, Manziel had a chance to relax and to reflect on the way he was slung into stardom. This weekend, he tried to pass along some advice to Winston. The newest Heisman winner is in the midst of that same ride, but he already dealt with a much more serious circumstance than Manziel ever did. Winston was accused of rape by a fellow student, and though he was not charged, he has had to defend his name and character in ways Manziel never did. Still, if anyone can offer advice on handling the star-making machine and its propensity to chew up its own creations, it's Manziel.
"I had to go through some controversy. I had to go through some things," Manziel said. "To see him at such a young age be able to put his head down and focus on his teammates and where they are and where they're headed. I do give him a lot of credit for that. With all the scrutiny and everything that he's under, I feel like he's done a tremendous job of focusing on his team and his family and what matters most."
Manziel admits he didn't always handle fame well. "I wasn't prepared for it," he said. "I don't even know if you really can be." He put himself in the public eye when he didn't have to, and that only fueled the fascination with him. He signed a bunch of autographs, and while no one has offered proof that he took money in violation of NCAA rules, he probably was fortunate to only sit a half in the season opener against Rice. "There's a lot of scrutiny if you don't walk a fine line," Manziel said. "I was a little bit uncharacteristic, a little bit out of the box, and I caught some slack for it. But I figured it out a little as the year went on."
Those who know Manziel well said that while he didn't completely shut down the party, he did step out of the spotlight. He also followed through on his offseason to pledge to become a better passer. Johnny Football dropped jaws in 2012 with his scrambling and improvisational skills. In '13, Manziel dropped dimes into the hands of his receivers. He raised his completion percentage from 68 percent to 69.1 percent. He raised his yards per attempt from 8.5 to 9.5. In 13 games last season, he threw 26 touchdown passes. After 12 this year, he has thrown 33 touchdown passes. That certainly impressed the player who will follow in Manziel's footsteps. "To me, he did a great job, because he's still living his life," Winston said. "And obviously, you can see on the football field that he got better. Now, no one can really say anything."
Manziel said he will make his NFL decision after the Aggies finish their season, but his words on Friday offered a strong hint that the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Duke will be his final college game. "I do feel like an old sophomore," Manziel said. "I feel like I've been in college forever, and I have two years of eligibility left."
Manziel will likely get another dose of the rock star treatment during the pre-draft process. He'll be an intriguing NFL prospect, and with that will come attention. But it won't come close to those few months when Manziel was the most famous and infamous player in America's second-most popular sport behind the NFL. Besides, Manziel now better understands how all this works, and he'll be prepared. "It's kind of a give and take," he said. "I didn't ever want to be a different person, but there are things that you have to adapt to and things that you have to get used to. This is how life is going to be, no matter how bad you want things to go back to how they were before and just live a normal life. Those days went out the window a long time ago."
The ever-accelerating cycle of fame has rendered difficult the appreciation of truly great performances. Hopefully, those who watched Manziel play -- saw him throw a miracle from his own end zone at Ole Miss, saw him break free from a sure sack to keep a drive alive against Alabama -- will realize they witnessed something special. Johnny Football is one of the most exciting people to set foot on a college football field, and we probably won't see another one like him for a very long time.
As Manziel prepares to embark on his next adventure, he left behind a little advice for the new generation of young stars who find themselves under bright lights. "Live it up," he said. "Enjoy it. Continue to be yourself, and don't let anybody change you."