NEW YORK -- After shielding him from interviews the entire season, the merry pranksters inside the football coaches' offices at Texas A&M had a few ideas about how quarterback Johnny Manziel should introduce himself to the world. One scheme involved banning Manziel from interviews until the Heisman Trophy ceremony. That way, most viewers would have no idea if Manziel sounded more like Roger Staubach or Mr. Rogers.
One plan, quickly scrapped but heartily recounted, went like this. If Manziel won, he would walk to the podium, unfold a sheet of paper and look at Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin. Sumlin would nod, giving Manziel permission to speak. Manziel would glance at his notes, look up at the crowd, say "Thank you" and shuffle off the stage.
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Another plan involved the same steps, but a slightly more elaborate speech. Manziel would accept the award and then say this: "Me llamo Johnny Futbol. Gracias." Then he would exit, stage right.
When he did become the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy on Saturday, Manziel ignored his coaches' friendly advice. He spent his time on stage thanking all the people who helped get him to New York. Later, after he met one of his idols, the reality of his achievement began to sink in. "Doug Flutie shook my hand and said he can't wait to get a chance to talk to me," Manziel said. "He can't wait to get a chance to talk to me? That's absurd."
For Manziel, who earlier this year entered a three-man quarterback competition with a new coach, a new coordinator and a new offense, this all must seem completely absurd. Nine months ago, he was a Texas schoolboy legend turned relatively anonymous college football player. On Saturday, he was the toast of the sport.
Manziel garnered 53 percent of the first-place votes. The runner-up, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, received 36 percent of the first-place votes. Manziel won five of six regions. He finished a close second to Te'o in the Midwest. Clearly, voters were more impressed with Manziel's 4,600 yards of total offense than they were concerned about his age. Plus, the entire freshman conversation was silly for a couple of reasons. First, Manziel was a redshirt freshman. He was at the same point in college that Florida's Tim Tebow and Alabama's Mark Ingram were when they won the Heisman. Next month, Manziel -- who skipped his final semester of high school to enroll at Texas A&M in January 2011 -- will have been in college for two years. Academically, he'll be a junior. Second, class designation doesn't matter. A player is either the most outstanding or he isn't. In 2012, Manziel was the most outstanding.
Consider this: Sumlin and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury didn't even know what they had until after the Aggies opened the season against Florida on Sept. 8. At practice, defensive players aren't allowed to tackle the quarterback. So Texas A&M went through spring practice and preseason camp judging Manziel's mobility based on Sumlin's quick calls of "Saaaaaaaaack!" every time a defender got close enough to breathe on Manziel. After they realized they had one of the most elusive quarterbacks in college football history on their side, Sumlin and Kingsbury began to tweak an offense that had previously been designed for Houston's Case Keenum. But the season is no time to overhaul an offense. Now, the Aggies have 10 months to build a scheme perfectly suited for Manziel. "To have an offseason to kind of mess with things and work with it," Kingsbury said, "I expect it to keep evolving and play to his strengths."
Now comes the hard part. In today's on-to-the-next-thing media culture, Manziel can probably never be perceived as better than he is now, even if he does improve. Tebow, Ingram or Oklahoma's Sam Bradford can explain how difficult it is to follow a Heisman season. In Tebow's case, he led his team to a national title the year after he won the Heisman, but he wasn't considered the most outstanding player again. "There will be a bullseye on his chest now," Kingsbury said. "It's going to be a little bit of a different story. He's got to rise to the occasion."
Things will change. Kingsbury spoke of the future on Saturday night, but his words came a few hours after he learned Tommy Tuberville had left Texas Tech for Cincinnati. Kingsbury, a Texas Tech alum, is probably going to get a hard look for that job opening. Meanwhile, everyone will want a piece of Johnny Football. Even in the four weeks since Manziel's Heisman candidacy exploded, Texas A&M and Manziel's parents have had to fight off people trying to cash in on Manziel's exploits. When I visited Manziel's mother Michelle to report a story for this week's issue of Sports Illustrated, she recounted a conversation with two men who visited her at work to explain their business plan for the phrase "Johnny Football."
Entrepreneur: "Can we talk to you in the office?"
Entrepreneur: "Well, we want you to know that we're the ones that are trademarking Johnny Football, and we have your best interests in mind. We wouldn't do it without Johnny's permission."
Entrepreneur: "We didn't want it to get in the wrong hands."
Michelle: "We've been working on it for months now. I can't tell you it's done, but we have an attorney working on it. I can give your card to him. Thanks for coming by."
If Tebowmania at Florida is any indication, the Texas A&M athletic department will pump out Cease and Desist letters for the next three seasons. The Manziels were wise to start the trademark process, because it will save Johnny headaches when he does turn pro. But if Johnny Football wants to join Ohio State's Archie Griffin as the only two-time Heisman winner, he'll have to ignore all that stuff and work harder than he ever has before. The bar will be set comically high, and plenty will be rooting for him to fail so they can elevate the next big thing. Manziel has the correct idea, though. Asked how he could top winning the Heisman as a freshman, he listed team goals he must help the Aggies achieve.
"There are plenty of things," Manziel said. "First and foremost, there's the Cotton Bowl. ... From there, I have to be the guy who starts the motor for a run at the national title next year. That's our goal. If more awards come, they come."
In that department, Manziel remains behind Te'o. The senior from Hawaii led his team to the BCS title game this season. Te'o took his second-place finish graciously, but he said the vote would fuel him as he prepares to face Alabama with the national title on the line. "I just felt that burn that says, 'Hey, you've got to get better.' It's motivation," said Te'o, who received the second-highest number of first-place votes for a runner-up in Heisman history. "I've always wanted be the best. I'll just use that as motivation to be the best I can be. Obviously, I have a lot of work to do." If Te'o does spend the next four weeks smoldering, it could make for some epic collisions with Alabama tailbacks Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon.
Of course, Te'o and Manziel did spend plenty of time together on the awards circuit this week. Maybe Manziel gave his elder some advice about how to beat Alabama. Maybe Te'o gave Manziel some advice about how to carry himself as the most public face of a university. Hopefully, Manziel listened. Manziel learned about the spotlight in June when he got drunk and got in a fight while trying to protect a friend who was about to get beaten up for uttering a racial slur. When the cops broke up the fight, Manziel handed over a fake ID. Manziel suffered for that mistake. He learned. But now that he is Johnny Football and not just Johnny Manziel, he can't afford to make such a public error. Johnny's father Paul put it best last week when he said that if that incident happens next summer instead of this past summer, it would be "disastrous." The spotlight was hot before. It will be searing now that Manziel isn't just Johnny Football but Heisman Trophy Winner Johnny Football.
The first freshman to win the Heisman will spend the next three seasons defending his victory on and off the field. That might not be fair, but it's a testament to the power of the most iconic trophy in American sports. It's a power Manziel seems to respect and, more importantly, to understand. "I always wanted to be in a fraternity," Manziel said. "A&M is not really a big fraternity school. Now I get to be in the most prestigious one in the entire world."