It is a warm, humid Friday night in Kerrville, Texas and the Tivy High Antlers are handing out another thrashing en route to the state play-offs. With victory in the bag and the clock winding down, a young high-school quarterback turns to his offensive coordinator and explains how they must get one of their most committed team members on the field and into a scoring position.
The traditional bench-sitter had not seen the gridiron all year, yet he had not missed a beat during the season, training hard while spending every day, hour, minute and second of gameday cheering on his team-mates from the sideline. The offensive coordinator, Julius Scott, agrees to the request and promises he will give the loyal wide receiver a chance when they are next in scoring position. “No,” comes the reply. “He cannot catch; if I throw him the ball, he will drop it. Put him in the back-field, I will hand it off and I will tell him what to do.”
On the next offensive drive the quarterback breaks a long run. Well clear of his pursuers and about to score another touchdown, he surrenders himself and slides down at the five-yard line. Never once thinking about running up the score, boosting his own stats and ever-growing fame, he is just concerned with giving somebody who deserves a chance their moment to shine.
The ball is snapped and handed to the wide-receiver-cum-running-back but, in the reality of the moment, he is frozen to the spot. The quarterback is undaunted, turning in an instant before hauling his team-mate into the end zone for a touchdown. But that is irrelevant. What really mattered was that a young man had created a unique moment for not just a dedicated brother-in-arms, but his entire family. This was not a television drama like Friday Night Lights; this was a real person making a difference.
Oh, and who was the quarterback? Johnny Manziel.
It is a moment Scott will never forget, as he reveals to Gridiron: “After he had broken off that run, he looked at me so I sent the kid in. You can see Johnny just telling him what to do but, as soon as he was handed the ball, the kid just froze. He was terrified. It was funny; he just stood there. But Johnny grabbed him by the shirt and just dragged him into the end zone. The kid’s mother came out of the stands just after the game and is so appreciative; it’s the highlight of her life, seeing her kid score a touchdown. To this day, that kid remembers it.”
For a player whose notoriety has led to as many flashpoints off the field as on it during his remarkable, and short, career to date, it’s the kind of story that is refreshing and there are plenty more of them in Scott’s memory. He adds: “It is those kinds of things that I remember about Johnny’s time with us. I also remember the day he turned up five minutes late for a meeting. I had a rule that if anybody was late, they would have to do 25 laps up and down the field and wouldn’t start the next game.
“So Johnny takes his medicine and does the up-downs and then spends the whole week with the second-string offense. This is a kid who is being courted by virtually every major college and he is running with the reserves. So the next game comes and we are not doing well; our quarterback is struggling. They’re beating us pretty good. You would expect Johnny to be sulking but he isn’t; he is talking to and encouraging our offense. He is being the best team-mate you could possibly have. He is missing the game for just being five minutes late but he is just getting on with it, which is why I laugh when people say he is selfish and not a team player. I just tell them that. Some people would have felt it was beneath them to run with the seconds; Johnny did not. Those things mean a lot to me because they are out of the ordinary.”
If you glance over the headlines everyday you know Manziel as a Vegas-partying, fame-hunting football player who is a terrible role model for millions of young, aspiring next-generation stars across the United States. However, if you scratch beneath the surface, you will find that the ‘Party Boy Manziel’ is just the dressing on a very varied salad.
When asked if Manziel would have any problems walking the tight rope between work and pleasure as a professional, Scott gave a very black-and-white answer. “I don’t. I think human nature sometimes means we all want to push that envelope. When Johnny came to Kerrville I was hard on him, and I have told countless people that have asked me, because, they look at Johnny and think he is above the rules and he does not have to follow the rules so can he discipline himself as an athlete? I say absolutely. The only thing I have to judge him on is when he played for me.
“If he was late, he did not start and did not play. If he did not do the plays I called he would not be in the game. I did not care what the results where and he knew that, and consequently went by the standards we drew up – he was just like anybody else on the team.
“Does he now play in a system or a place where people hold their thumb to the rule? I don’t know because there are some coaches who, with their star players, do not necessarily make them follow the same rules your average player has to follow. To me that is a coaching blunder and not a player blunder.
“I am here to tell you that if the coach lets Johnny Manziel get away with certain things then, you know what, he just might get away with them. Just like I would or just like you would. Because we all seem to push that envelope as far as it will go.”
It begs the question: How would you look if a camera followed you around in your late teens early 20s? I’m sure most people will have some not-so-proud moments, which – under the gaze of such a spotlight – would make unwanted headlines. Why should Manziel be held to a different standard, just because we live in a celebrity-crazed world?
And that is where the misconceptions about Manziel begin. They see his name on the news; they see his eccentric and flamboyant playing style and put them together to make a snap judgement. Of course, there are times when his decision-making falters, or he has luck on his side to make a miraculous play. But being a playmaker is who he is and that will not change. Do not be fooled into thinking he is ‘winging it’; Manziel has a very good footballing brain on his shoulders.
Scott says: “I met Johnny when he moved to Kerrville in the seventh grade. He was an all-round athlete who played basketball, football, ran track and played baseball in the summers. He was a real good athlete and competitor going up. But when he got to the ninth grade, it became clear he was going to be something special playing football because he seemed to take over the games; we were playing bigger and better opponents but he could control the situation.
“Johnny is extremely bright. I dealt with him on a high-school setting and he was far advanced to the others when it came to reading defenses, knowing where the blitz was coming from and throwing into the blitz. He came up to the school on the off-days more than anybody else. He would do that on his own.
“I visited with him when he was at (Texas) A&M because I asked him to go over their system with me so I could apply some of the things to the high school that they were doing and he sat down with me and gave a three-hour clinic explaining the ins and outs of what they did. I took another coach with me and on the way back he said that Manziel gave a more thorough clinic than any coach we have ever listened to.”
And his best attribute? “His competitiveness. He wants to win more than anything. It’s a misconception that he wants to be the star and throw or run the ball so many times. He does not care who scores; he just wants to win and seems to rally the guys around him in that effort.”
Coach Scott’s dedication towards nurturing Manziel on and off the field did not go unnoticed by the first-round draft pick, who subsequently invited his former mentor to the Heisman Trophy presentation ceremony in December 2012, when ‘Johnny Football’ became the first freshman to ever scoop the award.
“I think we are all ego-driven in some way,” added Scott. “And I think, for anybody, when a former student is on such a large stage, winning such a large award, and is talking about you and the influence you have had on him, that can’t help but swell my head and make me proud. It has certainly given me a good ice-breaker for any conversations.”
It was a surreal moment for Scott, who reveals he did not expect the kind of stardom that Manziel has enjoyed despite his high-school heroics. “I do not sit around pondering whether my players will eventually make it in the pros. I knew he was good enough for college but didn’t think he was good enough for the pros. I would never have fathomed him winning the Heisman and being a first-round draft pick.”
Indeed, it was not always a straight road to the pros for Manziel.
Firstly, the big colleges in Texas did not view him as a quarterback due to his small stature and he was initially sought as an athlete to play several offensive roles. Indeed, it was not until a game against a San Antonio side loaded with talent that a Texas A&M scout realised the potential of the Tivy High signal-caller. A famous victory meant a revised offer from the Aggies; they wanted him to run their offense.
“We were a class lower and we rallied to beat them,” remembers Scott. “I think those recruiters saw something special in him then.”
The then-Oregon Ducks coach Chip Kelly, now of course making waves with the Philadelphia Eagles, also landed an offer to play quarterback at Manziel’s feet. But after much deliberation and discussion with his family and high-school coaches, Manziel decided to attend the University of Texas A&M.
Unsurprisingly, there was one college who saw the potential in the teenager from the beginning. Southern Methodist University head coach June Jones extended an offer to Manziel in his sophomore year with a similar belief to others that, if he could not take the next step as a quarterback, the fledgling star would certainly see the field somewhere with his athleticism.
Coach Jones raved to Gridiron: “He was a magical player with the ball in his hands. What he did at high school is what you saw him do at Texas A&M and I would anticipate he will do the same thing when he gets to the pros. He is one of those special guys that come along only once every so often.”
When you think of athletic quarterbacks, members of the modern generation immediately compare them to Michael Vick – who has made a living with the ball in his hands. Jones, however, goes back to the 60s and 70s when the NFL was in its adolescence to describe the Cleveland Brown.
He added: “Fran Tarkenton had a lot of the same gifts of avoiding in the pocket and being able to find time to move around and make plays. Fran is the closest thing I’ve seen, as a quarterback, to Manziel.”
Being compared to a nine-time Pro Bowler, who was also hovering around the 6ft mark, certainly offers hope for Johnny. And there seems to be belief aplenty from everybody around Manziel that he is more than just a Madden-style quarterback who plays for 60 minutes once a week. He has dedicated over ten years of his life to get to where he is today and I will bet he dedicates the next 10 staying there. After Scott came Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin, who is similarly unequivocal on his charge’s future.
He told Gridiron: “When players do not fit the normal mode—the height, weight etc., there are always going to be questions at any level and it is up to the player to answer those questions in a positive manner. I believe Johnny’s play on the field will answer any questions. We expected Johnny to lead our team and he did just that. Johnny is the most exciting player I have ever seen.”
At all levels, from high school to college, those that know him best are saying the same things. And pretty soon, it will be for his efforts on the field Johnny Football will be judged again. Will the legend grow, or will he become the latest in a long line of quarterbacks who have faltered on the biggest stage (see Leaf, Ryan). One thing is for sure, Manziel heads into the NFL with an army of people who believe in him, with Scott leading the way. “I think Johnny is going to rise to the challenge.”
Gridiron? We’re going to sit on the fence… safe in the knowledge it will sure be fun finding out.