New York Times writer Tim Rohan spent a weekend with Johnny Manziel and his family and profiles the Heisman Trophy contender.
COLLEGE STATION, Tex. — A long day spent with Johnny Manziel’s family ends in the secluded corner of a raucous party. It is late enough that Manziel’s grandmother Pat really gets going, talking about how a Manziel has never met a stranger, or always fights for a friend, about the good old boys who never grew up.
And then she tells a story. When Manziel’s father, John Paul Manziel, was young, he fought a boy named Clay every day in the schoolyard. Finally Pat got fed up and had the two boys settle their feud, once and for all, in her front yard.
She leaned against a post and watched, as Johnny’s grandfather, known as Big Paul, drove up and said, “Hit him with the right, John Paul!”
“Oh no, no, no, I got this handled,” Pat said, now cheering on Clay. “All right Clay, you get up and hit him with your left! Get him in the gut!”
Soon, Clay gave up, conceding defeat. The two never fought again. Problem solved, the Manziel way.
Yes, John Paul was a Manziel. Like his father, Big Paul, who claims he was the cockfighting world champion in 1983. And like his son, Johnny Manziel, the redshirt freshman quarterback for No. 9 Texas A&M and the Heisman Trophy front-runner heading into Saturday’s game against Missouri, a sudden star both in his father’s mischievous image and labeled with the all-American nickname Johnny Football.
But because he is a Manziel, it takes friends, coaches and family to keep young Johnny on the straight and narrow. They all report to John Paul, 45, who vows he will make a man of his son, even if Manziel’s boyish persona — the carefree way he plays — is a large part of his appeal.
“He’s got a big smile, he’s dynamic, he’s unpredictable; I think that’s why everybody likes him,” John Paul said, during a round of golf last Saturday morning before the Aggies played Sam Houston State. “Growing up as kids, who didn’t want to be like that?”
It was a chilly morning, and John Paul’s back was tight. He plays golf before his son’s games to relax, to make friends and maybe some money. He said he thought he could have been a professional golfer had his parents held him accountable — a big reason he tries to make certain Johnny stays focused.
On this day his foursome included his daughter’s boyfriend; a golfing buddy from his hometown, Tyler, Tex.; and Jim Muncie, a good friend from Kerrville, Tex., where Johnny Manziel’s legend first began to grow.
Muncie is the unofficial president of the Johnny Football fan club, an older brother figure more than, say, an uncle. When Manziel played at Kerrville Tivy High School, Muncie called the football games on the radio, often singing his version of “Johnny B. Goode” on the air.
Down at Kerrville Tivy there’s a quarterback
He runs through opposing defenses like a maniac
He runs 40 yards on the ground
Throws the football through the air for another touchdown
Go Johnny Go
Busloads of people came from all over Texas to watch Manziel play. Antler Stadium, overlooking the Texas hill country where people came to fish, hunt and retire, overflowed. A sleepy town came alive. Stuart Cunyus, a local sportswriter and photographer, tried to capture it all. How Manziel scored six touchdowns in his first start. Or the time he handed the ball off to a smaller teammate, grabbed him by the shirt and dragged him into the end zone so he could score just once. Only Manziel was able to explain what he did. He was smart and articulate, fun to talk with, Cunyus said. It is a shame, Cunyus added, that Manziel has not been able to show that, because of Texas A&M football team rules prohibiting freshmen players from speaking to the news media. (The Heisman ceremony is Dec. 8, and Texas A&M announced this week that Manziel will be made available to the news media starting next week.)
“After his last game, I shook his hand and said, ‘Thanks, because it’s been so much fun,’ ” Cunyus said.
Sometimes Manziel had too much fun, skipping class and sweet-talking his way out of trouble. His father made him a deal: he would buy Manziel a new car if he stayed away from alcohol during his junior and senior years in high school. One summer night, Manziel went to Wal-Mart to buy a phone charger, the security guard smelled alcohol and the police were called.
Manziel denied he had been drinking but was taken to jail. The next day, his father picked him up, sold the car and replaced it with a busted pickup truck that would repeatedly break down on the way to school. He refused to pay the fine for his son, and when the judge sentenced Manziel to 10 hours of community service, John Paul said: Make it 20.
On the golf course, driving to another hole, John Paul said there came a day in every young man’s life when he had to grow up, to stop the adolescent high jinks that can be so fun and so destructive. He added, “Johnny’s not there yet.”
For John Paul, that day arrived when Johnny was born. He and Manziel’s mother, Michelle, were bartenders at the time. Michelle, now 42, soon got into real estate. John Paul sold cars because he liked talking to people, and built homes.
“It’ll either be a girlfriend, or a talk with me,” John Paul said of his son’s maturity, “or he’ll see his vision and how to get there.”
For some time, Manziel thought his future meant playing quarterback at Oregon. Other colleges had doubted his size — he is 6 feet 1 inch — and his arm, wondering if the dancing and slinging would translate to the next level.
His game needed to mature, too. So his high school offensive coordinator, Julius Scott, trained him to keep his eyes downfield when all seemed lost. They diagnosed blitzes and planned counters. They understood each other, and Manziel became an all-state quarterback, because Scott coached with the same abandon with which Manziel played.
Scott had about 15 route combinations, calling “whatever popped into my mind.” If he wanted to audible, he yelled a player’s name and drew a new route in the air. Or if he wanted Manziel to freelance, he just nodded to him.
Some teams found the best way to defend Manziel was to drop eight players into coverage, make him wait, be patient. To not let Johnny go, go.
He adjusted and became comfortable in the pocket. During one game that Texas A&M had scouted, Manziel threw 75 passes, completing 41, for 503 yards and 4 touchdowns. The Aggies offered him a scholarship.
Oregon Coach Chip Kelly had sent him weekly handwritten letters, but Manziel wanted to stay close to his family, to stay in Texas. His father made sure he called Kelly as soon as he decided to switch his commitment to A&M, news that Kelly was not happy to hear.
John Paul is an intense man, but one who tempers his seriousness with frequent jokes. “Good hit, Maureen!” he called sarcastically to Muncie on the course. Muncie jabbed back and everyone laughed. The mood was light, even when John Paul hooked a drive into the rough. A few bad shots would have bothered him years ago, he said. Some still do.
The family had lived near the 16th hole of a golf course in Tyler before moving to Kerrville. Most evenings, they played four holes of match play together — Michelle and Johnny against John Paul and Manziel’s younger sister, Meri. Son tried to outdo father. But John Paul and Meri went undefeated. Often, Manziel pouted in his room.
“I think it drives us to the point you take it personal,” John Paul said of his competitiveness as he spotted his ball. He added: “You have to be it to understand it. Or it comes across as cocky, or, ‘You have an issue.’ ”
After the round, as John Paul drove to his son’s house to tailgate before the game, the conversation shifted to the Heisman. “Nobody wants to be the first to let a freshman have it,” John Paul said. “He’s the best player out there.”
Pulling into the driveway, John Paul parked behind a hot red, shiny Camaro, the product of another deal with his son: if Manziel were a “model citizen,” he could have the car, which was bought a week before Texas A&M upset Alabama, then No. 1.
“We have to keep him focused; Johnny needs incentives,” Michelle Manziel said as she put away food in the house. They found, John Paul added, “Johnny needs structure all the time, because down time for Johnny is the worst time.”
His point: this past June, amid a competition for the starting quarterback spot, Manziel was arrested and put in jail for an incident outside a bar in College Station. As he and a friend were leaving, the friend had shouted a racial slur to a man on the street. Manziel stepped in between, trying to be a peacemaker, a witness told the police, when the man pushed against Manziel, who shoved the man, precipitating a fight.
He eventually gave the police a fake ID. The police said he appeared too intoxicated to answer questions, but he managed to apologize and ask for a ride home.
John Paul met with the first-year Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin. Johnny Manziel was to be subject to random drug testing, undergo drug and alcohol counseling, complete more community service and have a daily schedule “mapped out to the minute,” John Paul said.
“I’m going to hold him accountable; I’m going to make a man out of him,” John Paul said, adding that he knew the N.F.L. was his son’s goal. “He wasn’t going to get there the way he was walking.”
John Paul walked hurriedly ahead of a horde of relatives and friends on their way to Kyle Field. Inside the stadium, settled inside a friend’s suite, he rested his head on his hand, intently watching his son play.
Manziel coolly slipped past defenders, as if he were skiing. On one play he took on four of them, and jumped up with his mouth running after he was thrown down. Other plays broke down. He ran right, maybe left, and all would seem lost, until he found someone open. His receivers, too, had learned to trust Manziel, to keep working.
He was straddling recklessness, and playing well, when his youth showed. A wobbly, underthrown pass on the run was intercepted. “Why would you throw that, Johnny?” his father said quietly. “That’s the last thing in the world you need to be doing.” By halftime, Manziel had accounted for four touchdowns and plenty of yards. John Paul, in a better mood, left the suite in search of John David Crow, Texas A&M’s only Heisman winner. Every home game, he had asked Crow to sign his ticket.
“You can’t coach that,” Crow said of Manziel’s improvisational play. “He’s just born with it. He’s a chicken running around ...”
“... with his head cut off,” John Paul finished, smiling.
As if on cue, on the first snap he took in the second half, Manziel dropped back, calm and steady in the pocket, and flicked a tight spiral down the field. His receiver ran under it for an 89-yard touchdown. With that, Manziel became the first freshman to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 more in a season.
Something had clicked. This summer, he had sought out George Whitfield Jr., a quarterback guru, to optimize his footwork and release. Now he had a better grasp of Sumlin’s offense, which is nearly the same one he ran at Tivy.
Manziel’s offensive coordinator, Kliff Kingsbury, is 33, not far removed from quarterbacking this offense himself in record-setting fashion at Texas Tech. That won him “street cred,” Kingsbury said. Manziel is learning to stick to a plan, Kingsbury says, instead of going “rogue.”
This pass screamed progress, and John Paul leapt and pointed to the sky. He says he has seen change in his son. He bought him that Camaro, after all. He says Manziel is nicer to his sister, visits the family more often and calls him every day. And if not, John Paul will know. He bribes his son’s friends with steak dinners.
Once the game ended, and the stress had left John Paul’s face, a friend passed around Champagne, put an arm around him, and toasted, “Hey, hey, it’s the DNA.”