As the interview session following Texas A&M's 29--24 upset of top-ranked Alabama wound to a close in Tuscaloosa last Saturday night, Aggies sports information director Alan Cannon stood at the door that led from the media room to the locker room. "Are we going to get Johnny today?" a beat writer yelled to Cannon. "Sorry," Cannon said. "Not today."
A team rule keeps the most exciting player in college football from speaking to the press, but in a testament to social media, the legend of Johnny Football has only grown. In June, before he ever took a college snap, the blogosphere buzzed about redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel's shirtless mug shot taken after his arrest on a disorderly conduct charge. Then, after he won the job in preseason camp, Manziel began racking up wins and records in coach Kevin Sumlin's Air Raid offense, leaving trails of fallen defenders when he turned broken plays into huge gains. "He's a fun guy to watch on film on Sunday morning," Aggies left tackle Luke Joeckel says. A three-star recruit from Tivy High in Kerrville, Texas, Manziel set the SEC mark for total offense twice in three games, first against Arkansas (557 yards), then against Louisiana Tech (576 yards). By then he was being called Johnny Football, and the hashtag #JFF (the first F being an unprintable adjective) trended on Twitter every time Texas A&M played.
After establishing himself as one of the nation's most dynamic players, the 6'1", 200-pound Manziel set the Web ablaze again the day after Halloween as photos of him—wearing a Scooby-Doo costume and grinning ear to ear while surrounded by scantily costumed young women—zipped from Instagram to Facebook and Twitter, and into the sporting zeitgeist. Two days later he made Mississippi State utter a collective ruh-roh by throwing for 311 yards and running for 129 in a 38--13 win over the Bulldogs, and the Ballad of Johnny Football added another verse.
Manziel is on pace to break Cam Newton's SEC single-season total offense record of 4,327 yards while playing one fewer game than Newton did in 2010, but, mysteriously, he has been on the fringe of the Heisman Trophy discussion. That changed on Saturday, when he completed 24 of 31 passes for 253 yards and ran for 92 more in a game that proved the No. 8 Aggies (8--2) can play with the SEC's elite and that knocked Alabama (9--1) from its perch atop the polls. "There hasn't been a moment that has been too big for him," Sumlin says.
Every Heisman winner must have a Heisman Moment, a play that seemingly runs in a loop during the week leading up to the selection. Manziel got his during the first quarter against the Tide. Up 7--0, the Aggies faced third-and-goal at the 10. Manziel took the snap and rolled right. At first he looked ready to run, but after encountering a pair of defenders, Manziel wisely reversed course, but one defender reached out and popped the football loose. Manziel caught the ball and, without missing a stride, ran away from another Tide player, planted and lofted a pass over a 6'6" linebacker to a wide-open Ryan Swope for a touchdown. As Swope made the catch, linebacker C.J. Mosley threw up his hands as if to say, How do you defend that?
You don't. That's why Johnny Football is now in the front of every Heisman voter's mind without issuing one on-the-record comment. Of course, the social media outlets that have fueled Manziel's legend have also allowed his voice to be heard. Thanks to his Twitter feed, we know @JManziel2 celebrated on Sunday morning with breakfast at IHOP. We also know that Johnny Football appreciates the magnitude of Saturday's upset. "Words can't explain how much I love my teammates and my university!" Manziel wrote. "Did what everyone said we couldn't!"