Mariotti: Sorry, Manti Te’o, I’m Mesmerized By Johnny Manziel

Just as I was ready to flee the college football tsunami, just as I felt overwhelmed by insane rights deals from no-conscience TV networks that trigger frenetic conference realignment and quickie coaching dismissals, I looked up this week to see a delightful little debate: Johnny Football vs. the Domer You Want to Hug.

If only the Fiscal Cliff was half as compelling.

This is quite a heavy conversational load for the 25-pound bronze sculpture known as the Heisman Trophy. The contest isn’t simply about Johnny Manziel and Manti Te’o. It isn’t only about a thoroughly unforeseen duel between a freshman quarterback and a defensive player when, according to tradition, neither species is supposed to win the award. No, some serious issues have entered the equation—personal tragedy, a police blotter, a self-righteous fan base at Notre Dame, a good-old-boy fan base in Texas, even hints of religion and race—along with the usual elements of buzz, style points and who raises Brent Musburger’s octaves more. If we’ve seen a few aggressive attempts to market players in the past, such as a Times Square billboard for Joey Harrington that was funded by Nike Swoosh U. (er, the University of Oregon), I can’t recall a Heisman argument so politically complex.

Jay Berwanger vs. Monk Meyer, it is not. The 21st Century, it is.

The swirling opinions call for detached tunnel vision on my part, a clear look through the national clutter to present a non-biased case for the player who made the most impact… and nothing more. Let me state right here, right now, that I am not a Notre Dame hater, despite floods of mail sent to the Chicago Sun-Times during dark Fighting Irish times calling me, among other things, “a bad Catholic.” Let me also say I would consider Te’o for a bigger honor, Sportsman of the Year, in that he led the revival of the Irish with remarkable dignity and courage while facing the staggering deaths of his grandmother and leukemia-stricken girlfriend in September. I’ll say, too, that I don’t like the Johnny Football nickname, a lazy and belated spinoff of the Donnie Baseball label given years ago to Don Mattingly.

All I want to do is anoint the most outstanding player in college football this season, regardless of everything except what I observed with my two Lasik-crystalized eyes.

That would be Johnny Manziel.

He is exactly what college sports needs amid a messy period of greed and upheaval, a magician who cuts through the institutional madness and makes us stop everything we’re doing when he appears on screen. If Tim Tebow seemed special, Robert Griffin III seemed transcendent, and Cam Newton seemed a little of both, Manziel has carved a freewheeling identity with guts, presence, and passion—sort of a Brett Favre without the cannon arm. He’s a feisty, intoxicating leader who has returned Texas A&M to prominence in its inaugural Southeastern Conference season and engineered the year’s biggest thunderbolt—a mammoth upset of then-No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa. And he has amassed numbers that suggest he’ll become the college game’s most prolific dual-threat quarterback ever, throwing for 3,419 yards and 24 touchdowns while rushing for 1,181 yards and 19 touchdowns. Combined, the totals already surpass Newton’s production in his Heisman-winning 2010 season, but unlike the 6-foot-6 Newton, Manziel is listed at 6-1 and 200 pounds when he actually might not be much bigger than, well, me.

“The thing they usually say to me is, ‘You’re really small,’” he said of opponents. If Newton towered over and whisked through defenses, and if Tebow pounded forward with his massive torso and inspired teammates with still-famous speeches, Manziel plays like one of the cool kids who knows that life is short and he’d better squeeze it fast.

I’d call him a legend in the making, but he would correct me.

“I don’t know if it’s a legend,” Manziel said in a news conference this week. “It’s probably more of a folk tale—and I don’t really see it that way.”

His humility makes the story even more refreshing. No one knew what to expect when A&M coach Kevin Sumlin lifted his no-freshmen-interviews policy and allowed Manziel to speak to the media for the first time this week—first in a national conference call, then in a news conference at the team’s football facility the next day. What we heard was a 19-year-old who knows how to mix fun with perspective, stunned by the mass attention yet trying to hold onto his Texas roots.

“This season has been incredibly surreal. It’s beyond my wildest imagination,” he said. “It’s a true testament to how this team has grown every week, because without these guys, none of my individual success would be anything.

“I don’t see myself as Johnny Football. I see myself as Johnathan Manziel, a small-town guy from Kerrville, Texas, who’s extremely fortunate and blessed to be able to play football here at A&M. When people want to take my picture or ask for an autograph, I’m shocked by it.”

When he does hear talking heads on TV describe him as the Heisman front-runner, his friends are quick to deflate any evidence of a growing head. “I think they’re in love with (other) college football players more than they even like me. They talk about Jeff Driskel or Braxton Miller. It makes me sit back and think, ‘Do y’all even like me?’” he said.

And while he appreciates his nickname—there still is no definitive explanation of its origin—he thinks it’s kind of odd. Why? “Well, my name is Johnny, and I’ve been playing football since I was 6,” he told the media. That was about the age he started playing video games—and, no lie, dreaming of winning the Heisman. “When you’re playing those NCAA (video) games as a kid, you create the player who can win the Heisman by putting up some crazy numbers,” Manziel said. “When I created a video game player, I probably made him 6-6, probably 230 pounds. I definitely didn’t make him my size.”

With his engaging personality, Manziel has made it more convenient for some Heisman voters to overlook his scrape with the law last June. But should they—particularly when Te’o has warmed hearts with his character and strength through excruciating personal circumstances? Manziel was arrested and charged with three misdemeanors after, according to College Station police, he tussled with 47-year-old Marvin McKinney in a nightlife district near the A&M campus. In the police report, McKinney said that Manziel’s companion made a racial slur, prompting McKinney to confront Manziel’s companion. That is when Manziel, according to police, shoved McKinney, leading the two to exchange punches. Manziel made matters worse, police said, by trying to pass a fake Louisiana driver’s license. By dawn, his shirtless mug shot was on the Internet.

Johnny Football spent the night in jail.

He didn’t skirt the issue the other day, telling the assembled media, “The first thing that goes through your mind is how many people you’ve let down…. [It was] a truly critical error in judgment on my part, and something I’ll look back on as one of the biggest mistakes of my life.” He added that the arrest “changed my lifestyle immensely.”

The Notre Dame factions, long convinced that the national media are picking on them and that Sports Illustrated‘s brilliant cover piece last week somehow was a slam job, are pouncing on Manziel’s arrest. “Johnny Rotten,” some are calling him. Never mind that Notre Dame has dealt with off-field issues of its own. In a tight race, they say Te’o—in addition to the 103 tackles and seven interceptions for a defense that has yielded only nine touchdowns this season—should win as the glittering senior over the swaggering freshman with the rap sheet. Oh, and isn’t ND going to the national championship game, while Johnny Football might not even play in a BCS bowl? “If a guy like Manti Te’o isn’t going to win the Heisman, they should just make it an offensive award,” ND coach Brian Kelly lobbied. “He is the backbone of a 12-0 team that has proven itself each and every week.”

“We believe in each other,” said Te’o.

I believe in him, too, even if I also believe in South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney, who is the more intimidating defensive force (13 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss).

But with all well-deserved love for Manti Te’o, I’m more mesmerized by the performance and folk tale of Johnny Manziel. If that choice makes me a bad Catholic, so be it. I may be going to hell, but not for my opinions on the 2012 Heisman Trophy race.

STORY ART: Main image made in-house with photos by AP Photo.

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