If the Heisman Trophy people are to be taken at their word, that their award “annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity,” the kid known as “Johnny Football” has to be the choice.
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, as he was known before the nickname stuck, is a transformative player. If you take him off the ninth-ranked Aggies, they are not the same. Their transition into the Southeastern Conference is less steady, their decision to secede from the Big 12 more second-guessable, their season less exciting.
Manziel made it impossible to tell the tale of this college season without him.
The problem is logic and awards have only a casual relationship. Voters screw these things up often and for reasons like “we usually do not do that” and “you see, Johnny Football is a freshman,” and this may cost Manziel the Heisman.
I know, I know, people are saying he is the prohibitive favorite to win the award. I hope so. He should be, based on his 4,600 total yards in 12 games and his hand in 43 touchdowns, and how he has played the game, all sandlot style, and how he improved every single week, and how his team got better with him and that victory against then-No. 1 Alabama.
“This season has been incredibly surreal and beyond my wildest imagination,” said Manziel in a conference call with reporters Monday, the national media’s first exposure to him beyond what we saw on Saturdays and in a few leaked Halloween photos.
He was just as charming as everybody figured he’d be.
There was a feeling of “Why the hell has A&M been hiding this kid?” and “Of course, he is going to win the Heisman now.” Why he would not are really non-reasons such as:
1. Johnny Football’s team has been defeated (by LSU and Florida) unlike 12-0 Notre Dame. This is ridiculous because the Heisman is not a team achievement award.
2. He is a freshman. Also ridiculous because the Heisman is not a lifetime achievement award.
3. Voters tend to do crazy things. And this is most definitely true.
The problem with arguing for a player to win an award is the supposition that you are arguing against another. This fallacy — that to be for one, you must be against the other guy — was at play in this year’s American League MVP voting, where support for Los Angeles Angels wunderkind Mike Trout somehow morphed into Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera’s winning being an embarrassment.
I would have voted for Trout, but thought much the same way I do when pressed on the merits of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o for Heisman: He’d be a good choice as well.
There is no argument against Te’o per se, merely a stronger one for Johnny Football. Nor is this simply about legend, though I, too, became more enamored with him after pictures of him in a Scooby Doo costume, with a giant grin and sorority girls in all stages of dress on Halloween leaked. This seemed very much what a college quarterback should be doing in his free time.
The problem with legends is they tend to be based on this weird mix of amazing things they actually do and these narratives we add. This was even more the case with Johnny Football because A&M coach Kevin Sumlin prohibited him from talking to the media this season under the guise of protecting him.
There is a whole argument to be made about this, about whether college football is meant to protect kids or educate them, whether they should be shielded or exposed. This is not that argument. The problem I have is this set up a perfect storm for sports journalists. There is nothing we like better than a blank canvas to insert our beliefs, our thoughts, our hope of what the kid is like without anything to challenge it. This is the genesis of legends. It is also the danger.
I actually liked the kid we talked to more. He is not necessarily a throwback or really that different. It is funny how much he sounds like so many kids I talked to on Friday nights, on varying fields all over Texas. In fact, his answer about his nickname is exactly like what a kid from East Texas would say.
“My feeling is it’s something that’s funny,” Manziel said.
Why is it funny?
“Well, my name is Johnny, and I’ve been playing football since I was 6.”
All of this is fun and makes for a great story, a legend if you will. Why he deserves to win the Heisman, though, really has little to do with any of it.
Why is simple.
Johnny Football is the most outstanding college football player in the country, and his legend was built Saturday after Saturday by what he did on the field.