It was moment unlike any other in the Heisman Trophy’s existence.
The freshman, the first ever to win the storied award in its 78 years, stood with the collected past winners behind him, dozens more peering back from the portraits lining the wall in Best Buy Theater in Times Square.
Johnny Manziel took a deep breath, letting out a “whoo” before the Texas A&M quarterback broke into a smile.
“This is a moment that I’ve dreamed about since I’ve been a kid, running around the backyard pretending I was Doug Flutie throwing Hail Marys to my dad,” Manziel said. “I’m so blessed to be on a stage with such a group of great guys. To be invited into this fraternity, what a pleasure it really is.”
Where Herschel Walker, Michael Vick and Adrian Peterson — the only other freshmen to earn the Heisman trip to New York — failed, Manziel shattered the glass ceiling and put to rest any stigma or bias of voting for a freshman.
Voters, myself included, got it right. Regardless of his age, Manziel was simply the most deserving player of the season.
With 2,029 points, he won handily, beating out Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o, who tied Hugh Green in 1980 for the best finish ever for a strictly defensive player, by 503 points, while Kansas State’s Collin Klein finished third (894). USC’s Marqise Lee (207) and Ohio State’s Braxton Miller (144) rounded out the top five.
Manziel drew 474 first-place votes to join a list of trailblazing winners that includes Doc Blanchard (first junior in 1945), Archie Griffin (only two-time winner in 1974 and ‘75), Tim Brown (first wide receiver in 1987), Charles Woodson (first primarily defensive player in 1997) and Tim Tebow (first sophomore in 2007).
In another bit of history, with Manziel and Te’o at the top, it was the first vote in history without a running back or an upperclassman in the top two.
The freshman hugged Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin and then his parents before taking the steps up to the podium, the past winners — including the Aggies’ only other winner, John David Crow (1957) — applauding as he took his place among them.
A year that opened with USC’s Matt Barkley as nearly everyone’s preseason favorite saw that title seemingly seized during the season by West Virginia QB Geno Smith, Klein and ultimately — and most unexpectedly — Manziel.
The Kerrville, Texas, native, who redshirted his first season at Texas A&M, first had to beat out redshirt sophomores Jameill Showers and Matt Joeckel and freshman Matt Davis for the Aggies starting job. A Parade All-American and National Player of the Year, Manziel was no unknown commodity. But a Heisman contender?
It had long been thought that some voters simply wouldn’t put a freshman on their ballots. But in a testament to how far the process has come in the past five years — which have included not only the first sophomore winner, but three players from that class — Manziel appeared on all but eight percent of the ballots.
His was a victory that came largely behind the signature victory of the season, Nov. 10 at Tuscaloosa against then-No. 1 Alabama. The day “Johnny Football” went from Texas taste to national phenomenon.
For those who say the Heisman has lost its luster, I’d argue it’s regained it. We may well be in the midst of a renaissance for the award.
It’s no longer about rewarding the best player on a team in the title race, which hampered the Heisman and its perception during the 1990s and part of this decade. The award has simply been awarded to the best player — and in this season, it’s hard to deny that was Manziel.
He set SEC and national freshman records with 4,600 yards of total offense — 3,419 through the air and 1,181 on the ground — and had 43 combined touchdowns, a staggering stat line that became that much more staggering considering he did while playing in the imposing SEC West.
It was his dominance in the SEC that was showcased in the South voting region, where Manziel earned his largest margin of victory, beating out Klein by 146 points. In all Manziel won five of the six regions, only missing out on the Midwest, which Te’o won by just three points.
Te’o, who earned 1,706 points, earned the most points in history for a pure defender.
There was humility and emotion in Manziel’s speech, drawing back to the Dec. 22 death of senior offensive lineman Joseph Villavisencio.
“I’d especially at this time like to honor someone who is near and dear to everyone at Texas A&M in Joey Villavisencio,” he said before slightly choking up. “It was around this time last year that a center on our team died in a tragic car accident. It was something that as a whole team we really had to fight through and press on through the bowl game.
“To Mr. and Mrs. Villavisencio, if I had a son I’d want him to be just like him. I know Joey’s in a better place.”
Manziel punctuated his speech with a thumbs up and a “Gig ‘em,” a close that now leads to another debate entirely after the first freshman in history hoisted that 25-pound, bronze idol.
Could Johnny Football match, or even surpass Griffin?
With at least one, if not three, years remaining at Texas A&M, Manziel has time. But he’ll also face an entirely new set of expectations, which every winner to return since Griffin can attest. Seven Heisman recipients have attempted to equal Griffin, with only Billy Sims (runner-up in 1979) coming close.
Then there’s the matter of Manziel’s competition.
A cast of Lee, Miller, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas will be among the early favorites, and there’s certain to be more contenders, like Manziel this season, who come out of nowhere.
But none of that matters now. What does is a win that’s been decades in the making.
This was Johnny Manziel’s night, his trophy and his place in history.