NEW YORK — He’s Johnny Best in Football now — and a freshman, at that.
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel became the first newcomer to win the Heisman Trophy, taking college football’s top individual prize Saturday night after a record-breaking debut.
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o finished a distant second in the voting and Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein was third. In a Heisman race with two nontraditional candidates, Manziel broke through the class ceiling and kept Te’o from becoming the first purely defensive player to win the award.
“That barrier’s broken now,” Manziel said. “It’s starting to become more of a trend that freshmen are coming in early and that they are ready to play. And they are really just taking the world by storm.”
None more than the guy they call Johnny Football.
Manziel drew 474 first-place votes and 2,029 points from the panel of media members and former winners. Te’o had 321 first-place votes and 1,706 points and Klein received 60 firsts and 894 points.
“I have been dreaming about this since I was a kid, running around the backyard pretending I was Doug Flutie, throwing Hail Marys to my dad,” he said after hugging his parents and kid sister.
Flutie was one of many Heisman winners standing behind Manziel as he gave his speech on stage at the Best Buy Theater in Times Square.
“I always wanted to be in a fraternity,” Manziel said later. “Now I get to be in the most prestigious one in the entire world.”
Manziel was so nervous waiting for the winner to be announced, he wondered if the television cameras could see his heart pounding beneath his navy blue pinstripe suit. But he seemed incredibly calm after, hardly resembling the guy who dashes around the football field on Saturday. He simply bowed his head, and later gave the trophy a quick kiss.
“It’s such an honor to represent Texas A&M, and my teammates here tonight. I wish they could be on the stage with me,” he said with a wide smile, concluding his speech like any good Aggie: “Gig’ em.”
Just a few days after turning 20, Manziel proved times have truly changed in college football, and that experience can be really overrated.
For years, seniors dominated the award named after John Heisman, the pioneering Georgia Tech coach from the early 1900s. In the 1980s, juniors started becoming common winners. Tim Tebow became the first sophomore to win it in 2007, and two more won it in the next two seasons.
Adrian Peterson had come closest as a freshman, finishing second to Southern California quarterback Matt Leinart in 2004. But it took 78 years for a newbie to take home the big bronze statue.
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” he said.
Peterson was a true freshman for Oklahoma. As a redshirt freshmen, Manziel attended school and practiced with the team last year, but did not play in any games.
He’s the second player from Texas A&M to win the Heisman, joining John David Crow from 1957, and did so without the slightest hint of preseason hype. Manziel didn’t even win the starting job until two weeks before the season.
Who needs hype when you can fill-up a highlight reel the way Manziel can?
With daring runs and elusive improvisation, Manziel broke 2010 Heisman winner Cam Newton’s Southeastern Conference record with 4,600 total yards, led the Aggies to a 10-2 in their first season in the SEC and orchestrated an upset at then-No. 1 Alabama in November that stamped him as legit.
He has thrown for 3,419 yards and 24 touchdowns and run for 1,181 yards and 19 more scores to become the first freshman, first SEC player and fifth player overall to throw for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 in a season.
“You can put his numbers up against anybody who has ever played the game,” Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said.
Manziel has one more game this season, when the No. 10 Aggies play Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 4.
As for the Heisman, Manziel said he’d like to keep it right next to his bed.
“But I’m in college. A lot of people come through the house. We live in a college neighborhood. It might not be a good idea. If I can get a case that’s indestructible, locked and looks pretty good, we’ll see where I keep it,” he said.
The resume alone fails to capture the Johnny Football phenomena. At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, Manziel is master of the unexpected, darting here and there, turning plays seemingly doomed to failure into touchdowns.
Take, for example, what he did in the first quarter against the Crimson Tide. Manziel took a shotgun snap, stepped up in the pocket as if he was about to take off on another made scramble and ran into the back a lineman. On impact, Manziel bobbled the ball, caught it with his back to the line of scrimmage, turned, rolled the opposite direction and fired a touchdown pass — throwing across his body — to a wide-open receiver.
He might as well have been back in Kerrville, Texas, where he became a hill country star in high school.
His road to college stardom was anything but a clear path.
Manziel competed with two other quarterbacks to replace Ryan Tannehill as the starter this season, the Aggies’ first in the SEC and first under Sumlin.
Manziel came out of spring practice as the backup, but became the starter in August.
Still, nobody was hailing him is the next big thing. Did Sumlin think he had a Heisman winner on his hands?
“No,” he said emphatically, adding, “Not this year.”
Then Manziel started playing and the numbers started piling up.
He also had some struggles against Florida in the season opener and in a home loss to LSU. The question was: Could he do his thing against a top-notch opponent?
The answer came in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Nov. 10. Going into the matchup against the Crimson Tide, Manziel said he and his teammates heard a lot of doubters.
“You can’t do this and you can’t do that,” he recalled Saturday at the podium
Manziel passed for 253 yards, ran for 92 and the Aggies beat the Tide 29-24. Klein had been the front-runner for most of the season, but Manziel surged after beating `Bama.
Still, Manziel was still something of a mystery man. Sumlin’s rules prohibit freshmen from being available to the media. Manziel was off-limits, but not exactly silent.
Manziel gave glimpses of himself on social media — including some memorable pictures of him dressed up as Scooby-Doo for Halloween with some scantily clad young women.
Before he became a celebrity, Manziel got himself into some serious trouble. In June, he was arrested in College Station after police said he was involved in a fight and produced a fake ID. He was charged with disorderly conduct and two other misdemeanors.
After the season, Texas A&M took the reins off Manziel and made him available for interviews, allowing him to tell his own tale.
Though in the end, his play said it all.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphdrussoap
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