Finally, a freshman - NBC Sports

Finally, a freshman
Texas A&M's Manziel likely to bring an end to one of sports' unwritten rules and win Heisman
December 7, 2012, 12:12 pm

It's history. It's justice for all. It's Johnny Football.

And it's about time.

When the 78th Heisman Trophy is awarded on Saturday night - a moment filled with sentiment, tradition and Americana - prepare for something completely different.

The bronze beauty will likely be presented to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

A freshman.

Could it be? Prior to this season, the nation's best player was never a freshman? Of course not (and we know that freshmen were ineligible for many of those seasons). It's the reflection of an antiquated mindset, the same thinking that has prevented a true defensive player from capturing the award.

The Heisman could go to a freshman.

It's about time.

It should've happened 32 years ago, when the 1980 season revolved around one remarkable player, Georgia running back Herschel Walker. He carried the Bulldogs on his back, all the way to a national championship. He was a phenomenon.

And he had no realistic hope of carrying the Heisman Electoral College. Just because he was a freshman. South Carolina's George Rogers was a great one, no doubt. But Herschel Walker was college football in 1980.

The Heisman isn't a lifetime achievement award. Never has been. It's about the most outstanding player of that season - period.

So if Manziel is judged to be the best player - over Notre Dame senior linebacker Manti Te'o and Kansas State senior quarterback Collin Klein - then he should win, regardless of what it says on his birth certificate.

How outstanding was Manziel's season?

Let us count the ways.

  • He's only the fifth Football Bowl Subdivision player to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in one season (for the trivia buffs: Texas' Vince Young in 2005, Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour in 2007, Nevada's Colin Kaepernick in 2010 and Northern Illinois' Dan Harnisch in 2011).
  • Around the SEC, they used to write songs about Archie Manning, the former Mississippi quarterback. In 1969, during the first prime-time telecast of a regular-season college-football game, Manning accounted for 540 yards of total offense in a 33-32 loss against Alabama. It was a religious experience. Manziel broke that record with a 557-yard tour de force against Arkansas. Two weeks later, he broke it again with 576 yards against Louisiana Tech.
  • Some people thought they'd never see anything like the 2009 season of Cam Newton, Auburn's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and national champion. Turns out, it only took three years. This season, Manziel accumulated 4,600 yards of total offense, breaking Newton's record.
  • And let's consider the bigger picture. Texas A&M jumped from the Big 12 (where the Aggies were 7-6 last season) to the SEC (where Southern fans were prepared to watch the Aggies pay some serious dues). Texas A&M is 10-2 with a road victory at Alabama, then ranked No. 1 nationally.

These things just don't happen.

How does someone from Kerrville, Texas arrive at college, take a normal redshirt season, work to earn a starting quarterback job and then . immediately contend for the Heisman?

He's 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, pretty average looking, but he has the magic. That much was clear early on. He had a season filled with Heisman moments and that was enough to overcome the disadvantages.

Manziel wasn't mentioned during the preseason Heisman buildup. Some years, if you don't arrive with some momentum, it's almost impossible to reach New York.

This season was different.

The prohibitive favorite, USC quarterback Matt Barkley, supposedly the best player on the best team, never got off the ground. The Trojans stumbled to 7-5. Barkley was injured in a late-season game.

South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore suffered a gruesome injury that knocked him out. Wisconsin running back Montee Ball finished fast, but by then, it was far too late. So the field was cleared for someone. That someone was Manziel.

Not only did he lack a Heisman campaign, he wasn't permitted to be interviewed all season (there's that freshman thing again). So the unknown collided with an air of mystery. It vanished the other week, when Manziel did a conference call, revealing a happy, funny, humble, likeable kid.

He just turned 20 on Friday. But he already has that undefinable quality, that Flutie-esque ability to make people miss and deliver a play.

The people who know Manziel best don't seem particularly surprised by all of these proceedings. Manziel's high-school career was the stuff of legends, too. My favorite story: As a sophomore, he rushed for an 80-yard touchdown. Penalty flag. Holding. On the next play, he rushed for a 90-yard touchdown.

That's Johnny Football.

He's a worthy Heisman candidate. The numbers say so. His presence says so.

He's a freshman. So what? Don't make him wait. If he's the best player, then he deserves the reward.

The Heisman Trophy, first presented in 1936, has always been cast at the Roman Bronze Foundry in Corona, Queens, N.Y. It is 14 inches long, 6 1/2 inches wide and 13 1/2 inches high. It weighs 25 pounds. It has never changed in appearance.

It's one of the most traditional moments in sports, when the Heisman Trophy winner is announced, when that player's life changes forever. Saturday, the award will likely be vaulted into the modern era. If you ask me, that's progress.


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