DREAMS TEND TO grow. What does the baby who finally crawls dream about? He dreams about walking. What does the third-grader who finally makes his first free throw dream about? Sinking his first three-pointer. What does the too-short, too-unpredictable quarterback who finally earns a scholarship to a power-conference school dream about?
We've met that guy. That was Johnny Manziel a year ago. He had been a cross between Fran Tarkenton and Paul Bunyan because of the miracles he worked on the field at Tivy High in Kerrville, but outside of Texas Hill Country hardly anyone knew his name. He had redshirted his first year at Texas A&M, and as his second season dawned he was set to enter an open quarterback competition. What did he dream about? "Just playing on the field in college," Manziel says. "If it was five snaps, 10 snaps a game, just stepping on the field and playing."
So what happens when that redshirt freshman plays more than five or 10 snaps a game? What happens when he wins the starting job, befuddles SEC defenses, changes the way we think about Scooby-Doo costumes, engineers a win against eventual national champion Alabama on its home field, leads the SEC in rushing while throwing for 3,706 yards and 26 touchdowns, becomes the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, helps his team crush Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, hangs with the Duck Dynasty guys at the Super Bowl, meets rapper Drake—who happens to be his version of John Lennon—meets LeBron James, throws out the first pitch for the Rangers and shoots 79 at Pebble Beach?
He makes a new bucket list, of course.
After several days in May spent training with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. in San Diego, Manziel, a.k.a. Johnny Football, sat aboard a Southwest jet bound for Texas with Nathan Fitch, a buddy from Kerrville who is Manziel's de facto personal assistant. With help from Fitch, Manziel began cataloging his dreams. Some of them, such as skydiving, predated the Heisman. Others were new. Among the entries:
• Attend a major soccer match. Maybe Manchester United versus Manchester City.
• Attend an NBA Finals game. (In June, he took in two in Miami.)
• Make his first million dollars.
• Donate $1 million.
• Go 100 mph in a boat. (Manziel did this recently on Lake Tyler in Texas on a boat owned by his grandfather. Fitch didn't wear sunglasses, and the rush of air peeled the contacts from his eyes. Manziel found the ride quite enjoyable.)
• Buy a house for his parents, Paul and Michelle, who have funded his adventures.
• Get drafted into the NFL.
• See his sister, Meri, who will start college next year, get married.
• Meet Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler.
• Play St. Andrews.
• Go to Rio de Janeiro.
Manziel figures he can eliminate two items at once by attending a World Cup match in Rio. If he does, he'll try to bring along A&M's former offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, the 33-year-old Texas Tech coach. "Coach Kingsbury and me always talk about moving there together to be deejays," Manziel says. Adds Kingsbury, "Can you think of a better wingman than Johnathan Football in Brazil?"
Does this all sound too frivolous? Instead of partying with rappers, playing golf and imagining beaches, should Manziel have spent the past seven months thinking Deep Football Thoughts about what will happen on Sept. 14, when Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart orders a 255-pound Jack linebacker to zoom into the backfield with the intention of knocking the 6-foot, 210-pound Manziel on his Heisman Trophy--winning butt? Should Manziel have spent all that time figuring out how he'll communicate with his teammates on Nov. 23, when the voices of more than 92,000 clog the dank air at LSU's Tiger Stadium?
Manziel thought about that stuff, too, but it didn't generate any headlines. The golf did. The Finals games did. The time spent with Drake, Wale and Rick Ross did. Ditto for Manziel's appearance alongside his model ex-girlfriend, Sarah Savage, in the video for country singer Granger Smith's "Silverado Bench Seat." After the interview for this story last week, Manziel mentioned that he'd be heading to Austin to visit friends, maybe hit a few frat parties. On Sunday, video emerged of a thrown beverage barely missing Manziel after he was asked to leave a party near the Texas campus. That made headlines, too. "I probably rubbed people the wrong way in some cases," Manziel says, "but at the end of the day, people are mad at me and people are upset at me because I'm doing everything they want to do."
They're upset, too, about his tweeting his desire to leave College Station. The tweet came about, Manziel says, because a city police officer woke Manziel's roommate, Steven Brant, at about midnight to warn that he was going to ticket Manziel's car, which was parked in the wrong direction. Manziel, who was on a fishing trip with teammates near Corpus Christi, says he told the officer on the phone that he had the only set of keys and that he would move the car as soon as he returned in the morning. Manziel was ticketed anyway, and he voiced his displeasure on Twitter. "When it went from zero to 400 retweets," Manziel says, "I knew it was going to be bad." Manziel's attempt at an apology made it worse. He asked his followers to "please walk a day in my shoes." Many of those followers, Manziel quickly learned, would be more than happy to trade places and were turned off by the notion that he considered his jet-setting life difficult.
Then came July and Manziel's dismissal from the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, La. A counselor at the camp run by Archie, Peyton and Eli Manning, Manziel was asked to leave on July 13 after he missed meetings and practices. The timing was not ideal: Just three days later he was at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala., answering questions during SEC media days.
DREAMS DON'T always get adjusted upward. Last week Manziel curled up on the couch at his parents' house in Bryan, Texas, and pointed at the flat screen on the wall. ESPN played on mute. "This is what everybody always wanted," Manziel said. "This is what, as a kid, you always dream about, to be on TV, to be on SportsCenter." Now Manziel can barely stomach the sight of himself on television. The grilling of Manziel at various stations on the second floor of the Wynfrey was covered by ESPN with a fervor the three-letter broadcast networks used to reserve for natural disasters and coups d'état. At each interrogation Manziel said he overslept. Was he hungover? How much did he drink the night before?
Last week Manziel denied that he had been hungover, but he wouldn't say whether or not he drank. Manziel is 20. The legal drinking age in Louisiana is 21. It is unwise for a famous 20-year-old to admit to breaking the law. But there were parties at the Manning camp where alcohol was consumed. At least one photo was taken as well. After an event that began the night of July 12, Manziel says he and Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron took a picture with the bartenders, which got the quarterbacks chewed out by a camp official the next day. Manziel maintains that he is solely to blame for oversleeping, but the tongue-lashing "made me feel like they were just trying to protect themselves, too." (The Mannings have said he's invited back in the future.)
He remains incredulous that his dismissal from a football camp received so much attention—especially compared with the relatively light coverage of his arrest in June 2012. In that case a Manziel jumped into a fight to help Brant. When police detained the combatants, they found fake IDs on Manziel. (Last month Manziel pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of failure to identify. He was ordered to pay a $2,000 fine.) Meanwhile, other seemingly more important sports stories seem to come and go from the headlines in a flash. "I oversleep at the Manning camp, and there's a weeklong special," Manziel says. "[Former A&M and current Broncos linebacker] Von Miller, who I love like a brother, is getting suspended for four games and it's already off TV." (After Manziel's interview the Miller story resurfaced, with ESPN citing sources saying that Miller had not failed any test. As of Monday the NFL had not suspended him.)
Before the Manning camp episode Manziel and his family thought that their life was returning to a semblance of sanity, that the wave of attention that followed Johnny Football's glorious season had dissipated at last. "That probably is what's getting us in trouble—wanting to be normal," Manziel says. "We want to be just like we've always been, where none of this is a big deal. Just playing football and good things are happening. I never, ever wanted to believe that there was fame behind this. I never liked looking at myself that way."
Manziel's favorite Drake song is called "Unforgettable." He particularly relishes one couplet: "Never forgettin' from where I came/and no matter where I'm headed I promise to stay the same." But 10 months after fame hit him like an LSU defensive end, staying the same grows more difficult with each passing day. There's also this from the same Drake verse: "All this s--- is new to me/I'm learnin' to behave."
DID MANZIEL besmirch the Heisman, as several columnists suggested, with his actions this off-season? He doesn't think so. But when he won it, he had no idea how much smaller a fishbowl he would be living in. "I never knew what that trophy would do," Manziel says. "I never knew the power of it." That's probably because the world in which he won it hasn't existed for long. When Florida quarterback Tim Tebow won the Heisman in 2007, he drew seemingly as much attention as Manziel. But Tebow the collegian didn't have to deal with the same forms of social media. Twitter had just been invented. Instagram didn't launch until October '10. Every move Manziel makes can be tracked and posted immediately. "Even my 78-year-old dad knows how to take pictures [with his phone] and is on Twitter," Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin says. "Things are completely different than they were 10 years ago—even five years ago. The access to people is completely different than it was."
That access made Manziel an easy target for a certain species of vulture even before he hoisted the trophy. Late last season professional autograph sellers would greet him outside the football complex with carloads of photos and memorabilia for him to sign. Some pieces bore personalized messages, which Manziel later learned were wiped off so that only his autograph remained. During a layover on their way to the Home Depot College Football Awards Show in Orlando last December, Manziel and his family were eating breakfast in Dallas when a man in military fatigues approached. He said he worked for a charity that distributed memorabilia to soldiers serving overseas and asked if Manziel could sign some helmet decals. Manziel says his food sat untouched while he signed sheet after sheet of decals. A few days later Manziel's father looked on eBay and found that the decals had been slapped on maroon helmets and put up for sale.
After Manziel won the Heisman, the signature requests exploded. He had learned to avoid the professional autograph hounds, but he didn't know how to manage the ones in his own inner circle. School officials wanted him to sign memorabilia. Manziel says one teammate filled a pool table and a Ping-Pong table with items to be signed. Friends of Manziel's mother, father, grandmother and aunt sent dozens of items with requests for autographs. At one point early this year Manziel's parents' garage was stuffed with memorabilia awaiting his signature. He couldn't take it anymore. He spent hours each week signing, and he grew angry with his parents for accepting the autograph requests. But Manziel, who posed for hundreds of pictures during the same period, was just as bad as his family members. He couldn't say no.
Last February, Manziel asked Sumlin for help. The coach connected his quarterback with a Houston-based therapist. Manziel mentioned the therapist in passing at SEC media days, but he was hesitant to offer specifics because he worried people would think him crazy. In truth, he simply needed tips on dealing with stress—and on how to say no.
Months before Manziel made his bucket list, his therapist asked him to make a list of the stressors in his life. Autographs topped the ledger. The solution was simple. Instead of signing everything sent his way, Manziel would dedicate one hour a week to fan mail and autographs. Everything else would go unsigned. In public Manziel would sign for children but steer clear of adults.
The second item dealt with Manziel's inability to go anywhere in College Station without getting mobbed. He would have to adjust his habits. Instead of dining at Fuego, a 24-hour taco joint so good that every state should require one to be built adjacent to all public universities, Manziel now opts for the drive-through. If he wants to visit the bars in the Northgate district across from campus, he needs to accept that he will be recognized by almost everyone. Fortunately, Manziel has found one place where no one recognizes him. "Vegas," he says. "I was able to walk around the streets without taking a single picture. And I was there for a total of seven days over two trips."
NCAA rules compound the issues Manziel faces. Were he a 20-year-old movie star or pop icon, he would be allowed to accept payment at fair market value for his services. He could hire security to keep the autograph hounds at bay. As a college football player he can accept only tuition and room and board—even though a study commissioned by Texas A&M showed his Heisman run produced $37 million worth of media exposure for the university. Meanwhile, Manziel could stop in at Aggieland Outfitters on University Drive and find the following items for sale: adult replica number 2 jerseys in black or maroon ($64.99), youth replica number 2 jerseys ($46.99), toddler replica number jerseys ($36.99), number 2 T-shirts ($15.99), three different Heisman shirts ($5 with the purchase of the 2012 season highlight DVD) and a T-shirt with an officially licensed Superman logo on the front and number 2 on the back ($19.99). Manziel won't see a penny for these, though in a rare moment of humanity, the NCAA did concede earlier this year that Manziel could collect damages from those who violate his trademark on the name Johnny Football.
SO WHEN will Manziel leave College Station and go to a place where he gets a cut of the jersey and T-shirt sales? It seems a foregone conclusion he will bolt to the NFL after this season, even though he is eligible to play college football in 2014 and '15. Manziel's own mother doesn't see how he could stay another year. "It's sad that the system doesn't allow it," Michelle says. "We can't go through this another year. We would all be in the loony bin." Johnny believes he could handle another year. "Yes, absolutely," he says. "We'd have to change. We'd have to adapt. We'd just have to do it."
Until recently Johnny had a Texas A&M win total and a projected draft position in mind that would trigger an automatic jump to the NFL. Now he isn't so sure. After watching quarterbacks rise and fall in this year's draft, he realizes how fluid the process is—especially for a quarterback who doesn't fit the NFL prototype but who does excel at the league's scheme of the month, the read option. He knows Sumlin is hauling in some of the nation's best recruits, and he can't help but imagine what the Aggies might achieve if he plays three or four college seasons. He has studied the contracts given to picks in various rounds and concluded that he can't possibly decide if he'll stay until after the season. "There's so much that factors in," Manziel says. "I don't want to be a guy who has a first-round grade and come out and go into the second round. That's the difference between $12 million and $4 million or $5 million. That's still a lot of money, obviously, but not when you have two full years left on the table."
There is a popular notion that he caught SEC defensive coordinators by surprise last year; after a full off-season to prepare, they'll solve him. Whitfield, the independent quarterback tutor, says that doesn't take into account Manziel's improvement. "[Defenses] are going to find an answer," Whitfield says. "It's just math. So you have to make your equation more complex." Manziel has tried to do that by improving his lower-body mechanics so he can throw more efficiently and by working on staying in the pocket instead of bolting at the first sign of trouble. This allows him to keep passing options alive longer. With 6'5" Mike Evans running routes and athletic tackles Jake Matthews and Cedric Ogbuehi blocking for him, Manziel should have plenty of opportunities to make plays with his arm.
Meanwhile, Manziel has far more command of the offense than he did as a first-year starter. Jake Spavital is now Texas A&M's co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and like Kingsbury, he learned the modified Air Raid from current West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. Spavital has coached Houston's Case Keenum, Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden and West Virginia's Geno Smith in the offense, and he says Manziel has the capability to make the same leap those quarterbacks made. "Year Two in this offense is the good year," Spavital says. "I've coached some pretty good QBs. Johnny can do things they can't do." Meanwhile, Manziel laughs at the idea that the Aggies have stood pat while opposing defenses have designed plans to bottle him. "We're picking up things from different places," Manziel says. "What happens when they think they're going to see the Air Raid and then we do the read option like Oregon does? What are they going to do then?"
The lack of faith disturbs Manziel, just as it did at Tivy High, where he set records and did more with less than any quarterback in the Lone Star State and still couldn't get Baylor, TCU or Texas to offer him a scholarship. "When is the day going to come when people stop doubting me?" Manziel asks, his voice rising. "When is it going to stop?"
Based on what he's read on Twitter, all Manziel must do is surpass one of the greatest individual seasons in the history of the game. It also wouldn't hurt if he led the Aggies to an SEC title and a BCS championship. And he needs to stop going to bars and stay home every night to study his playbook and/or the Bible. He's more than happy to do the football part. As for the off-field part, he intends to be himself. "I'm adapting. I'm learning. I'm trying to learn from these mistakes," he says. "But I'm not going to change who I am because the media wants me to be this, this or this. I'm not going to do that." Besides, didn't the legend of Johnny Football spring from a devil-may-care attitude on and off the field? "You love me when I'm running around being dangerous and a loose cannon," Manziel says. "What makes me special on the field is what people don't like off the field. I'm still learning how to put that into perspective."
That kind of introspection has helped Manziel realize something else. The autograph vultures and the loss of anonymity were trades he made so he could cross so many items off his bucket list. He and his pal Fitch spent time last week marveling at the people and places they've seen in the seven-plus months since Manziel won the Heisman. "When we look back 20, 30 years down the road, we're going to sit there and be like, We pretty much hung out with the f-----' Beatles," Manziel says. "We pretty much did everything we wanted to do."
But that's the thing about dreams and bucket lists. Every achievement unlocked produces a desire for more. A year ago Johnny Football dreamed of five to 10 snaps a game. What does he dream of now?
"Being the best player to ever play college football."
"This is what, as a kid, you always dream about, to be on SportsCenter." Now he can barely stomach the sight of himself on TV.
As camp approaches, the Campus Union blog shifts into high gear with news and notes from around the college football world. Go to SI.com/mag
Photograph by SCOTT HALLERAN/GETTY IMAGES
TOTAL PACKAGE The swashbuckling style that made Manziel so spectacularly successful last season has been evident in his off-field behavior, which has made for high times and hard questions.
GIVE AND TAKE First pitches and appearances at the ESPYs are fun, but the spotlight, which Manziel felt at SEC media days (left), isn't always a blessing.
MIKE STONE/REUTERS (BASEBALL)
[See caption above]
ALBERTO E. RODRIGUEZ/GETTY IMAGES FOR ESPY
[See caption above]
SCOTT HALLERAN/GETTY IMAGES
LAST HURRAH? Many believe Manziel is a lock to enter the NFL draft in '14, but he's in no rush to leave College Station until he's sure he's a high draft pick.