Johnny Manziel has rushed for more yards than any other freshman QB in NCAA history.
"Excellence stems from a great sense of pride in who we are and what we believe in." --Former Texas A&M President Robert Gates
Story by Brent Zwerneman, San Antonio Express-News & Houston Chronicle
Johnny Manziel’s football bravado earned him headlines in the Hill Country as a teen, but Jerry Loggins first observed his grandson’s incomparable competitiveness a decade earlier on fishing trips. When counting bass on a boat in the middle of an East Texas lake.
“If he caught more fish than I did, everything was rosy,” Loggins said, chuckling at the memory of a pint-sized Johnny reveling in the conquering of his finned foe. “But, boy, he’d get mad if I caught more, and when we’d get back to the house, he’d shut the door to his room and you wouldn’t see him the rest of the night.”
Why? To ponder whipping his grandpa at a competition – of course others consider fishing a means of relaxation – requiring as much luck as skill.
“He’s the most competitive kid … nah, I’m not even going to say ‘kid’ – he’s the most competitive person I’ve ever met,” said Loggins, whose Loggins Restaurant in Tyler is adorned in Manziel memorabilia.
Manziel, Texas A&M’s freshman star quarterback who’s earning mention as a Heisman Trophy candidate, rose to prominence as a human highlight film at Kerrville’s Tivy High. But his unabashed competitiveness bloomed in Tyler, where he was born and raised and the Manziel name is prominent.
A great-great uncle, Bobby Joe Manziel, was a boxer known as “The Syrian Kid,” and also a sparring partner with the legendary Jack Dempsey. Bobby Joe earned his own legendary status in East Texas as a prominent oil wildcatter.
Johnny was born in 1992 to two diehard golfers, Paul and Michelle Manziel, who were sweethearts at Tyler’s Lee High and each on the school’s golf team. Through his love of golf Paul later became friends with Jacky Lee, a former A&M golfer who also coached a powerhouse Pop Warner football team dubbed the Tyler Hurricanes.
Lee picked up on Johnny’s extraordinary athleticism even as a skinny 8 year old, but Johnny’s mother and grandmother, Lyana Loggins, were insistent the youngster would not play football while in elementary school.
“I’d always see Johnny playing basketball and baseball with my son, Ross,” said Lee, whose father, also named Jacky Lee, was a one-time Houston Oilers quarterback. “But his mother didn’t want him playing football because she was afraid he’d get hurt. So he would come to our games and just watch.”
Johnny was finally able to join the Hurricanes in the sixth grade – most of his peers had started with the team in the second grade – and was “immediately the best athlete on the field,” Lee said. So the young man now dubbed “Johnny Football” for his collegiate exploits earned his first of many monikers – “Johnny Hurricane” – on the Hubbard Middle School grounds. Lee said on Johnny’s first play in his first practice, he rolled to his left and threw right.
“That’s a hard throw for a right-handed quarterback to make,” Lee said. “But he threw a pass that looked like it was on a clothesline. His ability to do that comes from being a shortstop in baseball.”
That’s another legend concerning the phenom A&M receiver Uzoma Nwachukwu has dubbed “Captain Amazing.” Some longtime observers claim football might be Manziel’s third best sport, behind baseball and golf. Lee, an Aggie golfer in the early 1980s, said Manziel would easily start for A&M’s nationally-ranked baseball team, and that he was shooting par on the golf course by the time he was 11.
“He’s some kind of special to watch,” Lee said.
Had Manziel not won the Aggies’ starting quarterback gig this past summer over sophomores Jameill Showers and Matt Joeckel, he might very well have played baseball for A&M this spring, a family member said.
When Johnny was in junior high, Paul took a job in Kerrville, and the family, including younger sister Meri, uprooted from Tyler and headed for the Hill Country. That’s where Julius Scott, Tivy’s then-offensive coordinator, first laid eyes on the rangy youth with the smile as wide as Tyler’s Earl Campbell Parkway.
“Johnny played all of the sports, and excelled in everything he did,” Scott said. “I didn’t start working with him until he was a sophomore, but I told another coach at that time, ‘You remember the name Johnny Manziel. He will be the greatest football player ever from Tivy.’
“He just had this magnetism about him, in addition to being a tremendous athlete. He wasn’t selfish at all, and that made him special. You’d think a star would want all the glamour and glory, but not Johnny. All he wanted to do was win, and that was the trait I loved about him the most.”
Win he did, in leading the Antlers to the Class 4A state semifinals as a junior, and the second round of the playoffs as a senior. He threw for 3,609 yards and 45 touchdowns and rushed for another 1,674 yards and 30 scores his final season.
“Johnny always deflected any attention to his teammates,” said then-Tivy head coach Mark Smith, now at Judson High. “He has this great confidence about him, but at the same time doesn’t beat people over the head with it.”
Manziel, whom A&M coach Kevin Sumlin hasn’t yet made available for interviews this season, grew up a Texas Longhorns fan (he often sported UT gear around Tyler), but Texas didn’t heavily recruit him. In fact Florida coach Will Muschamp told his players during halftime of this year’s A&M game that UT, where Muschamp had previously served as defensive coordinator, only wanted Manziel as a defensive back.
In June prior to his senior year at Tivy, Manziel verbally pledged to Oregon, primarily because he didn’t have any offers from prominent schools in the state. Then Tom Rossley, who recruited the San Antonio area for then-A&M coach Mike Sherman, caught Manziel Fever after watching him light up opponents early in his senior season.
Still, Rossley’s early pitch to Sherman on offering Manziel a scholarship wasn’t greeted with open arms, because Sherman preferred a prototypical, tall passer in his NFL offense.
“He wanted that perfect fit at quarterback,” said Rossley, then the A&M quarterbacks coach and now retired and living in the Hill Country. “The 6-foot-3 quarterbacks look real pretty, and Johnny didn’t look real pretty. So it took me a while, but you can’t measure Johnny’s intangibles.”
Rossley also invoked a name dear to Sherman in a comparison to Manziel, who’s 6 foot 1 and 200 pounds. Sherman had served as Brett Favre’s head coach at Green Bay, and Rossley was Favre’s offensive coordinator for six years.
“Johnny reminds me a lot of Brett Favre,” Rossley said. “Johnny would play every down in practice (last year) like he was in the Super Bowl, and that’s how Brett was in practice. They’re guys who just have so much fun, and who just love the game.
“I told some Aggies last year not to worry about losing Ryan Tannehill, because Johnny Manziel was going to make them forget about Tannehill.”
As for Rossley prying Manziel away from his Oregon pledge?
“Johnny’s going to be a legend from Texas, and he needed to play in Texas,” Rossley said, laughing. “We didn’t need to share that legend with Oregon.”
The legend is growing in Aggieland under first-year coach Kevin Sumlin. After redshirting last year behind Tannehill in what turned out to be Sherman’s final year – he was fired following a 6-6 regular season – Manziel in only six college games has already snapped the Southeastern Conference single-game record for total yards. Twice.
A week ago, Manziel broke his own record set two weeks prior against Arkansas with 576 yards – 395 passing and 181 running – in a 59-57 victory over Louisiana Tech in Shreveport. Today, he’ll face his stiffest challenge to date in the big, swift defense of LSU starting 11 a.m. at Kyle Field. His family will root him on from the stands, and occasionally scrunch their eyes when he dodges much bigger tacklers, in what’s become his signature – much like Favre.
“I cringe because I know the other teams’ players are out to get him now,” said Manziel’s step-grandmother, Tammie Manziel. “I really worry about him, because he’s like a Chihuahua out there who thinks he can beat up a Labrador.”
On his mother’s side of the family, Loggins would sometimes rather be fishing than watch Manziel in another cliffhanging performance.
“I saw Johnny after the Louisiana Tech game,” Loggins said of A&M clinging to victory over the Bulldogs. “I told him, ‘You’re about to give this old man a heart attack.’ He started laughing but I said, ‘It’s not funny.’”
With that, a grinning Manziel disappeared behind the locker room door – much like the old days back in Tyler following an afternoon of fishing – this time quite rosy from a wild win.