By Ralph D. Russo Associated Press
NEW YORK — Johnny Football just got himself a way cooler nickname: Johnny Heisman.
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel became the first freshman 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 and Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein was third in the voting. In a Heisman race with two nontraditional candidates, Manziel broke through the class barrier and kept Te’o from becoming the first purely defensive player to win the award.
Manziel drew 474 first-place votes and 2,029 points from the panel of media members and former winners.
“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.
Manziel seemed incredibly calm after his name was announced, 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.
“I wish my whole team could be up here with me,” he said with a wide smile.
Te’o had 321 first-place votes and 1,706 points and Klein received 60 firsts and 894 points.
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. Johnny Football really can do it all.
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 Netwon’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.
Manziel has one more game this season, when the No. 10 Aggies play Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 4.
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.
Manziel thought he was going to be the next Derek Jeter — hence the No. 2 he wears. Instead he became the biggest star football star in College Station since Crow won the Heisman.
His road to 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 coach Kevin Sumlin.
Manziel came out of spring practice as the backup, and went to work with a private quarterback coach in the summer to better his chances of winning the job in the preseason.
It worked, but still nobody was hailing Manziel is the next big thing.
Then he started playing and the numbers started piling up.
He had 557 total yards against Arkansas, 576 vs. Louisiana Tech and 440 against Mississippi State.
He also had some struggles against Florida in the season opener and in a home loss to LSU. The question was: Could Johnny Football 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. Johnny Football 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 Johnny Football to tell his own story.
Though in the end, his play said it all.