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    Johnny Heisman: How We Got Here

    MORE HEISMAN COVERAGE

    Texas A&M's Manziel Wins Heisman (Sean Cartell)
    2012: The Year Of Johnny Football (Scott Crumbly)

    By: Eric SanInocencio
    Twitter: @EricSan
    SEC Digital Network

    July 17, 2012

    Birmingham, Ala. -- Kevin Sumlin didn't know.

    Texas A&M’s first-year head coach kicked off the Southeastern Conference's Media Days this past July, taking questions from the more than 1100 credential media on site. A year removed from competing in Conference USA as head coach at Houston, Sumlin's opening statement spoke of "excitement" and the "special" season ahead for his team and their fans. His words were chosen carefully, as he collectively introduced himself and his program to the SEC.

    When the questions turned to his quarterback, his tone changed. At that point in time, no starter had been named, as a collection of signal callers vied for the job in the Aggie opener against Louisiana Tech. Sumlin, when asked to elaborate on the situation, responded with the quote below.

    "Fortunately we've got some guys that are competing for it,” he said.”I feel real good about our athletic ability and our talent level at quarterback, so those guys will compete in two-a-days and we'll figure out who that is and name a starter a couple weeks, at the latest, before the Louisiana Tech game."

    In those 53 words, there was no mention of Johnny Manziel. No talk of national recognition or predictions of a record-breaking season. In fact, during Sumlin's entire press conference, he didn't utter a quarterback's name at all.

    "Johnny Football" didn't exist.

    -----

    December 8, 2012

    It is 50 degrees and cloudy in New York City. In a city with 8.2 million people, a redshirt freshman from Kerrville, Texas, is in the spotlight. Two days removed from his 20th birthday, Manziel stands at the podium of the Best Buy Theatre in famed Times Square.

    He is preparing to address the nation, having been named the first ever freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. With a grin as wide as the Texas sky, he speaks of a humble past, explaining the unlikely journey that took him from a town of 22,000 to the country's most recognized college football player.

    Johnny Manziel is now Johnny Heisman, putting the end to a whirlwind five-month stretch never seen before in the history of the Southeastern Conference.

    -----

    To explain the story of Johnny Manziel's improbable run is to return to the beginning. Very rarely has someone so quickly captured college football's attention, arriving from seemingly nowhere to being anointed as the game's best.

    Names like Tim Tebow were greatly lauded as high school players, talented athletes recognized the moment they stepped on campus. Even Cam Newton, who arrived at Auburn from the relative obscurity of Blinn Junior College in Texas, had been signed by Florida out of high school, and was highly regarded as a dual-threat quarterback prospect.

    Looking back in SEC history it is hard to find a comparable story, one that starts with so little fanfare yet ends with such celebration. In today's wired world, great high school players are well known to the masses before they ever arrive in college, the recruiting networks quick to make stardom out of prep success.

    While Manziel's numbers at Kerrville High School were outstanding, he wasn't thought of as a can't miss prospect. Rivals.com ranked Manziel as a three-star (out of five) dual-threat quarterback, behind 18 other prep signal callers in the country. According to that same publication, he was ranked as Texas’ 45th best player, some suggesting that Manziel would need to change positions at the collegiate level.

    The doubts continued once Manziel arrived at Texas A&M, as after a redshirt season he welcomed a new coaching staff and playbook. The Aggie offense would go from Mike Sherman's pro-style to Sumlin's spread attack, a complete makeover of the philosophy Manziel spent his first year at College Station learning.

    Little did we know that this change would be the first steps Manziel would take into the SEC record book.

    Another ironic twist to the Manziel story was that opening game against Louisiana Tech, which had to be postponed over a month due to Hurricane Isaac. Instead of beginning his career against an out-of-conference team known for offense, he began against SEC foe Florida.

    The Gators turned out to be one of the nation's top defenses, as Manziel struggled in the second half as the Aggies fell 20-17. Even in the loss, he showed flashes of brilliance, enough to make him A&M's unquestioned full-time starter. You can make the argument that starting with one of the country's top defensive units prepared Manziel for the road ahead.

    The ball started rolling the following weekend, as A&M blasted SMU 48-3. This would start a string of three straight games that the Aggie offense scored at least 48 points, including a 58-10 win over Western Division rival Arkansas.

    In that victory over the Razorbacks, Manziel set the first of two SEC records, gaining 557 total yards. The redshirt freshman would go on to win his second SEC Freshman of the Week honor, an award he'd win a total of six times on the year.

    After dispatching Ole Miss 30-27, Louisiana Tech was waiting. Now entrenched as the starter and gaining experience, Manziel dismantled the Bulldog defense in a 59-57 shootout win. Instead of playing his first game with a limited playbook, he made history as the leader of Sumlin's attack.

    He amassed 576 yards, breaking his own SEC record, accounting for six touchdowns. Manziel had a season's worth of highlights in this one contest, including a 72-yard run that sealed the win for the Aggies. It was at this point his name was mentioned nationally, his numbers recognized for their historic nature.

    Next week Texas A&M fell to LSU, 24-19, but that would be the final blip on the radar for Manziel and the Aggies. After that defeat, A&M went on an impressive run, winning five straight, including a defeat of No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa. It was in that game that Johnny "Football" went global, his performance against Nick Saban's crew elevating him into a Heisman contender.

    Manziel's flair for the dramatic and his key throws down the stretch not only knocked Alabama from the ranks of the unbeaten, but it also launched him into the conversation for the nation's top player. He ran for a 107 yards and threw for two touchdowns, including a recovery from a fumble that will go down as one of the top plays of the 2012 college football season.

    After that win and that performance, the legend was born. Manziel sky rocketed up the Heisman charts, now mentioned alongside Kansas State's Collin Klein and Notre Dame's Manti Teo. He would go on to win SEC Player or Freshman of the Week honors for the rest of the season, while setting a conference record for total yardage (4600). Two names he passed on that list? Tim Tebow and Cam Newton.

    As the season came to close, Manziel's accolades piled up. He was named SEC Player of the Year by the league's coaches, becoming the first freshman to win that honor since Herschel Walker in 1980. He also captured the Davey O'Brien award, given annually to the nation's top quarterback.

    The Heisman trophy now belongs to him as well, putting an end to Johnny Football's magical 2012. The first freshman to ever win the award, Manziel's legacy and place in the fraternity of college football’s elite is now cemented. No matter what happens from this day forward, the 2012 season will belong to him, the memory of his greatness living alongside those of every other Heisman winner.

    Five months ago we didn't know his name.

    Today, we will never forget it.