Midway through his eloquent Heisman trophy acceptance speech it hit me — Johnny Manziel is the new Tim Tebow.
I don’t know why it took me so long to see it before, but my sudden realization was eye-opening. It was as if I could see into college football’s future. Just as Tebow stepped onto the college football stage fully formed in legend, a Paul Bunyan-esque otherworldly nature characterizing his every step, so too has Johnny Manziel. There’s a Haley’s Comet quality to both men, an eye-opening and startling nature about their emergence. Most stars, especially at the quarterback position, take time to step into the limelight.
Not Tebow or Manziel.
In 2006, as I wrote my first book, I remember being out at a Gainesville bar/restaurant called The Swamp.
The Florida Gators had just hung on for a narrow 17-16 win over South Carolina and now a palpable buzz reverberated through the bar.
Tebow. Was. Here!
You could see those three words echoing from one patron to the next until in a mad rush everyone who had been on the first floor of the bar rushed to the second floor.
It was akin to seeing Elvis in his heyday, Tim Tebow was in the building!
On that November night in 2006 Tim Tebow was 19 years old, a true freshman at Florida and he was not yet a national superstar or global icon. At that moment Tebow’s superstar status was still contained to a Southern college campus. He hadn’t exploded onto the national consciousness and become one of the most famous athletes in America.
That was yet to come.
But in that moment, I could see the future as well.
Tebow wasn’t even Tebow yet, but already the ripples of fame that would one day turn into a typhoon had begun.
Next year Tebow took the nation by storm, posting astounding numbers to win the Heisman trophy. The Gators went 9-3 that season, losing two close SEC games to top ten opponents by a combined seven points. Sound familiar? (The Gators also lost a game to Georgia by double digits but that was due, in large measure, to Tebow’s shoulder being injured which prevented him from running the football). Tebow accepted the Heisman trophy in 2007 and from there his fame and legend grew.
In 2008 his team lost to Ole Miss and Tebow gave his famous promise speech. Later that season his Gators won the national title over Oklahoma. The next year at SEC media days Tebow arrived with a gaunlet of personal security, the president of college football. On the same week that Sports Illustrated ran a cover story on his religious faith, I asked Tebow if he was saving himself for marriage and his legend grew when he answered yes. That season Tebow’s Gators were undefeated until the SEC title game when they lost for the first time all year.
From the moment Tebow won the Heisman his teams would go 26-2 over his final two seasons. It wasn’t just that Tebow was really damn good, it was that he was good so young that we all had 28 more games to experience his football brilliance. The same could hold true for Manziel, his eligibility would allow him to play 42 more games.
With each of these 28 additional games Tebow became more famous and with each game the debate raged anew, how would Tebow project at the next level? Was he a quarterback, was he a tight end, was a fullback?
It wasn’t enough for Tebow to be great at the college level, his game had so transcended his status as a mere college player that we felt compelled to elevate him.
At 23 years old Tebow had a statue put up outside the Florida Gator football field.
By the time he entered the NFL, Tebow was one of the most famous quarterbacks in the country.
When Tebow took the field for the Denver Broncos every single sports fan in America had an opinion about whether he could succeed as a quarterback or not.
Every. Single. One.
Now it’s Johnny Manziel’s turn on the national stage. By the end of next season the talk will have turned from how good Manziel is in college to whether he could ever succeed as an NFL quarterback. Just you wait. But in the meantime Manziel’s climb to levels of Tebow like fame has only just begun.
Manziel’s a redshirt freshman which means he’s won the Heisman at pretty much the same age that Tebow did. Both men were a couple of narrow SEC losses away from playing for a national title. Each man plays in a massive state that makes a surge onto the national stage easier than it would be playing in a smaller state. Johnny Manziel hasn’t yet had the benefit of a ton of CBS nationally televised games — just one on the road at Alabama this year — but he’ll have a bevy in the next three years.
When Alabama comes to College Station on September 14, the eyes of the nation will descend upon Texas.
It will be the biggest home football game in Aggie history.
If you think Johnn Manziel’s a superstar now, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
He’s Tim Tebow with the tail chasing gene.
Indeed, when you put their Heisman stats side by side, it’s amazing to consider how similar they are at this point in their careers:
|Manziel (2012)||3,419 passing yards||1,181 rushing yards||24 passing TD||19 rushing TD|
|Tebow (2007)||3,286 passing yards||895 rushing yards||32 passing TD||25 rushing TD|
Manziel actually outgained Tebow 4600 total yards to 4181 total yards, but watching both men play football play felt the same.
You couldn’t look away from the television screen because at any moment you felt as if you might see something you’d never seen before. Tebow’s popularity soared even among the fan bases his team beat, there was just something about Tebow we loved. His charisma, his athlete’s feel for the moment, the fact that there was no one in college football you’d rather see with the football in his hands.
The same is true of Manziel.
Already the vibe is similar, the feel the same, the peculiar blend of effervescence and swagger. There was something about the name Tebow, the way it rolled off the tongue that made him feel like an otherwordly talent. When Uncle Verne Lundquist on CBS exhorted, “Tebow!” it was impossible not to stand up from your couch, to buy into the collective narrative, Superman down South, the boy who was made to play football.
The same narrative holds true with Johnny Manziel, aka Johnny Football, aka Scooby Football. A small town boy from the Texas hill country steps onto the national stage, an SEC Saturday’s meets Friday Night Lights. The moment that pictures of Johnny Football in a Scooby Doo costume dancing with a hot blonde went viral on Outkick the Coverage, the national legend of Johnny Football began. Here was a small town Texas kid who wasn’t very big and doesn’t play football like the script dictates. He zigs when others zag, he fumbles the snap against the number one team in the country and still completes a touchdown pass, he puts on the Scooby costume and the hottest blonde on campus grinds on him, Tebow was the quarterback you always knew behaved better than you would in his position, Manziel is the quarterback who does what you would do if you were in his position.
Tebow wore his religion on his sleeve, he was saintly, someone that was better in all facets of life than us common men. He didn’t believe in sex before marriage and he was always smiling and gosh darn he was just a good guy, Jesus in cleats.
Manziel’s got a bit more edge — can you imagine Tebow being arrested for anything? — more devil may care off the field.
Fans looked up to Tim Tebow, but they want to be Johnny Manziel.
The most remarkable thing about Tim Tebow wasn’t the Heisman trophy, it was his 26-2 record after he won the Heisman. With every single player and every single team and every single coach gunning for him week after week as his legend grew game after game, Tebow lifted his effort to meet those challenges.
He became better than we ever thought he could.
Now that he’s the new Tebow can Manziel do the same? Can he win a national title? Can he take Texas A&M football to levels the program has never seen before? Can he resist the urge to rest on his laurels and drown in the pool of excess that comes with being a premier college athlete on the biggest stage in town.
Here’s one vote for yes.
Maybe he’s got some Joe Namath in him too. This is Manziel’s girlfriend, Sarah Savage, she’s a model.