Since the Heisman Trophy was first awarded in 1935 to Chicago halfback Jay Berwanger, only juniors or seniors had won college football’s most prestigious award. Starting in 2007, a three-year run of sophomores managed to break that streak, which included Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford and Alabama running back Mark Ingram.
It seemed absolutely impossible, though, that a freshman could ever be a Heisman winner. Even with the advancements in developing high school football talent, the thought of a first-year player winning college football’s top individual honor was simply ridiculous. Then, a kid from Tyler, Texas named Johnathan Paul Manziel arrived in College Station, and college football changed forever.
3-Star Recruit to Heisman Trophy Winner
In a brilliant prep career playing at Tivy High School in Kerrville, Texas, Manziel racked up 7,626 passing yards and 76 touchdowns, rushed for 4,045 yards and 77 more touchdowns, plus he has caught 30 passes for 582 yards and another five touchdowns. The two-time district MVP was still only given a three-star rating by most recruiting services before he accepted a scholarship to play for the Texas A&M Aggies.
After redshirting his first season, Manziel won the starting job heading into the start of the 2012 season. When the team’s opening game was canceled due to Hurricane Isaac, Manziel’s first career start came against the Florida Gators, who would finish that season ranked among the country’s top-25 teams in almost every defensive category.
Texas A&M University dropped its first-ever Southeastern Conference game after changing conferences, 20-17, but after that, Manziel’s freshman magic began.
Johnny Manziel’s College Highlights
The next week, Manziel broke Texas A&M’s freshman school record with 294 passing yards to go along with his 124 rushing yards and six total touchdowns. That would be just the warm up, as two weeks later he broke the Aggies record for passing yards in a single game (453) in a 58-10 romp of the Arkansas Razorbacks. It was the same game when Manziel broke the SEC single-game record for total yards (557).
Two weeks later later, Manziel re-broke his own SEC record by putting 576 yards of total offense on Louisiana Tech to go along with six more touchdowns — that yardage record still stands today.
After back-to-back road wins against Auburn and Mississippi State, Manziel was officially on the map as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate heading into a massive road game against the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide. Texas A&M was 7-2, ranked No. 15 in the country, and looking to knock off Nick Saban’s defending national champions.
It was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that quarterback Johnny Manziel ascended into college football lore, and the world was officially introduced to Johnny Football.
Johnny Manziel vs. Alabama
Manziel’s Heisman moment was stamped when he accounted for 345 of the Aggies’ 418 total yards of offense in a 29-24 upset win over the Crimson Tide.
Texas A&M and head coach Kevin Sumlin would not lose a game the rest of the season, and Manziel became the first freshman named the Heisman Trophy winner. Johnny Football dominated in a landslide with 72.88 percent of the vote, while beating out finalists including Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o and Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein in New York City.
How did the All-American cap his Heisman season? By torching the Oklahoma Sooners and breaking two Cotton Bowl records with 516 total yards and 229 rushing yards.
Manziel’s 5,116 total yards are by far the most in SEC history by a freshman and were second-most all-time until LSU’s Joe Burrow came around. He also broke the Texas A&M record with 21 rushing touchdowns as a freshman, and he’d break the Aggies record with 37 touchdown passes the following year.
Johnny Manziel’s Houdini Scramble Versus ‘Bama
A year after taking down top-ranked Alabama as a redshirt freshman, Manziel and the Aggies fell short in College Station. They lost 49-42, but that was by no means Johnny Football’s fault.
The highlight of that game, that season and, really, Manziel’s college career came in the second quarter on third-and-eight with the game tied at 14.
Manziel escaped the death grip of an Alabama defensive lineman. He scrambled back about 20 yards and then heaved up a prayer on his back foot. TAMU wide receiver Edward Pope came down with the catch for just 12 yards and a first down, but it was nonetheless one of the most exciting plays of the NCAA season.
Manziel went on to throw for 464 yards and five touchdowns in the loss. Still, he proved that day no one could create something out of nothing like Johnny Football.
Regardless of how his NFL career turned out as the first round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns, we’ve never seen a freshman — or any football player in SEC history for that matter — have a year quite like Johnny Manziel did in 2012.
We’ll likely never see anyone dominate like this kid did ever again.
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This article was originally published May 6, 2018.