Watching Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel rise to the top of the college football world as the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy this season, I've been taken back to an interview I had with him early in his senior season at Kerrville Tivy in 2010.
Manziel had been outstanding in the Antlers' season-opening 71-3 rout of Fredericksburg the previous week, and I was writing a feature on him before Tivy's game against Madison the next night.
The feature turned out to be a news story when Manziel, who had committed to Oregon that June, told me he planned to make an unofficial visit to Texas A&M on the weekend of the Madison game.
If I live to be 99 years old, I don't think I'll ever forget talking with Manziel in Tivy coach Mark Smith's office that Thursday morning.
While saying he still was committed to Oregon, Manziel seemed intrigued by the possibility of playing for A&M, which had offered him a scholarship three days before my interview with him.
Manziel made it clear his main reason for taking a look at A&M was driven by his desire to play at a school where his parents could see him play regularly.
My parents have sacrificed and given me great support since I started playing football, driving me to practice and to games when I was a kid, Manziel said. It would hurt me if they didn't get a chance to see me play very often in college.
There is a possibility I could change my mind. Not a high chance, but who knows? There is that possibility.
Manziel has remained close to high school coach
Manziel left no doubt he would reconsider his college choice if his visit to College Station went well.
Kens5.com was the first media outlet to report that Manziel was having second thoughts about his commitment to Oregon.
Indeed, Manziel's visit to A&M turned out to be the beginning of the end for the Ducks.
Manziel returned to College Station with his parents for another unofficial visit a week later and was back on campus on the weekend before he committed to the Aggies. All told, Manziel visited A&M on three consecutive weekends.
Three weeks to the day after A&M made its offer, Manziel called Oregon coach Chip Kelly from Smith's office to tell him he was backing out of his commitment. Manziel, who has become known as Johnny Football throughout the country, has been an Aggie since that moment.
I was there when Johnny called Coach Kelly and he handled it like a man, Smith said Monday.
Smith, who just completed his first season as head coach at Judson, has remained close to Manziel since he graduated from Tivy in December 2010. A redshirt freshman, Manziel already has reached legendary status in college football with his uncanny knack for making big plays.
Nothing he's done this season surprises me because we saw him do that at Tivy, Smith said. Those of us who coached him knew his skills would translate to college. I think the surprise is in how fast it's occurring.
Manziel broke Newton's SEC total offense record
Johnny Football was already being mentioned as a Heisman Trophy candidate before he led A&M to a stirring victory over then-No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 10, and broke the Southeastern Conference's record for total offense with 4,600 yards two weeks later.
Regardless of whether or not he wins the Heisman, Johnny knows it's going to play out like it should, Smith said. He's not only a great football player, he's a special young man. He is, by far, the best player I've ever been around. I was blessed to have the opportunity to coach him. He was the best at rallying his team.
There is no doubt he exudes confidence without being arrogant. No matter what the situation, he never gets flustered. He's always going to give credit to his teammates. That's just Johnny. He has a humility about him that reflects his commitment to the team.
Manziel broke Cam Newton's SEC total offense record in two fewer games than Newton did in his Heisman season at Auburn in 2010. He has passed for 3,419 yards and 24 touchdowns, and run for 1,181 yards and 19 TDs.
I talked to Johnny on the phone after the Alabama game, Smith said. He was as excited as could be. We text each other, too. I usually text him on Thursday or Friday before they play. I try to keep it breezy, keep it light, and just let him know that I'll be pulling for him.
Smith has seen Manziel play in person once this season.
My wife and I went up there (College Station) for the Arkansas game, Smith said. We (Judson Rockets) were off that week, so I had a chance to go. All of Johnny's other games, I've recorded on my DVR.
Johnny Football wanted to play for Longhorns
Manziel was born in the East Texas town of Tyler and lived there until he moved to Kerrville with his family when he was in the eighth grade. He got moved up to the Tivy varsity for the playoffs when he was a freshman, and became the varsity's starting quarterback midway through his sophomore season.
Manziel earned Parade All-America honors as a senior after passing for 3,609 yards and 45 TDs, and running for 1,674 yards and 30 TDs. He completed 228 of 347 passes and was intercepted only five times, and averaged 9.85 yards per carry.
For all his remarkable stats, Manziel didn't receive the attention from major-college recruiters that most Parade All-Americans get. Wary of his size -- Manziel is 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds -- many coaches thought he was too small to play quarterback at college football's highest level.
Smith still bristles when he's asked how such a playmaker could be overlooked by so many colleges.
Manziel had his heart set on playing at Texas, Smith said, but the Longhorns never offered him a scholarship.
He would have played anything at Texas, Smith said. He just wanted to be a Longhorn.
Assistant coach Duane Akina, who recruits the San Antonio area for UT, liked Manziel, Smith said, but he couldn't sell the guy that makes the decisions.
How do you figure Johnny Football would look in burnt orange now, Mack Brown?
Aggies were slow to offer Manziel scholarship
Oregon started recruiting Manziel after his junior season and was the first school to offer him a scholarship. Iowa State followed but A&M was the only FBS school in Texas that recruited Manziel as a quarterback.
And just to be clear: The Aggies didn't exactly fall all over themselves to get Manziel's commitment initially. They weren't sold on him until early in his senior season.
It's hard to understand, Smith said. With all this early recruiting, the way they evaluate kids, I don't like it. I know a lot of college coaches don't, either, but they do it because the guy down the street is doing it. I think they miss some talented kids.
In their defense, what they saw in Johnny was his sophomore and junior year, and most of the plays he made were with his feet. You had to spend time and watch him throw the ball in the spring before his senior season to see what a good passer he had become.
Smith said the A&M coach who was recruiting Manziel told him he liked Manziel, but cited his size as a drawback.
He said, 'If he were a inch taller, I could sell him to Mike,' Smith said, referring to former head coach Mike Sherman, who was fired last season. I told that coach he reminded me of another A&M coach who had passed up Drew Brees.
These college coaches need to quit worrying about how tall somebody is, and they better start looking at a player's heart and how productive he is. I always told college coaches that Johnny was a playmaker.
Alabama, among others, would attest to that.