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Ben Smith

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Associated Press
Despite being a redshirt freshman, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.

Only 'Johnny Football' could trump Te'o's year

File | Associated Press

I know this Johnny Manziel. He's Archie Manning 2.0, right?

Running all over the Deep South, making it up as he goes. Drawing up plays in the dirt. Throwing for sixes and scrambling for sixes and getting songs written about him.

All of that happened to Archie, too, back there in the caveman '60s when a college football player's legend grew precisely because three-fourths of the country never saw him play. Everything was anecdotal, in those ancient days. And anecdote is the dietary staple of legend.

Enter Johnny Manziel, who's that guy plunked down in the new millennium. He's a redshirt freshman about whom songs were being written when he was still in high school, an improvisational genius with a great nickname (Johnny Football) most of us knew only by word of mouth until he up and beat Alabama. The country finally got a good look at him that day, and it fell in love with what it saw.

And so if you're asking me today who's going to win the Heisman Trophy, I say it's Johnny Football. A freshman has never won the thing, but no freshman ever had the greatest season an SEC quarterback ever had, either. If precedent was ever ripe for the flames, this is the year.

It's also the best argument I can think of for why a certain guy up in South Bend should win the Heisman.

Manti Te'o likely won't, and there's a certain irony in that. No school, after all, creates legends the way Notre Dame does. And yet its favorite son is going to miss out on the school's eighth Heisman because, for once, Notre Dame got itself out-legended.

Only Johnny Football, mythic superhero, could have beaten out Te'o, who'd be the first purely defensive player ever to win the Heisman. If Johnny Football hadn't come along, Te'o would have been a lock – because, once again, if ever there were a season for shattering precedent, this is it.

What argument against him is there, after all, other than that tired business about defensive players?

He's the only Notre Dame linebacker other than Bob Crable who's had three straight 100-tackle years. He's the heart and soul of a defense that was largely responsible for vaulting Notre Dame back to a prominence it hasn't seen in 20 years. And if you're looking for that signature Heisman moment, the interception that quashed Oklahoma will do just fine.

Oh, yes: He's also an icon on campus in a way no Notre Dame football player has been since Tim Brown – and even Brown wasn't honored the way Te'o was on senior day, when half of Notre Dame Stadium broke out leis to salute their star from Hawaii.

"I don't know what the other candidates for the Heisman do off the field," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said last week. "I can only say that as it relates to Manti, he represents all the things that a Notre Dame student and athlete would want to have: Integrity, academic commitment, leadership, spiritual development.

"My pitch has always been about Manti and what he represents and embodies, and he's one really, really good football player and he just happens to be on defense."

And Johnny Manziel just happens to be a freshman. And neither qualifier is any qualifier at all in a season when every other candidate has played himself out of it.

So it's down to the two of them now: Johnny Football, and the Heart and Soul of Notre Dame.

One guy wins it. The other guy should.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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