Published September 15, 2013
On Saturday Johnny Manziel was sublime, posting one of the greatest individual efforts in college football quarterbacking history.
I know, I know. Alabama won, and for the bottom line crew out there, winning and losing is all that matters. Football's a team game, and Alabama's team is better than Texas A&M's team this year just like it was last year. But most of us don't watch football for methodical, robotic dominance. We watch sports because we just might see something transcendent.
And Manziel was transcendental, otherwordly. He sliced and diced Alabama's defense like it had never been done before in the proud history of Crimson Tide football. He tore apart a Nick Saban defense like it had never been destroyed in the storied history of Nick Saban's long coaching career of defensive dominance.
For months we'd talked about how Manziel would respond now that Nick Saban had months to prepare for him. For thousands of hours Saban schemed ways to stop Manziel.
And on Saturday, despite all his efforts, Manziel was even better this year than he was last year.
Yes, Texas A&M lost, but in the process Johnny Manziel further burnished his legendary and mythical status.
They'll be talking about Johnny Manziel in Texas and beyond until long after every person reading this column today is long gone.
Not bad for a Texan 20-year-old with a football in his hand.
Sure, there's a segment of conservative white America that wanted to see Johnny Manziel humbled, wanted Nick Saban and his rigorous process to knock the crap out of this cocky, audacious pipsqueak of a quarterback who dared to speak out of turn and freelance and sit courtside for NBA games and hang out with the rapper Drake and not genuflect at the false altar of forced sporting modesty.
I suppose these people have their own reasons. Lots of us crave law and order and the tamping down of individuality. We all bring our values to sports, and for conservative fans there's a "right way" and a "wrong way" to play football. And Johnny Manziel plays "the wrong way." The subtext here is clear: He's too uppity and needs to be shown his place by a conservative society.
Floyd Mayweather has made hundreds of millions of dollars by antagonizing this audience, a massive segment of the American sporting public. These sports fans hate Mayweather so much that they might just make Mayweather a billionaire by hoping for him to lose. They've been rooting for another boxer, it doesn't matter who, to put Mayweather in his place for nearly a generation now.
Mayweather's "place" is the bank, where he's gleefully cashing these haters' checks, making so much money he can't even spend it all. Manziel isn't cashing many of his own checks yet, but he's making an awful lot of money for everyone basking in the penumbra of Manziel's talents. CBS, ESPN, FOX, Outkick the Coverage, every Southern sports talk radio station and local news station in the country -- we're all cashing checks rooted in Manziel's brilliance.
But boxing's an individual sport, and Mayweather is the brightest star in the fading boxing galaxy. Meanwhile, football, the sport that has taken boxing's place in American sporting culture, is a "team" sport. (Although quarterbacks are the most famous individuals in sports, and most of us can't name more than a handful of their teammates).
On Saturday, Johnny Manziel's "place" was frequently the end zone, where he celebrated touchdowns with fervent and reckless abandon. I don't understand how any sports fan could watch Manziel playing Saturday and not love the sheer unbridled joy with which he plays. But we're all different. Where I see irrepressible euphoria and spontaneous celebrations of adrenaline-fueled joy, others see a guy trying to draw too much attention to himself. As I've already written, what you think about Johnny Manziel says more about you than it does him , Manziel's our own national Rorschach test.
Was Manziel perfect against Saban's defense?
But was he as good as any college quarterback has been in a big game against a top opponent?
Yes. A thousand times, yes.
If you'd told every Alabama fan in America that Manziel was going to post 42 points and 562 total yards of offense, would even the stupidest Bama fan on earth have responded, "Yep, Saban showed him who was boss!"
Please stop with your AJ McCarron Tweets and emails. McCarron had the better team playing against a much worse defense. AJ McCarron was very good, but if you switched Manziel and McCarron on Saturday, Alabama would have won by four touchdowns. The only reason Alabama didn't blow out Texas A&M was Johnny Manziel. (Mike Evans was also, by the way, stellar),
That leaves Bama and A&M, Saban and Manziel, tied at one each, both instant football classics.
Yes, Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M lost the game.
But legends don't always win, that's what makes them mythical, burnishes their performance with the roseate hue of nostalgic glory. We Southerners have a unique ability to forget all about wins and losses as the years pass by. Ultimately no one will remember the score of today's game and what will remain is Manziel's performance, a glittering monument of otherwordly performance against staggering odds and stupendous obstacles.
Generations from now college football fans in the South who have never seen him play will be hearing Johnny Manziel stories like kids today hear about other luminescent collegiate figures of the South that we all recognize by a single name -- Bo, the Pistol, Spurrier, Cam, the Bear, Tebow. All of them were individuals who didn't subscribe to the prevailing notions of the game. They were all transcendent in some form or fashion. Manziel can take his rightful place among these men.
Southern gunslingers don't retire undefeated.
But they do remain unvanquished.
On Saturday Alabama fans came to celebrate Johnny Manziel's football funeral, instead their defense served as a coronation of his stupendous gifts, the canvas upon which he painted his football masterpiece.
Yes, Alabama won, but Johnny Manziel didn't lose.