Long before he became Johnny Football, record-setting redshirt freshman quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate from Texas A&M, Johnny Manziel prepped for the historic opportunity that awaits him.
He grew up playing video games with a college football theme, often creating -- and controlling -- a dominant newcomer who morphed into an overnight sensation and wound up winning college football's most coveted individual honor in cyberspace.
"When you're a kid and you create a player and you win the Heisman as a freshman because you just put up crazy numbers, it's something that you can only sit back and dream about," said Manziel, who is in position to have life imitate art because he has posted some video-game statistics for No. 9 A&M (10-2) and looms as a strong contender to become the first freshman to win the Heisman in the award's 77-year history.
Manziel racked up 4,600 yards of total offense, a Southeastern Conference record, in leading A&M to the school's first 10-win season since 1998 in its first year as an SEC member. In a Monday teleconference, he said it would be "a dream come true" to become the first freshman to win a Heisman Trophy, thereby capping a season he described as "incredibly surreal."
"It's been beyond my wildest imagination. There's no way that I thought I would have this much success," said Manziel, summing up a season in which he has gone from unexpected winner of A&M's starting quarterback competition in fall drills to a player whose family -- with help from A&M officials -- seeks to trademark his now-famous nickname, "Johnny Football."
From his perspective, Manziel considers the moniker "extremely funny" but something that does not mesh with his roots as a Tyler native who played high school football in Kerrville.
"I don't see myself as Johnny Football. I still see myself as Johnathan Manziel, a small-town guy from Kerrville," Manziel said. "Whenever I go out to dinner and people want to come up to me and take pictures, I'm still kind of shocked by the whole thing. Even though it's kind of becoming a daily thing."
Manziel, 19, will become a lifelong photo subject for A&M fans -- as well as a notable figure in college football lore -- if he hoists the Heisman on Dec. 8 in New York. As things stand now, the highest freshman finishes in Heisman balloting belong to Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson (2nd, 2004) and Georgia running back Herschel Walker (3rd, 1980).
Manziel, who spoke to the media for the first time this season during Monday's one-hour teleconference, put himself in position to change that by becoming the fifth quarterback -- and first freshman -- in FBS [Division I] history to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season.
In Saturday's regular-season finale, Manziel threw for 372 yards, rushed for 67 yards and accounted for five touchdowns in the Aggies' 59-29 victory over Missouri. That allowed him to break the SEC single-season record for total offense, set in 2010 by Auburn's Cam Newton (4,327 yards) when Newton won the Heisman Trophy.
Newton set the mark in 14 games. Manziel needed only 12 games to break it and ranks second nationally in total offense (383.3 yards per game), trailing only Baylor's Nick Florence (389.6).
In his first season as the Aggies' starter, Manziel has rushed for 1,181 yards, passed for 3,419 and accounted for 43 touchdowns (19 rushing, 24 passing). He ranks 17th nationally in passing efficiency (155.85 rating), with a 68.3 completion rate and a 24-8 ratio of touchdown passes-to-interceptions.
In short, the undersized Manziel (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) -- last week's leader in the Scripps Howard News Service Heisman Trophy Poll -- has morphed into the type of real-world beast he once created in his video games.
"His numbers speak for themselves," A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "They stack up against anybody who has played, not only this year, but who has ever played the game."
Manziel has made it happen with a flair for the dramatic in which his biggest plays often are unscripted, spur-of-the-moment creations. A prime example: His 10-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Swope during a 29-24 upset of then-No. 1 Alabama in which Manziel fumbled, retrieved the ball and eluded pass rushers before spotting Swope alone in the back of the end zone.
"I never really intend on going out there and just running around and freelancing," Manziel said. "It's just an instinct for me that takes over."
What does he think about in those situations?
"Let's score a touchdown. That's about the only thing," Manziel said.
Asked to describe his best trait, Manziel said: "I play with a lot of heart and I'm never going to quit. Ever."
During his days as a football novice, Manziel cited two mobile NFL quarterbacks from yesteryear -- John Elway and Doug Flutie -- as players he sought to emulate. In later years, he said he learned to admire Michael Vick's ability to "run circles around the whole defense and then step up in the pocket and throw it 70 yards downfield."
These days, that description could fit Manziel. Soon, the phrase "Heisman Trophy winner" could fit the freshman, too. But as a real-world achievement, not merely a highlight moment from some video game.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760