Taste of Tyler: Restaurant diners pay tribute to hometown hero, Heisman winner Manziel

TYLER -- The holiday display at Loggins Restaurant is unlike any other in the history of the establishment, which traces its roots to 1949.

A Christmas tree, adorned with nothing but Texas A&M ornaments, sits near the front door. Hanging from one limb is a maroon-and-white stocking that features a snowman with the school logo emblazoned on its chest. Stitched into the white top, in maroon letters, is the name "Johnny" set inside the outline drawing of a football.

It's stocking shorthand for Johnny Football, nickname of A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner.

No name has resonated louder this season in college football, with Manziel becoming the first freshman to claim college football's top individual honor while leading No. 9 A&M (10-2) into Friday's matchup against No. 11 Oklahoma (10-2) in the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.

Nor is any player more prominently promoted in Loggins Restaurant, a popular lunchtime gathering spot where staffers scurry around in maroon T-shirts bearing pro-Aggies messages. Diners can choose from a wide variety of tables with varying views.

One option is to sit below an original oil painting of Manziel in his A&M jersey, created by restaurant patron Suzy Green. Another table stares out at a framed front page of the Tyler Morning Telegraph featuring the headline "Hometown Hero" above a story detailing what Manziel, a Tyler native who moved to Kerrville when he was 14, did to position himself as a Heisman candidate.

In the main dining room, a large banner hangs above the first booth and succinctly sums up the situation. It reads: "Congratulations! Jerry and Lyana Loggins, proud grandparents of Johnny Manziel, 2012 Heisman Trophy winner. Texas A&M."

The restaurant proprietors were in New York, helping their grandson celebrate his Heisman victory, when the banner was put in place by Bruce Bloch, a Texas graduate and longtime family friend. Bloch and other regular diners chipped in to create the banner as a way to honor Manziel's grandparents and celebrate the triumph of a player many in this East Texas town view as an extended family member.

"We think a lot of Johnny. We're proud he's a Tylerite," Bloch said. "Whether he's a Longhorn or an Aggie, he's from the state of Texas. He's from Tyler. That's a big deal. It's awesome."

It is difficult to find a dissenting opinion in Tyler and impossible to find one at the restaurant, where curious college football fans -- especially those with A&M ties -- have become more prevalent in the past month.

"Our business was good before this started. But we're getting a lot of new faces in here these days," said Jerry Loggins, who plans to join other family members in watching the Cotton Bowl from a suite at Cowboys Stadium. "People hear about the A&M and Johnny memorabilia and they want to see it. It's really helped business."

For the record, the Johnny-related mementos trace back to his youth sports days in Tyler, including a photo from the 2003 Little League season and another from Manziel's first football team, the Tyler Hurricanes. He joined the team in the sixth grade, once his mother set aside concerns that he might get hurt and agreed to let him play.

The pre-A&M items, which include a mounted head from Manziel's first buck -- collected on a deer hunting trip with his grandfather -- are restaurant staples. But Loggins said the banner and Christmas-related items will be coming down after the Cotton Bowl to make room for fresh items his wife has collected. Among them: an upsized photo of Johnny Football with college football's most cherished individual honor.

"We've got new stuff coming in. She's in charge of decorating," Loggins said. "I don't have anything to do with it."

But Loggins had a lot to do with developing his grandson's love of sports, particularly football. Manziel, who spent part of the Christmas holidays with his grandparents, called the restaurant "one of my favorite places in the whole world" and vouched for the "great food" available on the buffet. He also vouched for the guy who still runs the cash register at the checkout counter when his employees are too busy with other tasks.

"My grandfather is a huge part of my life," Manziel said. "He always has been. He's always been there, as long as I can remember. Growing up, we've had fun together. We played golf. We'd fish. We've done everything together. And for him to get a chance to go to the Heisman ceremony and do some of those things, it was awesome for me."

Catching the fever

Manziel's unprecedented season, which included 4,600 yards of total offense and 43 touchdowns (24 passing, 19 rushing), has triggered celebrations throughout the Lone Star State for A&M fans. But none has been more spirited than those in Tyler, where Manziel was born during the Dallas Cowboys' 31-27 victory over the Denver Broncos on Dec. 6, 1992 (Loggins watched from a TV at the Tyler hospital, waiting for his grandson's arrival), to the outpouring of joy in Kerrville, where Manziel became a star at Tivy High School after the family moved there when he was 14.

Alan Cannon, Texas A&M's associate athletic director for media relations, said school officials hope to schedule celebrations in both towns in late January or February. But the folks in Kerrville wasted no time in showing their allegiance to Manziel, posting a sign within three days of his big moment in New York that declared Kerrville as home of the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner.

"By the time we got back on Tuesday, they already had the sign up at the Kerrville exit," said Jim Muncie, a home builder who attended the Heisman ceremony and broadcast Manziel's games on a local radio station during his sophomore and junior seasons at Tivy. "Kerrville's on fire for Johnny. You can't go anywhere without talking about him. Everybody in town has caught the fever."

It's the same way back in Tyler, a six-hour drive to the northeast where the Manziel name has been part of the local sports scene for decades. A great-great uncle, Bobby Joe Manziel, once sparred with heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey and was known as "The Syrian Kid" before becoming a successful oil wildcatter. Manziel's parents, Paul and Michelle, are avid golfers who met at Tyler Lee High School. Paul later competed in mini-tour events.

But it is Johnny who has taken the Manziel name to unprecedented heights, a feat that has not shocked his grandfather or any of the diners at his restaurant who recall his childhood spunk and exploits.

Loggins said it "brought back a lot of fond memories" when Johnny referenced their late-night games of catch from the Heisman dais as his earliest football inspiration. Manziel also used his acceptance speech to issue an apology to Lyana "for all the things we broke in the house" on the couple's tile floors.

The fire within

Danny Palmer, football coach at Tyler Junior College, frequently joined Manziel and Loggins for rounds of golf when Manziel was a junior golfer. Palmer recalled Manziel as "a fierce competitor, no matter what he's doing. He can't stand to lose ...and he doesn't take many prisoners, I'll tell you that."

Loggins realized that soon after teaching his grandson how to fish. He provided Johnny's ride home from elementary school each day and the two regularly fished or played golf on the way back to the house. On fishing trips, Johnny insisted on counting who hauled in the most bass.

"If he didn't end up with more, it would ruin his day," Loggins said. "He'd slam the door and you wouldn't see him the rest of the night. If he won, everything was great."

By the time he was 10, Manziel beat his grandfather in golf for the first time. It became a regular occurrence before he was a teenager. But an early indication of his perseverance surfaced when he was a Little League baseball player at Tyler's Golden Road Park.

When Manziel began playing games at Golden Road Park, Loggins said players could belt home runs over a low fence and the balls would strike houses. Johnny, one of the league's primary power hitters, hit enough balls over the short fence -- along with others -- that league officials erected a taller fence that Loggins described as Little League's version of the "Green Monster" at Fenway Park.

"That made him mad," Loggins said, until Manziel tweaked his swing. "Then, he started hitting balls over that."

By the sixth grade, Manziel gravitated to football and began developing the improvisational skills that have become his trademark at A&M. Muncie first noticed him as a seventh-grader and later adapted the famous lyric from Chuck Berry's Johnny B. Goode -- "Go, Johnny, Go" -- as his signature call when Manziel hit the open field in Tivy games.

Manziel's most memorable moment, with Muncie at the microphone?

"He ran a quarterback draw and went about 85 yards for a touchdown," Muncie said. "But somebody was offside. So it didn't count. The next play, he did the same thing from 5 yards farther out. It almost looked like a replay. That was the moment I realized he was something really special ...With Johnny, it didn't matter about down and distance or where the ball is on the field. He's going to make it. I really believe his sanctuary is the football field more than anywhere else. Look how calm he is out there."

That calm demeanor has led to an unprecedented debut season, with Manziel becoming the first freshman to earn the Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award and become The Associated Press' college player of the year in the same season that he made Heisman history.

For the folks in Tyler, it doesn't get much bigger than this. Even better, they've been impressed by how he's handled his fame when interviewed by David Letterman, Jay Leno and others with late-night talk shows.

"I've known him from birth. I watched him grow up. He came into the restaurant all the time," said Patricia McNease, a longtime waitress at Loggins Restaurant. "I'm proud of him and how humble he's stayed through this whole thing."

Riley Harris, a restaurant regular, said: "Tyler's very proud of Johnny and his accomplishments. I was talking to a friend the other day and he said, 'Anybody that doesn't enjoy watching Johnny play just doesn't appreciate football.' And the guy that told me that was a UT grad. I think that says it all. Everybody here is very proud of him."

All the way down to the UT alum who put Tyler on the global football map: Earl Campbell, the Longhorns' 1977 Heisman winner and a Tyler native. Loggins tracked down Campbell, an occasional visitor to his restaurant, at the Heisman ceremony to exchange greetings.

"I mentioned that it was something to have two people from Tyler win it, that it was unbelievable," Loggins said. "Earl looked at me and said, 'Tyler is big enough to handle two Heismans.'"

Even if Tyler's proud citizens will have to share this one with some equally proud Texans from Kerrville.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch