By Lynn Paris
A Personal Heisman Moment
Last month I wrote a column about my father, who died on November 4th. As I reflected on the impact my dad had on my life, one of things I mentioned was that I had inherited my love of sports from him. Growing up in the suburbs of New York City, we didn’t really have a college football team to rally around; most New Yorkers tended to be pro football fans, choosing between the venerable NY Giants or the then upstart NY Jets. I noted that I’d been born a Giant fan, and that loyalty to the Giants has remained a part of me from New York to California to Texas.
But Texas is Friday night lights high school and big time college football country. It’s the first place I’ve lived where all the women stay in the room when the football game is on television, and most know as much about football as the men. And when you live in a college town, specifically in College Station, home of Texas A&M University, it’s a place where being an Aggie football fan is part of the culture and everybody bleeds maroon.
Which obviously means that I’ve been a fan of the Texas A&M football team since our move to College Station six years ago . . . an avid fan since I started working at Texas A&M five years ago, and a fanatic (where the word fan comes from, btw) since we became season ticket holders two years ago. It didn’t matter that we had an average, and extremely frustrating season last year; it never crossed my mind not to renew our tickets for 2012. After all, who knew what could happen in our first year in the SEC? Most predicted we’d get beat up, battling SEC-West powerhouses like LSU and Alabama, but we knew we wanted to be there, at Kyle Field, no matter what.
Through a freak of nature (really; our scheduled opening game against Louisiana Tech was postponed by Hurricane Isaac) our first game turned out to be against SEC-East powerhouse Florida. First game of the season, with a new head coach, all new assistant coaches, new systems on offense and defense, and a brand-new redshirt freshman quarterback named Johnny Manziel.( At that point, most of us weren’t even sure how to say his name and were pronouncing it Manzeel rather than Manzell.)
We lost that game, 20-17, after leading 17-10 at halftime. And some said it was just like the preceding season, when we caved in the second half to lose so many winnable games. But for those who were really paying attention, it was nothing like that season at all. We saw the Aggies fighting hard for the entire game. We saw the Aggies in great physical condition, not missing tackles and making first downs. And we got our first glimpse of what we all knew was a phenomenon; we saw Johnny Manziel scrambling and improvising and surprising (and yes, sometimes scaring us to death) and we knew we had something very special.
Immediately after the Florida game, Johnny tweeted, “Learned a lot from today and we will only get better moving forward.” That’s a young man who knows how to keep a promise! As Johnny Manziel morphed into Johnny Football, he continued to learn, continued to get better . . . amazingly better, learning his progressions and passing with precision. And then he had his shockingly great Heisman moment, which for Johnny and the rest of the Aggie football team was actually the entire game, which they won 29-24 against then undefeated, No. 1 Alabama, in Tuscaloosa, on national television.
It couldn’t get any better for an Aggie fan. Except, in this case it did, as Johnny Football came out from under the radar to become part of the Heisman conversation, was nominated and then, at the awards ceremony last night, made history as the first freshman ever to win the highly coveted and most prestigious award in sports: the Heisman Trophy. It was a moment that brought pure, unadulterated joy to every Aggie fan in the world, in fact, to every sports fan who has ever believed in an improbable dream coming true.
Which brings me back to my dad, the most devoted of sports fans, with whom I would have so loved to share this moment. A year ago, he and I watched an Aggie football game together when I was visiting him in New York, not because he had much interest in college football or the Aggies, but because he enjoyed sharing that football-watching experience with me, and rooting for the team I had come to love.
This year, when I visited him for what turned out to be the last time before he died, I had purposely scheduled my trip during what was supposed to be our “bye” week, but instead turned out to be our game against La-Tech. By then he was unable to leave his bed, so I sat with him in his room and held his hand throughout the entire game while he slept, oblivious to what was going on. The Aggies beat the Bulldogs 59-57, with Johnny scoring six touchdowns. The game lasted past 1 a.m. in New York, and I had to do my yelling, jumping up and down and high-fiving inside my head because I didn’t want to disturb him. But I knew it was fitting that I be there, watching football with my father.
It was also incredibly fitting that Johnny “Heisman” Manziel made the front page of the New York Times sports section today. My dad read the NY Times every day; it was still being delivered to his apartment in Manhattan on the day he died. And of course, he always read the sports section first. Today, when his beloved wife Eve opens the paper, she probably won’t care about the sports section. But I know that Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel is right there, in my dad’s paper, in New York City . . . and I know how happy for me he would have been.
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