Thrill of Victory

Manziel, Klein, Te'o represent what's good about college football

As I’ve written more than once this year, 2012 was not college football’s best year as one off-the-field scandal after another dotted the news blotter all year. As much as fans await the start of every college football season, the NCAA must have been at least as ready given the steady diet of off-field bad news that hit the press week after week. As usual, the season delivered plenty of great moments, even with the annual BCS mess that seems to put a damper on the game every year; this season, it was Northern Illinois making the Orange Bowl that displayed the folly of the BCS once again.

But for those of us who prefer happier endings to our sports stories, Saturday night’s Heisman Trophy presentation reminded again why college football, at its best, can be such a great thing.

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel became the first freshman ever to win college football’s biggest honor. Manziel electrified fans with jaw-dropping play from the season’s start to its finish, breaking Cam Newton’s all-time, single-season mark for total offense and also shattering the two top single-game marks in addition to leading his team to a road victory at Alabama. I was happy to see Manziel break through what had been a 77-year glass ceiling – I’m not saying that co-finalists Manti Te’o (Notre Dame) and Collin Klein (Kansas State) didn’t have cases, but Manziel’s has always been the strongest, in my opinion.

However, it wasn’t my satisfaction that the voters made the right choice that made Saturday such a special night so much as it was learning more about each of the candidates as people. As I watched the hour-long show leading up to the award, I gained huge respect for each of the three players. Football achievements aside, I would have been happy to see any pick up the trophy.

Most know Te’os story; every coach in America wanted the Hawaiian when he finished high school in 2009, but his resume outside of football – he was an Eagle Scout, did volunteer work for at least four charities, and carried a 3.5 GPA – was about as impressive. The Mormon linebacker captured the hearts of Catholics (and a lot of other people) everywhere with his spectacular play, but also with the grace and dignity of how he handled the passing of his grandmother and his girlfriend within one day of each other in September.

Klein, the K-State quarterback, seems to be the Midwest’s version of Tim Tebow. He married his wife, KSU basketball player Shalin Spani, this summer after meeting her just last fall; the two became fast friends and Klein said that God put it in his heart that he should marry her. They dated for just three weeks before getting engaged, and didn’t share their first kiss until their wedding day.

Like Tebow, Klein was home-schooled, and the reason for his hands-off approach to dating is his Christian faith. Klein makes no apologies for it and says he trusts God in all he does. His teammates must believe that he’s genuine, since he’s been elected team captain in each of the past three seasons.

Then, there’s Manziel. Because coach Kevin Sumlin didn’t let him speak to the media this year, we knew little about the freshman from Kerrville, Texas. As it turns out, “Johnny Football” also cuts an imposing figure away from football.Manziel said all the right things in his acceptance speech as he thanked his parents, his teammates, his coaches past and present, and his fans.

Like Klein, Manziel spoke to his faith in God, and explained that the bracelet he wore all year is to honor a five-year-old fan with terminal cancer. Manziel’s parents sat in the audience and struggled to fight back tears, and I can attest that it was tough to do that from a TV set as well.

As with the game of college football itself, everything is not always black-and-white; as impressive as Manziel’s speech was on Saturday night, he’s the same guy who is still facing three charges stemming from his role in a fight this summer, one of which includes possession of a fake ID. If you looked closely enough, you could find flaws with Klein and Te’o as well, I am sure.

All that makes these players, though, is just like us. We like to label people as “this” or “that,” when in reality, all of us are some of “this” and also some of “that.”

Do with it as you wish; to me, this year’s Heisman show was a reminder in spite of all its flaws, there are people within the game of college football who still make it well worth watching.