By Brett Martel
NEW ORLEANS — Johnny Manziel has decided he’s not going to allow the pitfalls of fame stop him from having a good time, forging friendships with rival quarterbacks or even going back to class — in person.
As for the pressure inherent in living up to the Heisman Trophy standard he set for himself in only his first season as quarterback at Texas A&M, isn’t concerned about that, either.
“I’m not thinking about it. I’m just going out and playing football and doing the things I’ve always done,” Manziel said Thursday, when he visited New Orleans to accept the Manning Award, which recognizes the nation’s top college quarterback. “The success that we had last year — I wasn’t worried about my own individual success. I was just worried about going out and playing football and trying to learn the system and get better.”
Following a memorable, highlight-filled regular season in which he accounted for 4,600 total yards, Manziel became the first freshman ever to win the Heisman Trophy — then racked up an additional 516 total yards in a 41-13 Cotton Bowl victory over Oklahoma.
And then the player sometimes called Johnny Football found out how public his private life could really be.
He was famously photographed partying in a Dallas nightclub with a sparkler in his mouth as if it were a cigar while flexing both biceps. Other photos showed him holding what looked like a bottle of Champagne, raising questions about whether Manziel, now 20, was partaking in under-age drinking. Another showed him triumphantly fanning out a wad of cash at a casino; he later noted on his Twitter page is legal for someone 18 or older to gamble at a casino.
Even his decision to take classes online last semester became controversial . Manziel has said his decision to limit himself exclusively to the virtual classroom was a reaction to the attention he was receiving on campus while simply walking to class, and he added Thursday that he expects to return to regular classes this summer and next fall.
“It was just one semester — something that I needed and wanted to do,” he said.
Manziel said he’s adjusting better to life as a celebrity, and is trying not to let it change him much.
“I continue to slip up every now and then with people that you think you can trust and you really can’t, so I’m continuing to learn things every day,” he said.
“I’m still having a good time. I know that. I’m not letting any of that factor into my life and what I want to do,” he continued. “There might be some cameras here and there and some things like that, but I’m going to continue to still go to some basketball games, continue to still do things I want to do, just be smart while I’m doing it.”
That includes making friends with Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron, who during the season will be among the players standing between Texas A&M and a chance at a Southeastern Conference championship or more.
“Once football season comes around, that’s when it becomes rivals,” Manziel said. “Off the field, we’re all 20, 21-year-old kids just enjoying going to school, playing football and like doing the same things. Me and him have talked on Twitter, exchanged numbers and still continue to talk every couple weeks. So I’m maybe building a little bit of a friendship there, maybe going on a trip together this summer some time or just trying to be friends and hang out and have fun.”
This July, Manziel plans to serve as a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, La., where he was a camper while in high school.
Manning said he looks forward to having Manziel back in a new role.
In introducing Manziel to a luncheon crowd gathered for the Manning Award trophy presentation at the Manning family’s downtown restaurant, Archie Manning talked of how extraordinary he thought it was for Manziel to do what he did in his first season in the SEC, a conference renowned not only for its string of national champions, but also for defenses loaded with NFL prospects.
Manning highlighted Manziel’s performance against Arkansas, in which the Aggie QB compiled 557 total yards.
“That day he broke a 43-year-old Southeastern Conference record set by an Ole Miss quarterback in 1969 vs. Alabama,” Manning said, referring to his own 540-yard performance against the Crimson Tide. “Thanks a hell of a lot, Johnny.”
Manning and Manziel both said they were aware of comparisons made of their free-wheeling, scrambling style of play.
Manning said Manziel’s 2012 season was among the best he’d ever seen for a college quarterback and was flattered to hear people say Manziel reminded them of his days at Ole Miss. Manziel, meanwhile, said being compared to Archie Manning is “awesome,” and an honor.
Manziel will be eligible to enter the NFL draft after his next season. He said he’ll make that decision with family and his Texas A&M coaches when the time is right.
Manning, who is routinely asked for advice by top college players’ said his only advice would be that if a quarterback in the SEC is not a lock as a top-10 pick, he should consider how an extra year in the conference might help.