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Months before Manziel made his bucket list, his therapist asked him to make a list of the stressors in his life. Autographs topped the ledger. The solution was simple. Instead of signing everything sent his way, Manziel would dedicate one hour a week to fan mail and autographs. Everything else would go unsigned. In public Manziel would sign for children but steer clear of adults.
The second item dealt with Manziel's inability to go anywhere in College Station without getting mobbed. He would have to adjust his habits. Instead of dining at Fuego, a 24-hour taco joint so good that every state should require one to be built adjacent to all public universities, Manziel now opts for the drive-through. If he wants to visit the bars in the Northgate district across from campus, he needs to accept that he will be recognized by almost everyone. Fortunately, Manziel has found one place where no one recognizes him. "Vegas," he says. "I was able to walk around the streets without taking a single picture. And I was there for a total of seven days over two trips."
NCAA rules compound the issues Manziel faces. Were he a 20-year-old movie star or pop icon, he would be allowed to accept payment at fair market value for his services. He could hire security to keep the autograph hounds at bay. As a college football player he can accept only tuition and room and board—even though a study commissioned by Texas A&M showed his Heisman run produced $37 million worth of media exposure for the university. Meanwhile, Manziel could stop in at Aggieland Outfitters on University Drive and find the following items for sale: adult replica number 2 jerseys in black or maroon ($64.99), youth replica number 2 jerseys ($46.99), toddler replica number jerseys ($36.99), number 2 T-shirts ($15.99), three different Heisman shirts ($5 with the purchase of the 2012 season highlight DVD) and a T-shirt with an officially licensed Superman logo on the front and number 2 on the back ($19.99). Manziel won't see a penny for these, though in a rare moment of humanity, the NCAA did concede earlier this year that Manziel could collect damages from those who violate his trademark on the name Johnny Football.
SO WHEN will Manziel leave College Station and go to a place where he gets a cut of the jersey and T-shirt sales? It seems a foregone conclusion he will bolt to the NFL after this season, even though he is eligible to play college football in 2014 and '15. Manziel's own mother doesn't see how he could stay another year. "It's sad that the system doesn't allow it," Michelle says. "We can't go through this another year. We would all be in the loony bin." Johnny believes he could handle another year. "Yes, absolutely," he says. "We'd have to change. We'd have to adapt. We'd just have to do it."
Until recently Johnny had a Texas A&M win total and a projected draft position in mind that would trigger an automatic jump to the NFL. Now he isn't so sure. After watching quarterbacks rise and fall in this year's draft, he realizes how fluid the process is—especially for a quarterback who doesn't fit the NFL prototype but who does excel at the league's scheme of the month, the read option. He knows Sumlin is hauling in some of the nation's best recruits, and he can't help but imagine what the Aggies might achieve if he plays three or four college seasons. He has studied the contracts given to picks in various rounds and concluded that he can't possibly decide if he'll stay until after the season. "There's so much that factors in," Manziel says. "I don't want to be a guy who has a first-round grade and come out and go into the second round. That's the difference between $12 million and $4 million or $5 million. That's still a lot of money, obviously, but not when you have two full years left on the table."
There is a popular notion that he caught SEC defensive coordinators by surprise last year; after a full off-season to prepare, they'll solve him. Whitfield, the independent quarterback tutor, says that doesn't take into account Manziel's improvement. "[Defenses] are going to find an answer," Whitfield says. "It's just math. So you have to make your equation more complex." Manziel has tried to do that by improving his lower-body mechanics so he can throw more efficiently and by working on staying in the pocket instead of bolting at the first sign of trouble. This allows him to keep passing options alive longer. With 6'5" Mike Evans running routes and athletic tackles Jake Matthews and Cedric Ogbuehi blocking for him, Manziel should have plenty of opportunities to make plays with his arm.
Meanwhile, Manziel has far more command of the offense than he did as a first-year starter. Jake Spavital is now Texas A&M's co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and like Kingsbury, he learned the modified Air Raid from current West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. Spavital has coached Houston's Case Keenum, Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden and West Virginia's Geno Smith in the offense, and he says Manziel has the capability to make the same leap those quarterbacks made. "Year Two in this offense is the good year," Spavital says. "I've coached some pretty good QBs. Johnny can do things they can't do." Meanwhile, Manziel laughs at the idea that the Aggies have stood pat while opposing defenses have designed plans to bottle him. "We're picking up things from different places," Manziel says. "What happens when they think they're going to see the Air Raid and then we do the read option like Oregon does? What are they going to do then?"
The lack of faith disturbs Manziel, just as it did at Tivy High, where he set records and did more with less than any quarterback in the Lone Star State and still couldn't get Baylor, TCU or Texas to offer him a scholarship. "When is the day going to come when people stop doubting me?" Manziel asks, his voice rising. "When is it going to stop?"
Based on what he's read on Twitter, all Manziel must do is surpass one of the greatest individual seasons in the history of the game. It also wouldn't hurt if he led the Aggies to an SEC title and a BCS championship. And he needs to stop going to bars and stay home every night to study his playbook and/or the Bible. He's more than happy to do the football part. As for the off-field part, he intends to be himself. "I'm adapting. I'm learning. I'm trying to learn from these mistakes," he says. "But I'm not going to change who I am because the media wants me to be this, this or this. I'm not going to do that." Besides, didn't the legend of Johnny Football spring from a devil-may-care attitude on and off the field? "You love me when I'm running around being dangerous and a loose cannon," Manziel says. "What makes me special on the field is what people don't like off the field. I'm still learning how to put that into perspective."
That kind of introspection has helped Manziel realize something else. The autograph vultures and the loss of anonymity were trades he made so he could cross so many items off his bucket list. He and his pal Fitch spent time last week marveling at the people and places they've seen in the seven-plus months since Manziel won the Heisman. "When we look back 20, 30 years down the road, we're going to sit there and be like, We pretty much hung out with the f-----' Beatles," Manziel says. "We pretty much did everything we wanted to do."