Everyone in Columbia, Mo., hates Johnny Manziel.
They hate the Texas A&M quarterback as he slithers away from University of Missouri defensive linemen, zig-zags to avoid sacks, and stops and starts like a nervous squirrel crossing the road.
"He plays like he's covered in grease out there!" screams a rotund woman with Mizzou eye black pasted beneath eyes bulging out of their sockets. "And I'm tired of it. Put him on his back!"
They hate every pass Manziel throws, which tonight seems like a flurry of quick out routes to his physical receivers. Each one elicits a collective groan from the 68,000+ Mizzou faithful dressed in black and gold on a chilly night in the middle of the Show Me State.
"That's all he's doing!" more fans yell, belittling Manziel's arm as they bubble over in frustration.
They hate how he looks on the field. His rib pads push his jersey out so far out from his stomach that he looks like your beer gut wielding uncle if he decided, after 30 years, to give his failed football career another shot.
They hate that he comes from an oil-rich family and has been well off for most of his life.
"Your daddy can't buy you that first down!" a buddy of mine shouts after a third-down throw from Manziel falls short, sending the crowd into a frenzy. Another fan in the front row of the end zone holds up a sign that reads "I Paid Manziel," a reference to the money Manziel allegedly took to sign autographs, an NCAA violation that got the quarterback suspended for the entirety of one half in A&M's opening day blowout of Rice back in September.
Everyone in the stands at Faurot Field hates Johnny Manziel. But they also recognize that he is one of the most incredible college quarterbacks who will ever play the game. In secret, after one of the handful of escape acts Manziel makes that night, they turn their heads away from the field and stare at the ground, muttering curse words, shaking their heads and admitting to themselves, in private, just how good Manziel is.
Even when he's not "good," he's good. In what could be the last regular-season college football game he will ever play, Manziel is held to 195 yards passing by Missouri's pressing defense, his lowest full-game total all season (he threw for 94 yards in the second half against Rice). He missed on a couple of key third down passes, throwing the ball short or out of bounds after being flushed out of the pocket, where he usually shines.
A&M lost to Missouri 28-21, their second loss in a row and third overall in a season that had expectations soaring through the roof after Manziel took home the Heisman trophy in 2012. It was their running game, not Manziel, that kept the Aggies in contention in a hostile environment deep into the fourth quarter. But in the second quarter, with the score tied at 7 and the ball on Missouri's 35 yard line, Manziel morphed into Johnny Football, as he does at least once per game, hushing the capacity crowd like a stern mother threatening to wash her child's mouth out with soap.
Manziel took the snap and backpedaled a few yards. Feeling the pressure from Missouri's defensive linemen collapsing the pocket on both sides, he stepped up, scrambled and flicked his wrist just as he was brought down by the legs. The ball seemed to float for minutes in the crisp air until it landed softly in the hands of wide receiver Derel Walker in the corner of the end zone. It was another impossible throw by the boy wonder from Kerrville, Texas. Expletives were shouted. Unflattering names were called. Six points were posted on the scoreboard.
"That boy's a dog," said a high school football player from Quincy, Mo., who was in town for the game. "People don't like him, but he's a dog."
That's the consensus about Manziel, even in a stadium full of vitriol. Despite all the questionable things he has done—taking money for autographs, showing up at a frat party at the University of Texas like he wasn't going to be filmed by hundreds of intoxicated college students, "oversleeping" and getting kicked out of the prestigious Manning Passing Academy—they know he's great. Even in a game that thrust Missouri, in just its second season in the SEC, into the conference championship next week in Atlanta, fans strained their necks to get what might be a last glimpse at Manziel in a college uniform.
No one knows whether his skill set will translate to the NFL or how his pro coaches and teammates will deal with his sometimes child-like temperament. He'll have a bowl game to play and the option to return to A&M next season, a decision that seems unlikely but is an option nonetheless. If he does make it to the NFL, thousands of people will be rooting for him to fail. Yet there he'll be, sidestepping multiple defenders, cocking his arm and airmailing 60-yard bombs that will be caught by receivers in the end zone. We'll shake our heads and mutter to ourselves what that young man from Quincy, nestled into a black and gold blanket of fans, said Saturday night.
"That boy's a dog."
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