Senior College Football Columnist

Johnny Football has winner for name, now just needs Heisman

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NEW YORK -- Nobody really knows where it started. The nickname, of course. Johnny Football.

There will be those who will claim to have come up with it. If they have good enough lawyers, maybe they can even squeeze some money out of the intellectual light bulb that allegedly went off above their head. But for now the label is as simple and sweeping and limitless as the plains of central Texas.

Johnny Football. Almost 145 years of college football and no one had ever thought of it. At least this one, to this extent where it became part of the national consciousness. It is more than a charming label for what might be the nation's best player as the 78th Heisman Trophy is about to be awarded here Saturday night.

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It is an unknown in terms of athletics, apparel sales, NCAA regulations and trademark law.

"This is uncharted territory for an amateur athlete," said Jason Cook, Texas A&M's vice president for marketing and communication. "He's a freshman, but he does have that nickname -- kind of like the Honey Badger -- that transcends the team and approach."

To win the Heisman, Manziel will try to fight off what looks like a surprising push from Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o. The Notre Dame linebacker has won six major awards headed to New York, perhaps dispelling the traditional belief that a defensive player can't win the Heisman. The other finalist, Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein, was the runaway leader until three weeks ago when his team lost at Baylor.

But in digging down on the Manziel phenomenon you have to ask which came first, Johnny Football or the Aggies? A program that was two games above .500 since 2007 changed coaches and didn't decide on its starting quarterback until late August. Manziel showed an uncanny ability to make room, make plays and avoid problems. At least on the field. His Heisman moment came in the Alabama game when he ran into one of his linemen and bobbled the ball but was still able to throw a touchdown pass.

Any consternation over previous off-field issues was diffused when Manziel finally spoke to the media late last month. The nickname fit. Turns out, Johnny Football can be as charming as he is elusive.

Meanwhile, a program taking its first baby steps into the SEC became one of the best success stories of 2012. The Aggies, with a new coach, a new quarterback and questionable game-day character -- it blew several halftime leads in 2011 -- had its best season in 14 years. A&M won 10 games and finished tied for second in the powerful SEC West. It beat then-No. 1 Alabama at its place.

But all they'll remember if he wins the ultimate trophy is the player first and then the nickname -- Johnny Football.

"I heard it in high school," Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said. "I think that was before he even got here." In a way, Manziel -- a native son of Kerrville, Texas -- can only go downhill from this moment. He would be the first (redshirt) freshman to win the Heisman. With three years of eligibility remaining, how does he surpass a season in which he set the SEC single-season total offense record, beating the mark of one Cam Newton?

You think SEC defensive coordinators are just going to sit there and let him get bigger, smarter and faster? You think eBay is going to stop selling his gear?

The rush to capitalize on the nickname is just beginning. Texas A&M's licensing partner -- Collegiate Licensing Company -- has had to write more than 20 cease-and-desist letters to manufacturers selling Johnny Football products without their permission.

There are already Johnny Football action figures out there, illegally of course. The school can't produce them because they can't capitalize on a player's name, image or likeness per NCAA rules. Any use of the Texas A&M logo has to come from the school. Cook saw one from the Starting Lineup brand online that looked like it was a painted-over NFL quarterback figurine.

Manziel's parents have worked with the university to trademark the nickname. It's not necessarily a cash grab, but to keep others from grabbing cash from the family. ESPN.com reported last month that a College Station-based investment firm had filed for the Johnny Football trademark.

"The American entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well," Cook said.

The school is walking a fine line. While it is assisting the family, the Manziels cannot receive any discounted legal help. That could be considered by the NCAA as an improper benefit. The costs to trademark a nickname can run into five figures.

"We cannot profit from a student-athletes' name, image or likeness," Cook said. "It was determined a nickname 'Johnny Football' would be considered a likeness. We got that from compliance. We have a burden to handle any uses of a name, image or likeness aggressively in order to protect his eligibility."

That's why Texas A&M officials cringe when they see more than 1,900 Johnny Football items available on eBay. While not talking to the media until recently, Manziel apparently has been more than accommodating with his autograph. A signed A&M helmet on eBay was going for $395.

"An unknown player who appears to come from nowhere and does so well?" said John Cain, an outside trademark attorney for Texas A&M, based in Houston. "I grew up as a huge Fran Tarkenton fan. This guy reminds me of him. He's just got a knack for scrambling and getting away, giving himself a little bit of room."

Cain advised the school on how to land those trademark rights. A&M had to prove there was in-state commerce interest. It sent out a tweet the Wednesday before the Missouri last month advertising a "Johnny Football" t-shirt giveaway in front of the 12th Man statue at Kyle Field. In six minutes, 150 T-shirts were given away.

The school also had to prove interstate commerce interest. It staged a contest asking for the 10 fans who had traveled the farthest to get to the Missouri game. The winners each got officially licensed Texas A&M T-shirts.

"No royalties, no payments, just had to prove the mark was being used," Cook said.

Apparel partner Adidas is admittedly behind in producing No. 2 jerseys. Its apparel is manufactured around the world, but the numbers are put on at the plant in Indianapolis. Adidas won't release sales figures, but Cook said the College Station Barnes and Noble has sold 1,000 No. 2 jerseys.

The demand continues to grow.

No matter what happens here Saturday night, it figures to be a banner 2013 for Adidas. A&M is one of only 13 all-sports schools for the company. It will ramp up those No. 2 jersey sales but also may have its second Heisman winner. Nebraska's Eric Crouch won for an Adidas school in 2001.

The company's best comparison in terms of jersey interest is Brady Quinn's No. 10 jersey at Notre Dame seven years ago, according to Chris McGuire, Adidas director of sports marketing.

"Hopefully, Johnny wants to stay in school for all those years of eligibility," he said.

That's the next question. How long will he stay. Manziel -- all 6-foot-1, 205 pounds of him soaking wet -- would be eligible for the NFL draft after next season. But right now Johnny Football seems to be a man of the people, not for the pros. His skills, his game, his personality seem like they could last forever -- in college.

Besides, when he does get out of college he may not have to play another down. Manziel would own his nickname. Combine that with a Heisman win and "Johnny Football" might be enough to support him for the rest of his life.

"It's like 'Magic' Johnson," Cain said. "The name, or the nickname, turns into a brand."


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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