COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- One day after the suspension heard round half the world, there is no joy in College Station because nobody ever thought mighty Johnny Manziel would strike out. This town, this campus, does not seem relieved that Manziel will be on the field Saturday against Rice. Because this town, this campus, never had a doubt.
"I think he'll play," Dillon Dye, a Texas A&M freshman from Houston, said Wednesday before the suspension was handed down.
"Because it's not going to stick."
And it didn't stick. In hindsight, it was never going to stick. The NCAA has made its reputation, for better or worse, for using its imagination over the years to fill in a lot more holes than it encountered in the case of Johnny Manziel and the (un)paid autographs signed by the thousands. The old NCAA, the one without a fear in the world, would have done to Manziel what it did to so many alleged violators who came before him, basketball players like Louisville's Marvin Stone and Texas' Mike Williams and a football player like Oklahoma State's Dez Bryant and even an assistant coach like USC's Todd McNair. The NCAA had an idea that something dirty had gone down, so the NCAA filled in the blanks and hammered those guys. Even if the NCAA was guessing wrong, what was anyone going to do about it?
The new NCAA is running scared, so the new NCAA allowed Manziel to run all over it. And again, here in College Station, here on this campus, people weren't watching with fingers over their eyes as Manziel tiptoed through trouble. When it was announced Wednesday afternoon that he had eluded the pressure and would be eligible for the first game of the season -- after halftime -- people around here weren't relieved. Relief comes with surprise, and there was no surprise.
"I never thought he did it for the money," said Wyatt McCown, a Texas A&M student from Corpus Christi. "Why would he need the money? He's pretty loaded."
So it's game on. Saturday at Kyle Field. All the main characters will be there. Rice. Texas A&M. And Johnny Manziel.
Around here, people were never divided on that. But they were -- still are -- divided on this:
Do they want Johnny Manziel on that field?
• • •
The words are all over Kyle Field. They are in big letters on the concrete that rings the inside of the stadium and they are in even bigger letters on the stadium outside, rising 80 feet along with the rest of Kyle Field. They're also around town, on T-shirts and billboards and office buildings, because this is Texas A&M.
And these are the words:
Home of the 12th man.
That's the student body, whether it's tens of thousands in the stadium standing all game or just one student, a walk-on from the engineering school or the school's famed corps of cadets, playing on the kickoff team. Students feel ownership of Texas A&M football in a way they just can't feel it at other schools.
And some of those students don't like the attention Johnny Manziel has brought the school.
"Obviously he's a good player and a big part of the team, but I don't think we need him," said Jack Owens, a Texas A&M freshman from Kansas City. "We keep talking about him. All we do is talk about Johnny Manziel, and some of my friends are cool with him, but a lot of us are tired of it. It's not OK how we keep having to put up with his crap."
That's one point of view on Manziel, and it was offered in different ways by a surprisingly large handful of students Thursday on campus. The opposite point of view also was offered, also by a handful of students -- a bigger handful, maybe two or three handfuls -- because it's like I said: This town, this campus, is divided about Johnny Manziel. For or against. Proud or ashamed. The reactions run the gamut, including this from a member of the Texas A&M track team who thinks the media, not Manziel, is the bad guy.
"Basically it's ESPN trying to make a story," said Olabanji Asekun, a junior long-jumper from Cedar Hill, Texas. "ESPN is trying to get its ratings up."
But what if ESPN's reporting was right? What if Manziel accepted money for all that stuff he signed for memorabilia dealers? Should he represent the team on Saturday?
"I think he should play," Asekun said.
"Because I don't care."
• • •
They'll be drinking good and early Saturday morning. The game starts at noon, and while that's an early kickoff, this is a college town and pregame consumption will happen. Across the street from Kyle Field is the Northgate entertainment district, where a bar called Mad Hatters has had this sign in its window all week:
We open at 8 am this Saturday!
$2 Bloody Mary's and $3 Mimosas until kickoff.
It will be hot here, even hours before the noon kickoff. The forecast Saturday calls for a high of 101 degrees, and it will feel hotter. It's so hot here this week that several women walk along University Avenue toward campus carrying umbrellas -- and there's not a cloud in the sky. Hot weather goes with cold drinks, and on Saturday morning there will be beverages available all over Northgate. It brings to mind something former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer said many times about the home of the Sooners: "Norman is a drinking town with a football problem."
That's college towns all over the country, and in College Station there are no pretenses. Outside Duddley's Draw, the sign for lunch specials ignores the concept of lunch and gets down to business:
Happy Hour all night long.
Nearby at Basil Whippet's Pub and Apothecary Lounge, a killjoy sign is in the window. If you were in town for Texas A&M football, and specifically for Johnny Football, maybe you'd have had the same reaction when you saw this sign. Maybe you, too, would have read the following and thought of Johnny Manziel:
-- 21 --
Anything less and you can't purchase alcoholic beverages in Texas.
IT'S A CRIME
Partying. Football. Manziel. For some of us you can't think of one without the other, not if you're in College Station. Not with Manziel being so prolific at both. Manziel partied his way across North America this offseason, from spring break in Cabo to the frat party at the University of Texas to the casino in Oklahoma to the Drake concert in Toronto. He lived it up until he overslept, or something, at the Manning Passing Academy in July in Louisiana, and then the narrative changed. It changed with help from Manziel's father, Paul, who told ESPN The Magazine about his son's drinking and the bribes the family has offered since high school -- like the fancy car -- to get him to stop.
College students drink. This is not news. A lawyer in College Station openly chases that legal dollar with a sign outside his establishment in Northgate -- he's located across the street from a hookah bar -- that says the following on a sandwich board:
Having more fun than the law will allow?
Got caught with some pot?
Pay a reasonable fee for a reasonable doubt.
College Station isn't so different from Norman. It's a drinking town with a football problem. But the whole thing is complicated by Johnny Manziel.
• • •
"I'm sick of him," the Texas A&M freshman from the Texas Panhandle was saying on Thursday. "All I know is, he's causing a lot of drama. I don't really care, but he's not representing our school properly. I'm not a big football fan, but he's giving us a bad name."
She gave her name: Mari. She wouldn't give more than that.
"I don't think I should," she said. "He's kind of a big deal around here."
But you don't like him because ...
"Because he's making us look bad. He doesn't even want to be here. He wants to be at Texas or in the pros or whatever. He should just go and make everyone happy."
They dislike him here, but also ...
"Fans love him," said Harrison Teel, a Texas A&M student from Sugarland. "The rules are: no autographs. But the fans love him, and he loves the fans. Why wouldn't he want to be that player the fans want him to be?"
Added Wyatt McCown from Corpus Christi: "I like him. He's a bit cocky, but he can be."
And Dillon Dye from Houston: "You see him around, he's not treating people like he's different. He seems like a cool guy."
But what if he broke NCAA rules by signing for money?
"I know I'd be doing some of the same stuff if I had the chance," Dye said. "Everyone else is making money off him."
True that. Dye was walking near the Texas Aggieland Bookstore, just one of the businesses making money off Manziel. There are two racks of jerseys in the store. One has the No. 2, which is Manziel's number. The other has the No. 12, for the 12th Man. I asked a bookstore employee, Hope Walkup of Shallowater, Texas, why there weren't more numbers available.
"Honestly, it's pretty rare that we have the 2's," she said. "Normally places like this sell just the 12's."
It's complicated. Manziel and other college football players generate so much money -- for their school, for local businesses, even for TV networks like mine -- yet can't profit themselves. It seems absurd, but it's the rule. And everyone knows the rule. Did Manziel break the rule? Some think so. Some don't. People around this town, this campus, are divided on that, just like they're divided on so many things about this fascinating, infuriating, brilliant college football player.
Texas A&M junior Savannah Jackson of Lubbock declined to be dragged down by the debate. I asked her about Manziel. Did she know about his infamous offseason? About the alleged violations? About the NCAA ruling for Saturday's game?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
Well ... what's your opinion?
"I appreciate his talent," she said. "Possibly he broke the rules, but I don't know him. I can't pose my opinion on him because we've never met."
And off Savannah Jackson went to class.