RICK CLEVELAND: Mississippi's gridiron greats



Years ago, I wrote a column about the intangible “it” factor in athletes. The column explored that factor that cannot be measured by stopwatches, tape measures or scales: “it.”

Never, in more than four decades of sports writing have I received more feedback from coaches, who, to a person, agreed with my premise. The column about “it” touched a nerve with coaches. The hard-to-define “it” is what separates champions from the merely great.

“It” is not just heart or courage, although those are parts of “it.”

“It” also is a belief in one’s self. The player who has “it” wants the ball – any kind of ball – in his hands with the game on the line. He wants the six-foot putt with all the money riding on it. She wants the last shot with the clock winding down. The athlete with “it” is never better than when all depends on his or her performance at that moment. Michael Jordan had “it.” Mariano Rivera had “it.” Joe Montana’s “it” overflowed.

I bring this up now because I am not sure I’ve ever seen a college football player with more “it” than Johnny Manziel, the Texas A & M quarterback who won the Heisman as a redshirt freshman and is even better as a sophomore.

His performance at Oxford this past Saturday was a dashing, smashing, passing display of “it.”

And I know: Many, many fans do not approve of the Manziel’s manner. I wish he would tone it down, as well. Go ahead and criticize his histrionics. I have on many occasion.

But don’t ever doubt the the aptly nicknamed Johnny Football’s “it” factor. Don’t doubt his amazing ability, his toughness, his competitiveness, his “clutch-ness” or his courage.

The guy has as much “it” per pound as any athlete these eyes have seen.

Magic man

Last season, the game-winning drive he directed against Alabama’s defense at Tuscaloosa was almost too good to believe even as you were watching.

He was eluding the biggest, fastest, best defenders in college football and then slinging passes through the tiniest of windows, with more than 100,000 fans in his ears. He did what nobody else could do: He beat national champion Bama and Nick Saban at their place.

This past Saturday at Oxford, Manziel showed us something else. As this is written, I don’t know what happened to his left knee on the play where he came up lame. But nine times out of 10 when you see that reaction from an athlete, he or she is done. I thought Manziel was surely done for the night, perhaps for the season.

But Manziel put on a knee brace and carried on. He wasn’t quite as quick, quite as elusive as normal afterward, but he was still better than any other player on the field. He was not going to lose that game. That’s all. He was not going to lose.

Archie Manning watched from skyboxes in the south end zone and, as everyone else, was dazzled by Manziel’s agility and instincts.

Said Manning, “You know, football, especially playing quarterback, is hard. I mean, it’s really hard. But Johnny makes it look easy. He has so much ability and such great instincts, he makes it look like it’s fun and that’s unusual. When he’s playing, it doesn’t seem very hard.”

As Manning said, “Johnny’s the perfect guy for that spread, no-huddle system. I would have loved to have played in that system.”

And I would have love to have watched.

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@msfame.com) is the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame of Museum.

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