Before the NFL flameout, the legal troubles and suspensions, the superstardom, records and Heisman Trophy, Texas A&M freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel arrived in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 10, 2012, to face top-ranked Alabama.
Manziel racked up 345 total yards and scored two touchdowns to beat the reigning national champions.
What legend was growing for Johnny Football was fully birthed and the Heisman all but secured when all was said and done at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Five years later, players, coaches and broadcasters recall Texas A&M’s trip to Alabama:
Part I: The buildup
Alabama was 9-0 with its sights set on a second consecutive national title after a tooth-and-nail battle with LSU. Thanks to an AJ McCarron-to-T.J. Yeldon screen pass with 51 seconds remaining, the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide escaped with a 21-17 win, and the path to another ring was clear. Their next opponent, SEC newcomer Texas A&M, was just another inevitable win on the way to SEC and BCS championships.
Alabama defensive end Damion Square: “I can remember being on the bus after a hard-fought LSU game in Baton Rouge and getting on the bus and saying, ‘Man, this don’t stop. We have A&M next week.’ And the guys didn’t know. They were like, ‘A&M? We’re gonna beat them. Our heartache is over,’ because LSU was always the team we had to worry about in the SEC.”
T.J. Yeldon and AJ McCarron beat LSU in dramatic fashion the week before facing Texas A&M. AP Photo/Bill Haber
Alabama middle linebacker Nico Johnson: “You get a new team in the SEC, of course in your head you’re like, ‘Nah, they’re not ready for this SEC play, this speed.’ … We weren’t practicing our best, we weren’t preparing our best, and Coach [Nick] Saban and Coach [Kirby] Smart had been preaching all week long that we needed to practice better.”
In College Station, the 7-2 Aggies were confident. Manziel’s Heisman Trophy campaign was heating up thanks to his weekly highlight reels — the latest coming from a 25-point victory at 15th-ranked Mississippi State. Manziel already had 2,527 passing yards, 922 rushing yards and 31 total touchdowns. The Aggies respected Alabama, certainly, but the plans for an upset were in motion.
Texas A&M offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury: “Johnny was the kind that if he felt he could just go into the game and do his deal, there wasn’t a lot of extra put into it, if you can imagine that. But that was [a week] where he was spending some more time watching film. I think he understood the magnitude.”
Texas A&M linebacker Sean Porter: “Coach [Kevin] Sumlin came to us all week and was telling us, ‘Don’t be surprised when we’re up by 20 at halftime. Don’t let it shock us and take us out of our game.'”
Kingsbury: “It was more psychological warfare. I remember [McCarron] crying after the LSU game … so we knew they were going to be emotionally spent to an extent. If you were ever going to catch them, it was going to be that week.
“I remember having to go back to 2011 to find a film where people really scored on [Alabama’s defense]. It was Georgia Southern, running the option, and I went and showed the film [to the players]. … I said, ‘Hey, listen, I know everyone’s saying they’re an NFL team and they can’t be scored on, and things of this nature, but I’m going to show you [an FCS] team and this is what they did to them.'”
Alabama long-snapper Carson Tinker: “That whole week, we didn’t have a quarterback on scout team. … It might have been a receiver, like Christion Jones. We said, ‘Hey, just scramble. Don’t even worry about throwing the ball.’
“The theme all week was, ‘Survive assaults.’ We knew Johnny was going to make plays, we just had to make sure we kept our composure.”
Part II: Pregame
When game day arrived, the anticipation was palpable.
Texas A&M radio network sideline reporter Will Johnson: “There’s something in that stadium, that the moment you walk in on game day — even if it’s six hours before kickoff and nobody’s there — it more than any other place has a feeling that something big is about to go down here.”
Texas A&M associate athletic director for football Justin Moore: “That might have been the first time we had been to a 100,000-seat stadium. This is the SEC. This is what we signed up for, right?”
Porter: “There were some Alabama alumni on the field before the game while we were warming up. Most of them were bigger guys, 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5. A couple of them came over and talked to me and [linebacker Jonathan Stewart]. And they walked up to us and kind of looked us up and down and said, ‘Oh, are these the receivers practicing right now?’ We just kind of smirked at them and jogged off.”
Less than two hours before game time, Manziel — who wasn’t speaking with the media because Sumlin bars freshmen from doing so — let the world know where his mind was via Twitter.
Johnny Manziel ✔ @JManziel2
Give to them nothing but take from them EVERYTHING. Time to turn up and leave it all on the field #gigem #12thMan
2:52 AM – Nov 11, 2012
181 181 Replies 6,045 6,045 Retweets 4,336 4,336 likes
Twitter Ads info and privacy
Kingsbury: “Usually on game days, he’s locked in and focused. He turns into a different beast.”
Alabama radio analyst and former Cleveland Browns GM Phil Savage: “There was just a confidence in watching [A&M] in the warm-up that, ‘You know what? We’re pretty good and we’re getting ready to show the world.’ They had a looseness about them that day.”
Part III: Game time
Alabama went three-and-out on the game’s first possession and it didn’t take long for Manziel to show the Crimson Tide what A&M’s nine previous opponents already knew. On the Aggies’ fifth offensive play, Manziel took off for a 29-yard run, stiff-arming Alabama defensive back Deion Belue in the process. Two minutes and 50 seconds later, it was 7-0.
McCarron threw an interception. A&M took over and what came next was a play that won’t soon be forgotten: On third-and-goal from the Alabama 10-yard line, Manziel ran into right tackle Jake Matthews, bobbled the football, caught it, rolled to his left and found a wide-open Ryan Swope in the back of the end zone.
Will Johnson: “Of all the plays Johnny made, that’s the most speechless I’ve been.”
Kingsbury: “I just remember the whole crowd was going crazy … and then it was complete silence when Ryan catches that ball.”
Nico Johnson: “When I saw Johnny drop the football, pick it up and shake three or four guys, and rolled out and shook another guy and threw it off his back foot in the back of the end zone for a touchdown, I was like, ‘This is not meant for us to win today, man.’ It had that feeling like nothing would go our way.”
Alabama aimed to limit Johnny Manziel’s scrambling. He ran for 92 yards in the game. Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images
A stunned crowd watched as Alabama went three-and-out and the Aggies marched downfield yet again. Sure enough, just as Sumlin told his players earlier that week, they were up 20-0 — except it was still the first quarter.
Alabama recruit (and later defensive lineman) Jonathan Allen: “I was excited. It was supposed to be a great game and then all of the sudden we’re down  because of someone named Johnny Manziel.”
Nico Johnson: “Of course we were bigger, so we were trying to punish [Manziel]. We were trying to make him feel those hits. But at the same time we couldn’t get to him because he’s so shifty and so fast. Well, it became frustrating and it caused problems because now every single guy is trying to do their own thing. … Now you get people not doing the right thing and then Johnny is going to be Johnny and he’s going to eat.”
But the Aggies knew the large lead wouldn’t last. Not against Alabama.
Kingsbury: “I remember calling [the offensive players] over, because I knew it was coming. I knew the run was coming, because [the 20-point lead] happened so quickly and seamlessly. I remember standing up and saying, ‘We’ve got to keep scoring.'”
Texas A&M running backs coach Clarence McKinney: “They got backed into a corner and they came out swinging. We felt that … it was just a matter of how we were going to respond to it.”
Alabama started running the ball more with Yeldon and Eddie Lacy and finally got on the board. Receiver Amari Cooper was a popular target on the next scoring drive, and by halftime the Crimson Tide were within six. Still, Saban wasn’t happy.
Nico Johnson: “Our game plan that week was to make Johnny a pocket passer. We didn’t want him getting outside and ripping and running and extending plays because that’s what he was great at. Well, we didn’t do that. So Saban, after seeing us frustrated on the sideline for not doing our job, he ripped into us. And Coach Smart said the same thing: ‘Just do your job. Just do your job.’ Because we weren’t. A lot of us weren’t doing our job and a couple players got pulled out because of that.”
Lacy began to pile up yardage in the third quarter and the Crimson Tide added a field goal to cut the A&M lead to three points. As day turned to night and the deficit shrunk, the home crowd fed off of it.
Texas A&M receivers coach David Beaty: “One of the biggest memories for me was just how electric that place was. It was unreal. That’s why you want to play college football, right there.”
AJ McCarron rallied Alabama in the second half, connecting on a long TD pass to Amari Cooper. John David Mercer/US Presswire
Part IV: Crunch time
As the game wore on, Manziel began to rely less on his legs and more on his arm. Early in the fourth quarter, Manziel threw a strike to Swope, who took a monster hit from Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (who was penalized for hitting a defenseless receiver above the shoulders). Swope stood up and let out a primal scream after holding on. The Aggies missed a field goal, but Yeldon fumbled on the ensuing drive.
The next A&M possession was two plays: a 42-yard Manziel toss down the right sideline to Swope and a 24-yard corner route to Malcome Kennedy for a touchdown to give the Aggies a 29-17 lead.
Kingsbury: “[The two throws] were as perfect as you could get.”
The Crimson Tide weren’t done, however. McCarron found Cooper for a 54-yard touchdown on the next drive to close to within 29-24, and the defense finally began to corral Manziel. By the time McCarron found Kenny Bell for a 54-yard gain to the Aggies’ 6, there were just more than four minutes to go and only 18 feet separating Alabama from taking the lead.
On third-and-goal, McCarron scrambled for 13 seconds and headed for the end zone, where he was met by cornerback Dustin Harris, setting up fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line.
Will Johnson: “That was real tension on the sidelines … we’ve come this close to a monumental win and now it could get taken away. Energy and elation left the A&M sidelines after those two bombs and now reality was setting in. The defense is on the field, so Johnny’s not the one that can bail you out now, it has to be somebody else.”
Bell went in motion to the right side. McCarron took the snap. Cooper ran high and Bell ran underneath. A&M cornerback Deshazor Everett jumped in front of Bell — avoiding the rub by Cooper — and intercepted McCarron with 1:36 left.
Deshazor Everett sealed Texas A&M’s win with his late interception. AP Photo/Dave Martin
Moore: “It was one of those where they practiced it and screwed it up in practice. Finally, by the end [of the week] of practice, they had finally gotten it right. So it turned out they were in that exact play in that situation, and Deshazor was ready for it and jumped out.”
Texas A&M center Patrick Lewis: “My head was actually down. I was kind of praying and I picked my head up at the last minute and I saw him jump the route, and it just went ecstatic from there. Like a joy you never felt before.”
Part V: The aftermath
When the clock hit triple zeroes, the Aggies celebrated.
Will Johnson: “You’ve seen A&M do the water bottle thing where they throw the water in the air after a big win. Well, the ceilings in the Alabama visiting locker room are really low. So they throw the water in the air and they’re jumping so high and the ceiling is so low that they were busting through the tile. … By the time the team left the locker room, there were all these tiles that were stacked up on top of each other on the floor and people were commenting, ‘I guess we’re going to have to send them a bill.'”
Lewis: “We broke a few tiles in the ceiling that we had to apologize for … but it was all worth it.”
Alabama, on the other hand, was in shock.
Allen: “It was somber. Just a feeling of defeatedness.”
Nico Johnson: “Coach Saban after the game said, ‘This is what happens. This is what happens when you don’t prepare your best. When you don’t prepare your best, you get the worst end of the results.'”
Alabama radio play-by-play announcer Eli Gold: “A lot of people were concerned: Has this ended Alabama’s season? There were many, many people saying, ‘Did the dream of this season end on the field today?'”
Savage: “That was a while ago and Bama had not transitioned defensively and not really embraced the idea that, ‘Hey, we’re going to have to adjust our philosophy here because the sport is changing right under our feet.’ That was one of the games that really set in motion them adjusting their recruiting, trying to get more athletic defenders at all levels of the defense, corners playing safety and that concept. That was one of the games that steered them in the direction they’re in now.”
The Aggies had seemingly arrived. Tracy Wolfson, the CBS sideline reporter, concluded her postgame interview with Sumlin by saying, “Welcome to the SEC.” And Manziel became a national sensation with a signature Heisman moment secured. Later that night, even an LSU defensive lineman gave Manziel a ringing endorsement.
Porter: “I think the media was kind of shocked. We weren’t shocked.”
Moore: “It certainly changed the perception of A&M. … It let everybody know that we could compete at the highest level. And it just changed expectations, too.”
The Aggies reveled in their victory over No. 1 Alabama. AP Photo/Dave Martin
Kingsbury: “[Manziel] was already going pretty good down in College Station, prior to that. … [The Alabama win] took it to a whole other level. We show up and there’s I don’t know how many thousands of people waiting — and here comes the rock star. They had to have police security literally walk him through these masses of people to get him to his car.”
Lewis: “I still get asked about the Alabama game. It’ll live on forever. … Any time I have A&M gear on, people ask what year I played and, ‘Did you play with Johnny Manziel?'”
In the end, both teams had good conclusions: The Aggies finished 11-2 and Manziel won the Heisman; and the Crimson Tide went on to win another national championship.
Tinker: “[In the locker room] Saban was like, ‘What do we do now?’ And I remember the speech Saban gave after the LSU game the year before in 2011, and word-for-word I just said the speech he gave last year. I feel like that was my shining moment as a senior. I said, ‘Guys, we still have an opportunity to do something great. We still have a chance to go to the SEC championship. Don’t look at the scoreboard. Keep fighting. Keep doing everything we can to be the best football team we can be, and we’ll see what happens.’
“That’s what Saban said the year before when we lost to LSU, and we ended up playing in the national championship. … I gave that same speech and the same thing ended up happening. We had one loss, we went back and won the SEC championship game, and got to play Notre Dame in Miami.”
Sumlin: “That whole year had an impact. [That] one game was a big deal. But the season — for what people thought would happen with the move to the SEC — I think that entire year was really a positive situation for the football program. … There’s pluses and minuses that came with that, too, and we all know what those are.”
Nico Johnson: “[Manziel] had a great season to that point and then he pretty much solidified his Heisman Trophy by going to Alabama and beating us in our house. It was crazy. And then we continued to win throughout the year and it made his performance even greater that day.”
Texas A&M radio play-by-play announcer Dave South: “I still say it to this day … I’ve seen some great players in those 47 years [of calling football], but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody like Johnny Manziel.”