TUSCALOOSA, Ala.—On the surface, AJ McCarron and Johnny Manziel seem like polar opposites at quarterback.
On one hand, there’s Manziel—the headline-grabbing star quarterback for the flashy Texas A&M team that went toe-to-toe with the best in the SEC last year. He came under intense scrutiny in the offseason, when he rubbed elbows with Drake and Lebron James, threw out a first pitch at a baseball game and was caught on camera with a different woman on his arm seemingly every night.
The pressure only ramped up when he was dismissed from the Manning Passing Academy and investigated by the NCAA for selling autographs.
Then, there’s McCarron, the quarterback for the two-time defending national champion Crimson Tide, who seeks the spotlight less often than he takes off running, which is to say, not often. He’s routinely labeled as a “game manager” and plays for a team with an old-school philosophy and a stern disciplinarian as its head coach.
Brent Musburger even made his girlfriend more famous than him with a couple of questionable one-liners during the national championship broadcast last year.
In some instances, they’re described almost as character foils—one a shining example of how a quarterback should handle himself, the other an extremely talented punk kid who is always on the verge of throwing it all away. McCarron is the cold, calculating Walter White to Manziel’s reckless, renegade Jesse Pinkman.
Their styles of play are drastically different and are amazingly reflective of their personalities. Manziel the erstwhile desperado, a daring gunslinger with a tendency to live by the seat of his pants. McCarron the cool, calm and commanding leader of men.
Their divergent personalities make McCarron and Manziel unlikely friends, but their shared experience performing in the spotlight of the SEC creates a rare bond few others can understand.
“It’s very easy to sit on the outside and talk about Johnny and his family and the way he’s handling things,” said Dee Dee Bonner, McCarron’s mother. “But if you’re not in this goat rodeo as I like to call it, if you’re not in this, you really don’t have an understanding of what goes on. There’s so much pressure on these players; they don’t have a normal life.”
McCarron and Manziel first crossed paths on the field last November in the game that announced Johnny Football to the world. They’ve stayed friends since that game, keeping in touch throughout the offseason and even planning a vacation together, though Bonner notes that never came to fruition due to conflicting schedules.
Their friendship has been dissected and discussed, but McCarron, ever the public relations pro, has been careful to keep things in perspective, especially as the game approaches.
“We're just friends, guys,” he said this week. “Y'all make this thing a lot bigger than it needs to be.”
Never was the pair’s relationship more scrutinized than in mid-July when Manziel was dismissed from the Manning Passing Academy and reports surfaced that he was rooming with McCarron who failed to wake him up for staff meetings.
That became the story the next week at SEC media days, as both quarterbacks were peppered with questions about the events of that morning and the previous night.
McCarron stayed on script when fielding questions, instead choosing to let Manziel answer them himself.
"I can't answer on Johnny Manziel's part," McCarron said at media days. "My name is AJ. Everything that has to do with him, he's his own man. I'm not going to speak on another man's business. That's how I was raised. If it don't have nothing to do with you, don't speak on it.”
Bonner said McCarron has always handled himself that way, ever since he was a kid. She compares his approach to the world to that of his coach, Nick Saban.
“[AJ] took sports seriously even when he was little,” she said. “He would get upset when kids on the tee-ball field were digging the dirt or picking the flowers or something. He was all about paying attention, and that’s the way he takes it. Becoming more like Coach Saban has only helped him in that regard.”
Bonner isn’t the first nor will she be the last to make the McCarron-Saban comparison. McCarron might not be the best quarterback in the country, but he is the best quarterback for Saban’s system, which has been proven to be the best in the country.
On third down, McCarron has no problem throwing the ball away if no one is open, cutting his losses and letting his defense get him the ball back. He rarely forces a throw or tries to make a play when it’s not there. Conversely, most of Johnny Football’s highlight-reel efforts are born from broken plays.
McCarron’s tendency to avoid the spotlight, in good times and bad, is likely a product Saban’s strict system and personal preference.
“I've never been one to be in the spotlight,” McCarron said. “Everybody lives their lifestyle different. People criticize him for being himself. Everybody's got their opinion on something.”
Manziel’s antics get to people because of the perception it gives off. In Week 1, when he made money signs and faked signing autographs, it came across like he wasn’t taking the NCAA investigation seriously.
The public has an idea in its head about how a quarterback should act on the field—always focused, calm, collected and “classy,” whatever that means.
Manziel, however, doesn’t exactly give off those vibes. He isn’t afraid to express what he feels, in words or otherwise. When Manziel rips open the Superman cape after a score, or talks back to a Rice defender who is taunting him, it upsets people.
It could be because Manziel doesn’t fit the mold of a “traditional” quarterback, or it could just be flat-out jealousy. At 20, Manziel is living the life many would dream of—superstar quarterback of a national championship contender with enough (legal) money to do just about whatever he pleases.
“He is only a 20-year-old young man,” Bonner said. “And people say they don’t like him, but how can you not respect him as an athlete? He’s just a phenom. No matter what people say, at the end of the day, I think he’s going to come out fine.”
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Manziel’s greatest strength very well may be that he is not weighed down with a need to please anyone.
“He isn’t worried about what the people outside of the building think; he’s worried what the people that he dresses with on the inside of the building think,” said Mark Smith, Manziel’s high school coach. “The bottom line is Johnny is who he is, and that’s who he’s going to be.”
Manziel himself echoed that statement at SEC media days.
"I'm not gonna shy away from that," Manziel said. "I'm not gonna change because I'm in the spotlight. I told people the night of the Heisman, no matter what happens, I'm going to adapt, but I'm not going to change. I'm still the same person that I was."
For the time being, that person is being kept out of the spotlight he so relishes. Manziel hasn’t made many public appearances since the autograph scandal at the advice of his lawyers and family. And according to George Schroeder of USA Today, he won’t be doing any interviews at all this week.
The decision to stay quiet is rare but not unprecedented. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray decided not to do interviews before the SEC Championship Game last December. Murray’s reasoning was that he wanted to focus on the game and tune out any possible distractions.
For Manziel, his family and his lawyers don’t want him to become the distraction.
He acts like he plays—with a reckless abandonment that could either blow up in his face or add to the legend of Johnny Football.
Most of the time, it’s the latter.
“The intensity and emotion that he plays with is part of his game,” Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin said. “Our job and his job is to channel that type of emotion into a positive way of doing things. For the most part, he does that.
“That's what separates him from a lot of people is how he plays the game and the emotion and intensity he plays the game particularly at that position which you don’t see a lot.”
McCarron and Manziel will take the field Saturday to a mixture of opinions on their lives both on and off the field.
One will win, one will lose, but the beat will only go on for one of the most lambasted friendships in all of college football.
“You go on any blog, forum and see the people not only talk bad about AJ, but talk bad about Johnny,” Bonner said. “These kids are criticized by people that don’t even know them; they don’t know them on a personal level.”
All quotes were obtained firsthand. Quotes from Kevin Sumlin and Mark Smith were obtained from A&M lead writer James Sullivan.