Johnny Football and Archie Who

In October of 1969, Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning set the SEC record for total yards in a game. The record would not be broken for more than forty years.*

Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M has eclipsed that mark three times in the past calendar year.

Seems to me, Johnny Football deserves more credit than he is getting for breaking perhaps the most storied record of the nation’s most history-conscious conference.

Manziel first broke Manning’s record a year ago this week as a redshirt freshman. Accumulating 557 total yards, he passed for 453 yards, rushed for another 104, and accounted for four touchdowns (three passing and one rushing) in a 58-10 rout of Arkansas at College Station on September 29, 2012. It was only the fourth start of his college career and he was just getting warmed up.

Two weeks later (October 13, 2012) the Aggies traveled to Shreveport for a neutral site game with Louisiana Tech, and Manziel surpassed the total yardage mark again. In a wild 59-57 shootout (in regulation no less), Manziel upped his own record to 576 yards by shredding the Bulldogs for 181 yards on the ground and 395 more through the air. He tallied six touchdowns, spread evenly via run and pass. It was a scintillating performance and national attention started to simmer around the former schoolboy sensation from Kerrville, Texas.

That attention came to a boil a month later (November 10, 2012) when the legend of Johnny Football was truly born in a 29-24 upset victory over top-ranked and defending national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Manziel accounted for a relatively modest 345 yards, but his weaving runs and scrambling play-making captured the nation’s attention and catapulted him to Heisman Trophy frontrunner (he would win the award in December, the first freshman to do so).

Alabama played the foil again in Manziel’s third and (to date) last assault on Archie’s old record.

On September 14 of this year, Manziel rolled up 562 yards against the Crimson Tide in a 49-42 loss at Kyle Field in College Station. Those totals include 464 yards passing, 98 rushing, and five touchdown passes. He still has over half of this season left, plus two more seasons of eligibility but in all likelihood he will be off to the NFL after this season (as a redshirt sophomore he is eligible to declare for the draft).

As great as Manziel has been, he may never reach the lofty status of Archie Manning among southern football fans.

Manning’s record stood for forty-three seasons and is one of the iconic moments in Southeastern Conference football history.

Manning set the standard of 540 yards on October 4, 1969, against Alabama and coach Paul “Bear” Bryant at Legion Field in Birmingham. The Rebels lost the game 33-32, but Manning won the night along with the hearts of football fans across the nation – and especially fans in the South. The leading character of the upcoming documentary Book of Manning passed for 436 yards and two touchdowns that Autumn evening, and added 104 rushing yards and another three touchdowns on the ground. 540 yards and 5 touchdowns. Those were myth-making numbers.

The novelty of that Ole Miss-Alabama game contributed to its enduring legacy and to Manning’s status as a favorite son of the South.

When the Rebs traveled to the heart of Dixie to face the Tide, the teams played only the second nationally televised prime-time college football game ever shown (Alabama and Miami had played the first in late 1968, a game that didn’t generate much attention). To contemporary fans, college football on television was in the dinosaur age back in the late 1960s. Now we can watch college football most days of the week from September to January, and games start whenever ESPN (still over a decade away from its origins that 1969 night) or other networks dictate. But, when Archie set the record the nation was only three months removed from Neil Armstrong’s moon walk, starting to learn of the Manson family murders of two months earlier, and just tuning in to a brand new show called The Brady Bunch. Saturdays featured one national college football game, and on some weekends bonus coverage of a regional contest.

Archie Manning’s play that evening ushered in the modern era of college football according to ESPN’s Ivan Maisel. I agree.

Manning’s antics were every bit as exciting as Manziel’s would be four decades later.

His scrambling and throwing supposedly caused Coach Bryant to fire defensive coordinator Ken Donahue three times during the game, and future Alabama AD Mal Moore (secondary coach that night) said “I’m glad I was in the press box or he’d have fired me too.” (For the record, Donahue must have been “rehired” during the game because he coached with Bryant through 1982).

The performance made Archie into a southern cult hero and even inspired a catchy (or kitschy) little tune called “The Ballad of Archie Who” by the Rebel Rousers (listen and note the song is set to the rhythm of Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues).

I don’t know whether Johnny Football will have songs named for him, or become the hero to Aggie fans that Archie Manning was to southerners of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

I do think he deserves more attention for the records he is setting.

(*LSU quarterback Rohan Davey tied Manning’s 540 yard total in 2001 in a 35-21 win over … you guessed it … Alabama. The LSU head coach that Saturday was current Alabama coach Nick Saban)

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