- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Tom Rossley and Mark Smith knew each other well. Rossley, the former Texas A&M quarterbacks coach, recruited the San Antonio and surrounding areas when Smith was the head coach at Kerrville (Texas) Tivy, a small town outside of San Antonio.
Smith generally enjoyed his conversations with Rossley when the two visited and felt comfortable enough to be bluntly honest with him, particularly when it came to the subject of Smith's then-star quarterback, Johnny Manziel.
Rossley recruited Manziel while at Texas A&M and liked virtually everything he saw, from his athleticism to his throwing ability. Like many college coaches, there's a wish list when it comes to quarterbacks, and height is on that list. That wasn't Manziel's strong suit, as the dual-threat quarterback stood just 6-foot-1.
Smith recalled the story from a coaching friend of his who used to be an assistant at Austin (Texas) Westlake. The way the story goes, a different former Texas A&M assistant stopped by Westlake in the mid-1990s and checked out a relatively small-statured but strong-armed quarterback named Drew Brees. The A&M assistant told the Westlake coaches that Brees was a little too short and had too awkward a throwing motion for the Aggies.
"So I looked at Tom and I told him the same story," Smith recalls. "And I said, 'Tom, I can remember you as the guy who made the greatest decision of your life or I can remember you like that other coach that I did that didn't recruit a Super Bowl-winner. I don't know which one you want to be, but it's up to you. I wouldn't worry about his height because he's going to win for you.'"
Fortunately for the Aggies, Rossley convinced head coach Mike Sherman that Manziel's lack of prototypical quarterback height was worth overlooking. And Smith's prophetic words are proving true as Manziel has become perhaps the brightest young star in college football this year, leading the No. 8 Aggies to an 8-2 record and, most recently, an upset road win over then-No. 1 Alabama.
The young man dubbed "Johnny Football" is breaking records and is a Heisman Trophy candidate, but coming out of high school he was an intriguing yet often-overlooked prospect.
Rated as a three-star recruit by ESPN, Manziel was not offered by the vast majority of Texas FBS colleges. Smith recalls only the Aggies and Rice offering Manziel, who became a Parade All-American, the Texas Associated Press Player of the Year and the National High School Coaches Association's Football Player of the Year as a senior.
Smith believes height was one of the primary concerns of many Texas colleges. Manziel did field offers from several out-of-state schools and despite his height, his production was through the roof. He threw for 2,903 yards and 19 touchdowns and ran for 1,544 and 34 scores as a junior then surpassed those totals as a senior (3,609 passing yards with 45 touchdowns; 1,674 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns). He even caught a touchdown pass and returned a kickoff for a touchdown as a senior.
Oregon found Manziel attractive enough to offer him a scholarship, and Manziel committed in June 2010. But Rossley, who saw him throw in the spring and was sold on him as a college quarterback, continued to recruit him.
"A guy that has done as much as he did as a high school player, he was probably one of the best high school quarterbacks maybe to ever play in Texas," Rossley said. "It's just such a great football state, that to have him leave and go to Oregon or California or anywhere, would have been a sin to the state of Texas."
Rossley sold Sherman on him and, eventually, the Aggies offered. Manziel loved Oregon, but the relationship he built with Rossley and Sherman, coupled with A&M's location, made him reconsider. Smith recalls sitting down with Manziel during his recruitment and going through the pros and cons.
"He really loved Chip Kelly and he loved the offensive coordinator, he loved Oregon and everything about it," Smith said. "You're talking about going to a top-five program [at that time] where A&M was still in a rebuilding mode. We sat down and put everything on the board: football, everything.
"But the one factor that kept coming back was his family; the fact that they would have to travel 3,000 miles to see him play. And he didn't want that."
After a handful of trips to College Station, Manziel switched his commitment to the Aggies that September. He enrolled in time for the 2011 spring semester, though the Aggies were set at quarterback with eventual first-round pick Ryan Tannehill at quarterback. Manziel redshirted, but Rossley remembers being wowed by the quarterback on the practice field. He said that every time Manziel competed in a two-minute drill or a red-zone drill, his team would always win.
"There wasn't a day that would go by that we wouldn't win the drill, because that's the way he is," Rossley said. "Now I knew that when he practiced that way, he was going to play that way."
The rest is history. Aggies fans and now college football fans across the country have had the opportunity to see what Smith and Rossley saw before in Manziel.