LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — College football’s biggest single night for awards is set for Thursday, and two of the most talked about players said the spotlight may be the most difficult they’ve endured.
Texas A&M freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel and senior Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein headlined a group of several finalists who addressed the media Wednesday after arriving at Disney World in advance of the awards show.
Manziel and Klein, along with Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, have already been selected finalists for college football’s prized Heisman Trophy, which will be presented Saturday in New York.
The trio will be in the spotlight before that today, though. They are all finalists for another coveted player of the year honor, the Maxwell Award. Manziel and Klein also are both up for the Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award, along with Ohio State’s Braxton Miller.
Manziel said the experience has been eye opening for not only him, but the family members that accompanied him.
“It’s been surreal for them as well. They’re getting overwhelmed just as much as I am,” said Manziel. “The thing they’re doing is they’re just enjoying it. They’re just sort of living through me and enjoying the trip, coming to Orlando and then New York... I’m happy for my family getting a chance to do all of this with me.”
Te’o and Miller didn’t arrive in Florida on Wednesday. But they will be in town for tonight’s award show.
The Maxwell Award has been a predictor of Heisman winners in recent years, with Maxwell recipients Cam Newton (2010) and Tim Tebow (2007) going on to win the Heisman.
Known for his understated demeanor while at Kansas State, Klein seemed a lock to take the Heisman before the then-No. 1 Wildcats lost to Baylor 52-24 on Nov. 17.
But the guy who’s earned the nickname “Optimus Klein” lived up to it after helping his team rebound and earn a convincing win over Texas last week to secure the second Big 12 championship in Kansas State’s history. The Wildcats will meet Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl.
He said he hasn’t let himself get caught up in much of the off-field hype that grew around him as Kansas State found success this season.
“I think my motivation toward this game and for my performance is deeper than that,” Klein said. “I know what truly motivates me and a lasting human motivation is going to be more out of a love and a passion of what you’re doing and who you’re doing it for and why you’re doing it, more than trying to prove someone wrong.”
Manziel, known as “Johnny Football” is considered by some to be the Heisman front-runner following his late-season exploits leading the Aggies to five straight victories, a 10-2 mark and Cotton Bowl berth in their first Southeastern Conference campaign.
Playing a free-wheeling brand of football that was often built on improvisation leading coach Kevin Sumlin’s spread offense, Manziel also nearly single-handedly derailed Alabama’s chance of defending its national championship when he propelled his team to a 29-24 upset over the former top-ranked Crimson Tide.
He also passed for 3,419 yards and 24 touchdowns and posted an SEC-record 4,600 yards of total offense on his way to being named a unanimous choice for Associated Press SEC offensive player of the year.
Manziel maintains that he still feels like the same kid from Tyler, Texas that came to Texas A&M just wanting to fulfill his dreams of playing college football.
Now, the only thing Manziel won’t have on his side is a little history if he hopes to hoist the Heisman.
Three sophomores have won it, including Tebow in 2007, Sam Bradford in 2008 and Mark Ingram in 2009. The best a first-year player has ever done is second.
“Looking back in August and at the way the media thought us to be, there were so many question marks around our team,” Manziel said. “I think the best thing that we did was that we grew each week. We got better and better as the season went on. And the way our offensive line played, the way our receivers jelled – I got to benefit from that.
“So without them I wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”
He also has the endorsement from an unlikely source with Alabama cornerback and Thorpe Award finalist Dee Milliner saying that if he had a Heisman vote, he’d pick Manziel.
Te’o will arrive in town having already picked up some hardware this week, after being presented with one honor for the nation’s top defensive player. He received the Bronco Nagurski Award on Monday, given by the Football Writers Association of America.
Te’o will look for his second top defensive player award Thursday as a nominee for the Chuck Bednarik Trophy.
The Notre Dame defensive leader has inspired his teammates on an off the field, playing on following in-season deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend. Te’o will now get to play for the national championship that Klein missed out on when the Fighting Irish play Alabama in the BCS title game.
In receiving the Nagurski award, Te’o put his focus almost entirely on that Jan. 7 matchup.
“If you ask people who the Butkus Award or the Bednarik Award winners are, or even the Heisman Trophy winner some years, they probably don’t remember them,” Te’o said this week. “But they remember who won the national championship. They remember that. That’s the trophy everybody wants.”