NEW YORK – The kids are from East Harlem, almost exclusively black or Hispanic, many from disadvantaged backgrounds. The NFL selected them, in particular, for a Play 60 event with draft prospects because of a recent gas explosion that leveled buildings throughout their neighborhood.
The Kid is from Kerrville, in the rural hill country of Texas. He's white, famous, affluent and representing the twin prides of the state, a family fortune built on oil, a future on football.
From a certain perspective, there is little in common between Johnny Manziel and, say, 12-year-old Jose Marquez, one of those Harlem school kids here.
Except when Johnny Football along with 29 other draft hopefuls arrived at Chelsea Waterfront Park for the public relations event, there was little doubt he was the player that was most in demand: for handshakes, pictures and, most importantly, a football thrown to them.
"He's got skills," Marquez said.
"Yeah, he's got talent," added friend Justin Cruz.
Harlem isn't a college football hotbed. When it comes to football, it's all about the NFL, the Jets and the Giants in particular.
Yet they'd all seen Manziel on TV or flash across internet highlights and understand he plays the game in a way few other quarterbacks do – with a flair for the dramatic, an interest in the daring and always capable of falling back on creativity and athletic ability like a Rucker Park point guard.
That's the draw. Couple it with Manziel's high-profile social life and he's a star before ever getting drafted, even here in a city that isn't lacking for them. That he showed up here Wednesday morning well dressed, on time and without a Rockette on his arm was a mild surprise and a bit of a disappointment.
This was Johnny Business, though, because for Manziel the reputation that puts the eyes of Manhattan on him and the style of play that sends kids rushing toward him, are everything that he is trying to downplay to NFL teams, even in the final hours before the draft.
Whomever takes the redshirt sophomore out of Texas A&M has to not only believe in him as a player – a bit undersized with a propensity to bail out on plays – but as a person who is committed to the dull grind of improvement, not just the flash and fame that comes with the job.
Skills, in every sense of the word, aren't really helping at this point.
"I think I've done a great job alleviating concerns with [NFL teams]," Manziel said Wednesday. "Them getting to know me on a more personable [sic] level. I've answered every question. There is nothing for me to hide."
Manziel is the most fascinating prospect in this draft, which is one reason he's been the most discussed and scrutinized. There is no consensus, except he seems like a guy who will either be a dramatic success or a spectacular failure. Just a boring, OK player doesn't seem likely. This is high risk, high reward.
So he sits at a crossroads, in one breath telling the NFL that he is willing to work to become a more traditional quarterback that operates inside a set offense because he knows freelancing doesn't work at that level, then in the next defending his style as more than just something out of a sandlot.
"Going back and looking at film," he said, "I've dissected all these games the last two years and realized, 'Man, I could've just done this and made it easier even though this happened.' I see that. I see that there is room for me to improve.
"But to say that I'm just a backyard football quarterback, I don't think you do what I did in college just doing that," he said of his A&M career, where he helped revolutionize the program and won the 2012 Heisman Trophy. "So I don't think that's extremely fair. I hear it. But for me, I know that it's all about my work ethic and my will to get better and that's very alive."
Later, he tried balancing the need to remind teams of that worker mentality needed to handle a position of tremendous complexity and responsibility, while trying to excuse the playboy image that's followed him.
"I've tried to show them how committed to this game I am and how this is my life," Manziel said. "I just wouldn't be able to live with myself if things didn't go the way I wanted. I know that I am not going to … think [back and say], 'I wasn't successful because I didn't put enough time or enough effort.' "
"I don't think it's wrong of me to enjoy my life and have fun."
At one point Wednesday he was asked if he was motivated by disrespect. He began speaking with passion.
"I do have a chip on my shoulder," he said. "I've been doubted for a long time. I don't let it affect me; I don't lose any sleep at night. I felt like coming out of high school I was better than I was rated. I feel like now …"
… on the verge of a bold statement, he suddenly slipped into programmed Johnny, his body language almost visibly shifting gears …
"… I'm a good quarterback and there is room to grow. Like I said, I don't have all the answers. My goal in life is to be really, really good on and off the field."
Are you the best quarterback in the draft, he was asked?
"There's 10 really good quarterbacks in this draft," he said.
Soon enough the debate won't matter. Analyzing each sentence will be even more futile. Someone is going to draft Manziel and for whatever excitement or circus that follows, his future will be determined by his play. The NFL isn't much for sizzle. It prefers steak.
Manziel says he is the latter. The fact that it's the former that made him famous, even among New York City tweens who don't otherwise watch college football and wouldn't know an Aggie if it was on the 6 train, is just part of the deal.
"His moves, just the way he plays," 13-year old Keilos Ferdinand said of Johnny Football, agreeing with his buddies.
Manziel can only shrug. There isn't much left to say. He's spoken his peace across the league, from Bill O'Brien to Bill Belichick.
He just wants the draft to come, the process to be done, no matter what the pick is.
"Whether its 1 or 200," Manziel said, "I just want to play football."
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