NEW YORK — The room overlooking Times Square was packed long before Manti Te’o and Johnny Manziel arrived.
Dozens of reporters from around the country were waiting around two tables with microphones and cameras, ready to capture their every move. They talked for 20 minutes and then posed for pictures.
Someone asked Te’o if he considered himself a legend. Manziel laughed about his popular nickname “Johnny Football.” It went by so fast.
With the bright lights of massive video boards shining through the windows, it felt as if they were at the center of one of the busiest cities in the world.
That’s life for a Heisman Trophy finalist. Te’o, Manziel and K-State quarterback Collin Klein, who was in Baltimore preparing to receive the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award, are up for the one of the most iconic honors in all of sports. Hype and intrigue follow them everywhere.
“I still haven’t grasped that I am in New York for the Heisman,” said Te’o a senior linebacker at Notre Dame. “It hasn’t really hit me yet. I’m not sure about Johnny, but together we have been in awe of the view, the scenery, the lights and just how people don’t obey traffic laws here. It’s all things we are not used to.”
The Heisman Trophy is an award every college football fan respects. Its trophy, a bronze statue depicting a football player fighting off a tackler, is instantly recognizable. But few obsess over it. Fewer think about what it would be like to visit the Big Apple and embrace the spotlight.
Other than the die-hards, only a select group of fan bases truly care each year. Right now, K-State, Notre Dame and Texas A&M fans can’t stop talking about it. They care deeply, because it’s an individual award that boosts a team just as much. It’s the type of accomplishment programs promote on the walls of their stadium and boast during pregame videos.
But without that at stake, interest wanes. K-State, Notre Dame and Texas A&M fans didn’t view the award that way last year. They might not for several more.
Football fans from the state of Kansas haven’t viewed the award with anything other than curiosity for 14 years. The last player with Sunflower State ties to be named a finalist was former K-State quarterback Michael Bishop in 1998. He finished second.
Running back Darren Sproles finished fifth in 2003, and was considered a frontrunner for the award heading into his senior season, but didn’t get an invitation to New York.
That changes this week with Klein. The Loveland, Colo., native that was homeschooled by his mother and started his K-State career as a receiver is now among college football’s elite.
The two finalists who were in New York on Friday understand the significance.
“I’m just overwhelmed,” said Manziel, a freshman quarterback at Texas A&M. “I can’t imagine that feeling, to win the most prestigious award in college football. To have your name called and be able to walk up on that stage and be admitted into one of the greatest fraternities to walk the face of the earth would be unreal.”
Manziel is favored to win. By amassing 4,600 yards of offense and leading Texas A&M to 10 victories and an unforgettable win at Alabama, he could become the first freshman to win.
But Te’o added the Maxwell Award, given annually to the nation’s most outstanding player, to his pile of six major individual awards on Thursday. He just finished leading Notre Dame to an undefeated season.
Klein, a veteran quarterback who makes good grades and never gets into trouble, closely resembles past winners.
The final vote count could be closer than expected.
Whoever wins will take the stage and give a speech with an ESPN audience looking on. Friday was the warmup. The main event comes at 7 p.m. Saturday. The buildup is almost over.
“I certainly can’t imagine what will happen if my name is called for the Heisman,” Te’o said. “I will be speechless, to be honest with you. It will be a great ending to this section of my career.”