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Another Texas Honor for Manziel

Johnny Football and the Syrian Kid
Michael Corcoran, 6:45pm, Sat. Jan. 26, 2013
Photo by Shutterbug459/Wikimedia Commons

Who’s the greatest Texas football player of Middle Eastern descent? According to the reference book Syrian and Lebanese Texans, that distinction goes to former Texas Longhorn running back Chris Gilbert (’66-’68), whose mother was Lebanese. But since that book was published in 1974, it’s not exactly up to date.

A Texan of Lebanese descent just won the Heisman trophy in December. Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M is the great grandson of Bobby Manziel, who was born in Lebanon (then called Syria) in 1908. There’s a chapter on the oil wildcatter, whose lucrative strikes include East Texas’s Hawkins oil field, in the '74 book. Johnny Manziel doesn’t need agents to buy him courtside tickets to NBA games- his family's finances are filthy.

That's good for A&M fans, who might get the great QB for more than his sophomore year, after which he'll be eligible for the draft. Number 2 just may stick around for a national championship.

Johnny Football's athletic roots run deep. Bobby Manziel grew up in Arkansas and was a sportswriter for the Fort Smith newspaper. As a young man he was also a boxer known as “the Syrian Kid” and sometimes sparred with an up-and-coming fighter named Jack Dempsey, who would become the heavyweight champ. It was Dempsey who lent Manziel $400 to complete one of his first drilling expeditions and the two remained partners on some ventures. Based in Tyler, where Johnny grew up before moving to Kerrville his high school years, Bobby Manziel ended up owning banks and newspapers, in addition to his mammoth oil and gas interests. But he and Dempsey’s big dream was to build a 20,000-capacity venue- the country’s first air-conditioned coliseum- for rodeos, concerts, prize fights and other sporting events. Bobby Manziel died in 1956, before work began, but Bobby Jr., Johnny Football’s grand-uncle, took over his father’s dream and eventually opened the 65,000-square foot Oil Palace in Tyler. The Manziels presented Mandrell, Barbara, on opening night in 1983.

Ironically, Manziel's hero growing up was 1984 Heisman winner Doug Flutie, who is also of Lebanese ancestry. Born in 1992, Manziel was 11 when a 41-year-old Flutie beat all odds by returning to the NFL after a long stint in the Canadian Football League.

Chris Gilbert was the first player in NCAA history to record three 1,000-yard rushing seasons—pounding out 1,080 as a sophomore, 1,019 as a junior, 1,132 as a senior. But he’s no Johnny Football, who grew up a Texas Longhorn fan and attended Mack Brown football camps, yet went to the Aggies because Texas recruited him as Blake Gideon's successor..

Given Manziel’s ethnic roots, it’s even crazier than he’s not playing for the Longhorns. Fellow Lebanese-Texan, billionaire lawyer Joe Jamail, is one of the program’s greatest benefactors. The field at Royal-Memorial Stadium is named after Jamail.

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