Three decades ago Doug Flutie thrilled the country.
Never the biggest or the fastest guy on his team, Flutie controlled the football field like few before him. His antics are stuff of legend, and not only did his drive and creativity win him a Heisman Trophy, it inspired a generation.
About 15 years after Flutie chucked a last-second Hail Mary to Gerard Phelan, little Johnny Manziel raced around the backyard of his house in Tyler, Texas, doing his best Flutie imitation.
Manziel grew to be about six feet tall, just like Flutie. And Manziel was overlooked by some of the nation’s powerhouse college football programs because of his size, just like Flutie. And now Manziel has burst onto the national stage, guided by a certain age-defying poise to claim the top prize in collegiate football.
Just like Flutie.
"His body language reminds me so much of myself," Flutie told ThePostGame. "He kinda holds the ball in one hand and moves around like it's his own little playground back there. I just love watching him play."
It's not often these days that Heisman winners are reminiscent of players who played 30 years before them. Who does Cam Newton remind you of? What about Robert Griffin III?
But the parallels between Manziel and Flutie are impossible to ignore. And they go much deeper than their similar statures. It's the way that the two play the game -- their football DNA, if you will -- that drives the comparisons.
First and foremost, both are fundamentally sound quarterbacks. No matter how quick or creative you are, you don't knock off the defending national champion on the road without a strong arm, a good pocket presence and a keen understanding of the game. Flutie developed that over his time in Chestnut Hill, and the 20-year-old Manziel has shown himself to be way ahead of the curve.
"He takes his reads, he can deliver the ball from the pocket and he can throw the football," Flutie said of Manziel. "And then the fun starts."
By "fun," Flutie means Manziel's ability to improvise, that intangible feel for the game, when the field becomes a playground and anything is possible.
Indeed, the most famous sequence of Flutie's career is defined by his football IQ. When the pocket broke down on that final play against Miami, Flutie had the presence of mind to scramble, look downfield and toss a perfectly placed 60-yard pass.
Manziel displayed that innate understanding of the game early and often in Texas A&M’s victory over top-ranked Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 10. On a 3rd-and-goal play midway through the first quarter, Manziel dropped back and within seconds was engulfed by several lineman. Somehow, Manziel emerged from the scrum and raced to his left.
A righty, Manziel had to turn mid-stride and jump slightly so he could toss the football to a wide-open Ryan Swope in the back of the end zone.
That’s why they call him Johnny Football.
The comparison only goes so far, of course, and Flutie is the first one to admit that Manziel has the edge in athleticism. Whereas Flutie got faster as he grew older –- he ran the best 40-yard-dash of his life at age 32 --Manziel is as quick as they come at just 20.
"I made people miss and I had a lot of 20-, 30-yard runs," Flutie said. "But boy, [Manziel] disappears and he's gone. He's got that straight-ahead speed as well as the elusiveness. He's just been fun to watch."
In that respect, Manziel fits in perfectly with the speedy quarterbacks of the modern era. Unlike, say, Denard Robinson or Robert Griffin III, Manziel didn’t run track in high school. But his elusiveness is still off the charts. Just ask the Louisiana Tech defenders Manziel left in his wake on a 72-yard touchdown run.
In total, Manziel rushed for 19 touchdowns this year, tied for second most among all Division I quarterbacks. And he did it in a league with three of the eight stingiest defenses in the country.
Flutie did not have a single rushing touchdown during his four years at Boston College. But if Flutie had played in a wide open offense like Manziel does, that number surely would have been different.
"It's fun football to watch, for sure," Flutie said of the proliferation of spread offenses. "I wish it had gotten here 20 or 30 years ago so I could have used it in the NFL."
Sports fans know all too well how easy it can be to forget yesterday's stars. In the never-ending search for "The Next Big Thing," we sometimes devalue players of the past.
That's why it was so refreshing to hear that Flutie's legacy is not lost on Manziel.
When Manziel took the stage at the Best Buy Theater in Times Square on Saturday, he was surrounded by some of the sport’s greatest players, including Flutie. After a record-breaking year, perhaps the best by a freshman in the history of college football, Manziel had claimed the sport’s top prize.
"This is a moment that I’ve dreamed about since I’ve been a kid," Manziel said, "running around the backyard pretending I was Doug Flutie, throwing a Hail Mary to my dad."
We can only hope that 10 years down the road another little kid will be running around his or her backyard, jumping and juking like Johhny Manziel.