Before Michael Jordan was making Bryon Russell fall with a killer crossover and draining the go ahead jumper to win his sixth NBA title with the Chicago Bulls, Jordan was a skinny, determined athlete dominating the competition at Laney High (Wilmington, N.C.).
Before Adrian Peterson was trucking opposing defenses and racking up 2,097 yards in a single season for the Minnesota Vikings he was shining bright under the Friday night lights at Palestine High (Palestine, Texas), averaging 12 yards a carry and scoring 32 touchdowns.
Before any athlete can become legendary they have to lay their foundation in the high school ranks.
Each week I’ll chat with a high-profile athlete’s former coach, mentor, family member, etc., and reminisce about their high school playing days; everything from the greatest moment to the wackiest story.
This week I caught up with Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel’s high school coach at Tivy High School (Kerrville, Texas) Mark Smith, now the head coach at Madison (San Antonio).
Jason Jordan: What’s your best memory of Johnny on the field?
Mark Smith: Oh man there are so many! The best would probably be what he did for a teammate during our homecoming game. We were winning pretty handily and Johnny and his teammates had conspired to make sure this one kid got into the game and scored a touchdown. Johnny let himself get tackled close to the goal line and he came over to the sideline and goes, “Coach we need to put Robert (Martinez) in. Put him at running back.” I go, “He’s not a running back” and Johnny said he’d definitely get him in the end zone. Literally, Johnny drug him into the end zone and it was just a special moment for Robert and his parents were so excited. That play is greater than any of the other plays that Johnny made.
JJ: Did Johnny always have the “can’t miss/sure-fire pro” story?
MS: I thought you could definitely see potential for him to do some great things, but I don’t think anybody in their wildest dreams could anticipate the rise that he’s had and the success that he’s had. You could definitely tell that he’d be good, but as far as how it’s happened and the things he’s accomplished so far; that’s all in God’s hands. It’s all played out in a special way.
JJ: What’s your best memory of Johnny off the field?
MS: Probably when we sat down and he truly made his decision to go to Texas A&M. He came in and we put everything on paper and everything on paper pointed to him going to Oregon. Seriously. The one factor that weighed heavier than anything was family. It was important to him that his mom, dad and sister have an opportunity to see him play because they’d done so much and sacrificed so much to send him to camps and showcases over the years. He just thought it’d be good with his whole family being close by; he thought it’d be a neat experience for him.
JJ: What personality was Johnny on the team?
MS: Oh shoot; he liked to have fun, of course, but he’s one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around. He was always really good with the media and he always directed things back to his team. Contrary to what people think, Johnny never liked having all of the attention. He likes for everyone to share it. I think if people would just stop and listen to him now; they get so caught up in his social life that the message gets lost. If you listen to what he has to say you’ll get all the answers; he didn’t win a championship in high school, he didn’t do it in college but all he wants is to do it in the pros. That’s something that burns inside of him.
JJ: Word is Johnny was big time hooper in high school?
MS: Oh definitely, he was a heckuva basketball player; the only reason he didn’t play for our high school was because it overlapped with baseball season. Johnny could’ve been a pro in baseball; I mean he got drafted and everything. He could’ve made the major leagues. He was also a great golfer. I mean really, really great. And he’s the guy that would play you in any sport, any time. I think it was pretty neat that the Harlem Globetrotters drafted Johnny!
JJ: Do you think he gets bad rap for being a party animal?
MS: Well, fair or not, the position he’s in comes with great responsibility and he’ll learn to manage that just like we all did coming up. I think people need to relax; I don’t think it’s an issue. Unfortunately for Johnny, you or I or any of his teammates can go out and no one would say a word, but everyone’s got eyes on him. He was never an issue in high school and I think everything’s happening really fast for him and he’s having to mature faster than any of us ever had to. The best thing he’s got going for him right now is having a great pro like LeBron James that’s taking him under his wing and teaching him. Johnny will figure it out. He always does.
JJ: What’s the craziest story from his recruitment?
MS: Probably just trying to convince coaches that he can play. Everyone questioned his height and questioned whether he was a quarterback or not. What helped me on that was I had a good friend that had also coached Drew Brees in high school and he went through the same thing and we kinda played on that a little bit. That helped Johnny at A&M, but his skill-set was great for Oregon too. He made a living as a junior running the ball and he was focused on showing that he could throw his senior year. A lot of the Texas schools passed on him; some offered him as a defensive back.
JJ: Do you expect him to be the Browns starter when they open at Pittsburgh on Sept. 7?
MS: I know he’ll do everything he can to make it happen, and when it does happen, hopefully that first game, it’s gonna be something electric! If not he’ll be a great teammate; he understands waiting his time too. But when it happens it will be electric for sure.
JJ: How good can Johnny be in the NFL?
MS: I think he can be very similar to Russell Wilson and RG3. I think it’s just a matter of transitioning and learning the pro game. That’s what will separate him and Russell Wilson. If you look at it, the guys that stay longer in college usually produce a little bit quicker in the pros. Russell had that extra year in college and he ran two different offenses and he benefitted from that. Johnny’s got a really high IQ and he’s got a hunger to be the best. I think he’s gonna be a great pro; I don’t think it’ll take long either.
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY