Who’s the greatest Texas football player of Middle Eastern descent? According to the reference book “Syrian and Lebanese Texans,” which I read today at the Austin History Center, 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 in 1908. There’s a chapter on the oil wildcatter, whose strikes include East Texas’s Hawkins oil field, in the 1974 book, published by the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures at San Antonio. Johnny Manziel doesn’t need agents to buy him courtside tickets to NBA games- his family is incredibly wealthy.
That’s promising for the Aggies, as the 12th Man Towel-heads may be waving their white terry for Johnny F. for more than one more year.
Bobby Manziel grew up in Arkansas and was a sportswriter for the Fort Smith newspaper. 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. Based in Tyler, where Johnny grew up, Bobby Manziel ended up owning banks and newspapers, in addition to his oil and gas business. 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 with a Barbara Mandrell concert in 1983.
Chris Gilbert was the first player in NCAA history to record three 1,000-yard rushing seasons—rushing for 1,080 as a sophomore, 1,019 as a junior, 1,132 as a senior, but he’s no Johnny Football.
Ironically, Manziel’s hero growing up was Doug Flutie, also of Lebanese ancestry, who won a Heisman trophy with Boston College.
Given Manziel’s ethnic background, 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.