From a ladder, contributing photographer Randal Ford pointed his camera lens down at Johnny Manziel in his maroon Aggies uniform, instructing him, as before, to look like a superhero. On the count of one…two…
He was not flying enough.
“You need to look like you’re really going,” creative director TJ Tucker told Manziel. “If you’ve got the wind in your face, you’re gonna kind of look like this:” Tucker pumped a tense fist and stiffened his facial expression. “You’re not gonna be just standing there. Okay? On this one, I really want you to, on three, really flex.”
Manziel tried again. Tucker gave him a look.
“I’m doin’ it,” Manziel said.
He tried his best to look like he was flying, as Ford took several hundred frames. Earlier in the photo shoot, the crew had tried to make him do his signature chest-ripping touchdown celebration, but Manziel told them, “I can’t. I need to score a touchdown to feel that way.” So they stuck with flying. His thick hair wasn’t flowing in the dramatic way Tucker had hoped for, but that could be tweaked later. His knees looked awkward for a guy supposed to be soaring, but that could be brushed up later, too.
“All these little details people may not really see at first,” Tucker later told me. “But they subliminally see things that they don’t even realize they’re seeing—and all that equals one experience. So those are the things we slave over.”
The making of our September cover—a process that began well before Manziel’s reported run-in with the NCAA over autographs—was a summer-long project, beginning in early June, when Tucker began drawing inspiration for the cover from old Superman comics and the modern superhero movie posters Man of Steel and Ironman. Ford, an A&M graduate who has shot many covers for Texas Monthly (including this one), was hired, and the shoot took place at the end of the month. A week later, Ford traveled roughly 1,500 feet in the air in a helicopter to shoot the A&M campus and Kyle Field in order to create the background. The helicopter circled repeatedly as Ford tried to get the right angle. “It was a bit unnerving shooting with the door off,” he recalled, “but the pilot was excellent.”
From there the magic of computer generated imagery took over. The Chicago-based special-effects company ThinkAlter populated the stands with thousands of maroon T-shirt-wearing fans and crammed the parking lot with mini pretend cars. The accompanying already-hazy sky Ford had shot was painted with grayish blue clouds, and the sunlight was diminished. Tucker, Ford, and designers from ThinkAlter communicated daily, working through more than eighty versions of the cover from basic sketches to final touches.The biggest hurdle was making Manziel appear to be flying, not floating. After some faint fine-tunes to the shape of his hair and the addition of a misguided jet stream—connected between Manziel’s feet and a small tremor on the fifty-yard line—the last details seemed to be complete. High fives ensued.
Then events intruded, in the form of an ESPN story, published the Sunday before our deadline week, reporting that Manziel was being investigated for a possible NCAA violation that could leave him ineligible to play. As the controversy twisted and turned, Tucker conferred with editor in chief Jake Silverstein, who decided that the cover was still good, it just needed some storm clouds and lightning bolts (read Silverstein’s editor’s note about this decision here).
Even before the late summer drama, Silverstein and Tucker knew that portraying Manziel as a superhero would make some readers bristle, but they wanted to go big. Tucker’s only concern, in fact, was that the Manziel himself wouldn’t want to play ball with the concept. The football star arrived at the shoot looking tired and seemed resistant at first to putting on his jersey (“You know how tight these things are?” he asked Tucker). But he soon came around, and gamely cooperated as Tucker and Ford searched for his best fist-clench and surest smirk.
Though autograph-gate had yet to happen, it wasn’t hard to get Manziel to sign his name on some souvenirs. The stylist on set, Lauren Ford (no relation to Randal, though also an Aggie herself), had run off at some point to buy some footballs from the spirit shop. While Randal adjusted the lighting, she asked if Manziel would mind autographing them. He agreed, and plopped down cross-legged on the floor to begin signing. When he came to Tucker’s football he looked up.
“What do you want it to say?” he asked. “Do you want it to be like, ‘To TJ’?”
“Yeah, that’s fine,” Tucker said.
Manziel paused, then said, “Well, you know if there’s a personal message on there, it’ll be worth less down the road.” He marked his elaborate J and ovalish string of letters on the white pigskin, stood up, and finished the shoot.