There are very few people that can move the sports needle. Johnny Manziel is one of the few that can do just that. Manziel was assigned to the Memphis Express after the team the held his AAF regional rights, the San Antonio Commanders, passed on a chance to get the quarterback.
The Express hosted the Birmingham Iron at the Liberty Bowl in front of 13,758 and were walk-off winners. The Express defeated the Iron 31-25 in overtime. The Express has quietly built a small but dedicated crowd — one that is also very loud.
The Express has now been a part of AAF history with the Birmingham Iron twice. The Memphis Express was the first AAF team to ever lose in a shutout. And with yesterday’s win, they also became the first team to win an overtime game in the AAF
Brandon Silvers started the game at quarterback for the Express, but it was clear the crowd wanted to see Manziel. From the opening snap of the game, the crowd chanted some version of “We want Johnny!” Meanwhile, Silvers quietly threw for 117 yards in the first half.
Memphis fell behind early, but on the first play of the second quarter, Terrence McGee ran off the left tackle for one yard for the Express’ first touchdown. Silvers found Dan Williams for the two-point conversion and to tie the score with the Iron (8-8).
The Express were down 16-8 when Manziel was inserted into the lineup. The crowd erupted as he jogged to the huddle. On his first play from the scrimmage line, Manziel scrambled for a 13-yard gain. It was Manziel’s first professional game on American soil since 2015.
Manziel played the remainder of the first half, still just working thru as much of the offense as he could. The Express went into the half trailing the Iron 16-8.
Silvers started the second half, and Manziel got some snaps in the second half. But it was the specials teams that gave the Express the spark the team needed. DeMarquis Gates blocked a Colton Schmidt punt and Terrell Bonds picked the loose ball up and sprinted 50-yards for a touchdown. The extra point was no good.
“Our guys could have just stood there on the line and watched but got an opportunity to make a play, saw a seam, and took it,” said Express Head Coach Mike Singletary. “It was just a great play. (Bonds) picked the ball up in stride, and there was no looking back, so great play on the defense.”
In a drive that was strongly aided by defensive penalties, the Iron was able to go 75 yards on 12 plays to extend their lead when Iron QB Luis Perez found Wes Saxton Jr. for a four-yard touchdown. The Iron had a 25-14 lead with just 9:01 left in the game.
The Express drove to the four-yard line of the Iron, but were stopped on third down with 4:25 left in the game. Singletary called for a field goal to make it a one-possession game, trusting his defense to give the team the ball back again.
The gamble paid off. The Express defense forced the Iron to punt and with 3:09 left and from their own 32-yard line. The Express began their game-tying drive. The drive was capped off with a Silvers pass to Reece Horn for a 7-yard touchdown. Silvers also completed the extra point pass to Brandon Barnes to complete force overtime.
In the AAF, overtime possession starts on the 10-yard line and you have four attempts to try to score a touchdown. In overtime, the defense of the Express put pressure on Perez and the Iron and held them scoreless on their possession.
The Express on their first possession in overtime Silvers looked to connect with Horn, but the pass was incomplete. On the next play, Silvers found Williams in the middle of the field for a walk-off touchdown. The team and the crowd went wild.
Silvers completed the game with 266 passing yards, on 24 completions and two touchdowns.
“I’m just really proud of the way (Silvers) was able to stay calm and cool and execute in difficult situations, in tight situations,” Singletary said. “Every time he came to the sidelines, we were able to really talk about what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it and where we needed to get the ball. And he was very consistent in making the plays in tough situations. Very excited about what he came to do.”
As for the player that many fans came to see, Manziel had 48 yards on 3 completions and also rushed for 20 yards. Manziel was quick to give all of the praise to Silvers for the win and repeated said there will not be a controversy on who is going to be the starting quarterback.
“I can’t imagine how awesome of a feeling that was for Brandon tonight. I don’t go out and round people up and say ‘will you guys go out and chant we want Johnny’ all day,” Manziel said. “To put that pressure on him and for him to go out and do what he did was top-notch.”
Manziel walked into the postgame press conference sporting a white Chandler Parsons Grizzlies jersey – mirroring Parsons wearing a Manziel Memphis Express jersey in the crowd. The two have now attended each other’s games within a seven-day span. And while he’s grateful for the mania around his arrival, he’s all but over it.
“I’m kind of sick of that a little bit,” he said. “Let it play out. I’m trying to get my feet back under me. I’m trying to get back.
“I love the support and it is amazing. I don’t want to discredit that whatsoever,” he added. “Seeing people coming around, people in my jersey, feeling the support is all I could ever ask for because there was a time where I only heard bad things. I think that affected me, but today to feel the love on day one is amazing.”
But like so many other Memphis comeback stories, Manziel said Memphis has helped him find his joy again.
“It’s been great. I’ve been happy. This place is exactly what I needed in my life,” Manziel said. “I think it’s a sign that this is exactly where I need to be and things are happening exactly how they should. I’m happy with that. I’m very thankful for the support.”
Next up for the Express are the high powered Orlando Apollos. The game will be played at the Liberty Bowl Stadium, Saturday, March 30 at at 1 p.m. CT. The Express (2-5) have won their last two games at the Liberty Bowl.