The Long Con: How The Manziels Conquered America

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

When news broke eight days ago that reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel faces an NCAA investigation into whether he sold autographs, the college football world reacted with either confusion or outright skepticism. After all, the press had created an image of the Manziel family that suggested something out of TV's Dallas. Wright Thompson's recent ESPN The Magazine feature alluded to the "Texas oil fortune" that "still funds the family." As Manziel's father, Paul, told Thompson, "It's not Garth Brooks money, but it's a lot of money." If Johnny Football's so rich, the thinking went, why would he stoop to selling autographs for pocket change?


But maybe it isn't so weird. It turns out the Manziels are a much more colorful and interesting bunch than any of the profiles thus far have indicated. Their fortune was indeed made in oil—wildcatting, specifically—but there were also family sidelines in cockfighting, small-time grifting, match-fixing, and, if you believe the federal indictments, cocaine-trafficking and murder. In fact, the first great sporting success under the family name wasn't Johnny Football; it was the Manziel grey gamefowl, bred by Johnny's great-grandfather. The Manziels arrived in Texas after cockfighting was outlawed, but they wound up with a breed named after them anyway.

That's the story of the Manziels in America. It's the story of making money just this side (and occasionally that side) of the rules.


It begins with Johnny Football's great-great grandfather Joseph Manziel, in the Mount Lebanon region of Syria in 1883.1 On Aug. 31, 1907, Joe Manziel emigrated to America, bringing his wife Mary and their 2-year-old son, Esahiah, who would become known as "Bobby Joe." They settled in Louisiana, where in 1921 Joe found himself caught up in a mineral rights scam. The story, as explained by a Louisiana Supreme Court decision issued June 30, 1923, is great, if a little complicated.

The short version goes something like this: On June 27, 1921, an oilman named Lee Sanders agreed to sell mineral rights to one J.H. Mitchell, a Louisiana businessman. While the mineral deed was in escrow, the deal fell through. Mitchell's lawyer, George Day, accompanied Sanders to the bank on July 12 to retrieve and dispose of the deed transfer. Day pretended to tear it up, but instead he stole it intact. He then wrote up a transfer deed to Joe Manziel, pre-dating it July 9 and outwardly absolving Joe of any role in the fraud. (The notary public hired to notarize the sale to Manziel called this to both parties' attention, but they insisted it was correct.)

On July 21, Joe Manziel went to the county courthouse and filed both the original sale deed—which was, at this point, nearly a month old—and his new deal naming himself the owner. In the dispute that ensued, Manziel would testify that he'd paid $2,500 cash for the property, having carried it around in his pockets for days through the Claiborne Parish oil fields.

The Louisiana Supreme Court's written opinion called this a "most unlikely story," propping up the decision of the district judge, who had declared himself "fully convinced Manziel participated in a crooked and dishonest deal [...] and was, in fact, a party to it." The high court denied Joe Manziel's appeal.2 It was not the last time a hustle would land someone named Manziel in court, nor was it the last time a Manziel would lose his case.


Bobby Joe Manziel, Joe's son and Johnny Football's great-grandfather3, worked a few angles of his own. He was variously a boxer ("The Syrian Kid"), a promoter, and a writer. In 1927, he was accused of fixing a professional wrestling bout between Greek heavyweight champion Jim Londos and Russian titleholder Count Ivan Zarynoff.4 The scandal cost him his license to promote fights in Louisiana.

But the Syrian Kid had made an important connection. Bobby Joe was a lightweight sparring partner of Jack Dempsey's, and the pair would eventually become business partners. In 1956, the New York Times called them "close friends." As legend has it, Bobby Joe moved to East Texas in 1930 with less than two dollars in his pocket, seeking riches as an oilman.5 (Census records show he left behind a young wife and infant daughter, neither of whom is ever mentioned in recent accounts of his life. The wife was quickly divorced, while the daughter, Gloria, mostly shows up in lawsuits as a Manziel heir.)


Convinced he'd found oil on the property of the Negro New Hope Baptist Church, Bobby Joe found himself in urgent need of two things: money for drilling and consent from the parishioners. For the money, he wired Dempsey. According to his autobiography, the Manassa Mauler barely remembered Bobby Joe—who'd mostly served as Dempsey's chauffeur—but he sent $400 anyway.6 As for getting permission from the parishioners, here's how the Dec. 18, 1937, Baton Rouge State-Times told the story:

Starting out with the deacons, he ran the negroes down in his flivver until all 40 would permit him to drill in the church's backyard.


That turned out to be the central motif in Bobby Joe's professional life. He would work a deal into the ground. Dempsey, thrilled by the 1,000 percent return on his investment, helped Bobby Joe drill dozens of new wells; the first 11 were dry,7 but subsequent efforts were so lucrative the pair openly and aggressively ignored state and local limits on production. Texas didn't take so kindly to this, and the attorney general's report from 1934 shows the state had hauled Bobby Joe into court six times in eight months for overproduction, violation of proration orders, operating illegal bypasses, not storing oil for measurement, and failure to pay proper royalties.

The drilling even landed Bobby Joe in jail for disobeying state injunctions, with Dempsey's involvement turning the scandal into national sports news. In February 1934, the state railroad commission took over the company's highest-producing well, declaring Manziel and Dempsey "chronic violators of Texas proration laws"8 (proration laws, designed to guard against overproduction, limit production of oil wells to a fraction of their capacity). Two weeks later, a judge friendly to Bobby Joe threw out the charges and slapped the Texas Rangers who'd enforced the railroad commission order with contempt of court.9


As for the feds, Bobby Joe and Jack Dempsey argued that the U.S. government has the right to regulate only interstate commerce; as long as Manziel Oil did business only within Texas, the company was out of the federal government's reach. Their argument won the day at the East Texas federal courthouse, and the case would change the oil industry for good. In 1939, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Charles I. Francis told Time, "As far as the federal government is concerned, oil regulation is wrecked."


Bobby Joe remarried in 1937, this time to 18-year-old Dorothy Nolan, an LSU student he'd met "several years" before, at a "Syrian convention," according to a 1937 story in the Baton Rouge State-Times. While the federal government was finally off his back, Bobby Joe's legal challenges were mounting. He was a regular in the court of appeals in Texarkana; state records show that between the years of 1941 and 1953 Bobby Joe lost at least nine different lawsuits, with complaints ranging from "fraud, deceit, and malicious connivance" to attempting to drill for oil in an unfenced area frequented by schoolchildren. And in 1951, he tried to evict a competing oilman from the home he was renting by purchasing it outright.10 Even after Bobby Joe's death, in 1956, the Manziel oil fortune suffered legal setbacks—especially in 1962, when the Texas Supreme Court ruled against the family in Railroad Commission of Texas v. Manziel et al., a case that defined the differences between above- and below-ground trespassing and established a major precedent in geologic and environmental law.


Meanwhile Bobby Joe's wells continued to produce—when they weren't exploding, that is. We found repeated references in local papers throughout the '40s and '50s to out-of-control Manziel wells, none worse than a March 1950 explosion that sent up a geyser of fiery crude oil that could be seen, and felt, for miles. This, too, found its way into the national sports pages, with headlines like "Gas Fire Feared At Outlaw Well" attached to Dempsey's name.

It was an explosion of a different kind that marked the low point for Bobby Joe Manziel in 1950, though. On Sept. 27, he attempted to start his new cabin cruiser when it exploded upon his turning the ignition. Knocked unconscious by the blast, Bobby Joe was saved by a local man named Russell Bowdoin. Manziel spent weeks in the hospital, while Bowdoin earned a Carnegie Hero prize and a breed of fighting cocks named in his honor.11 It was never established if the explosion was an accident or an assassination attempt.


By the time Bobby Joe died in 1956, his relationship with Dempsey had apparently soured enough that the latter became party to a lawsuit seeking rights to a land deal on which an associate said the Manziels had reneged. That suit wasn't decided until four years after Bobby Joe died, but it prompted the boxing champ to leave Tyler and move to Dallas—despite Dempsey having just started construction on a home near Bobby Joe's.12

Still, Dempsey signed on to back Bobby Joe's fantastic dream of building a $3 million auditorium—"bigger than Madison Square Garden"—in Tyler, which at the time had a population of about 45,000. When architects asked to see Manziel's blueprints for the 20,000-seat "Oil Palace," he insisted he needed no blueprints.13 Bobby Joe even purchased the box seats used at the 1956 Democratic Convention in Chicago and planned to install them, complete with politicians' names still attached, in his arena.14


In October 1956, Billboard reported that the Oil Palace was expected to be finished by the end of the year. But Bobby Joe died in November, and despite its alleged near-completion, the property was abandoned; at one point in the 1970s, it was used as a junkyard. Jack Dempsey died without ever seeing the grand arena completed, and those prized seats from the '56 Democratic Convention would eventually be given to a church.15

Something called the "Oil Palace" finally opened in 1983, but with only 7,000 seats it was far from the Texas coliseum that Bobby Joe and Dempsey had envisioned.


For sure, lawsuits and well failures are facts of life in the petroleum industry. (Every great fortune is a racket in some way, and that goes double for money made during the Texas oil boom.) And there's no question that in the boom days Bobby Joe Manziel was making money hand over fist. But he was spending it, too. While his God-given talents may have impelled him toward amateur geology, his passion in life was cockfighting—Time called him "the biggest of Texas chicken men"16—and it's to that enterprise he dedicated much of his resources.


Despite cockfighting having been banned in Texas before the Manziel family even arrived in the United States, the sport earned much of Bobby Joe's attention. Before he was even a teenager, Manziel was a champion cockfighter (the image above is from 1916). He dedicated a large portion of his land to raising more than 1,200 battle roosters and even bought a private plane to transport them to the makeshift backwoods arenas that hosted the illicit activity.17 (In John Bainbridge's 1961 book The Super-Americans, Bobby Joe claims Texas had more cockfighting pits than movie theaters.) When his competitors dropped out of the gamecock business, Bobby Joe was there to buy up their stock. If he has one true legacy, it's the famed breed of gamefowl that bears his name, the Manziel grey. By reputation, Manziels are fast and hard to raise.

He passed his love for the bloodsport to his sons; Bobby Joe Jr. earned a worldwide reputation for his gamecock breeding skills, and Norman Paul claimed the title of Cockfighting World Champion in 1983.18


Norman Paul Manziel is Johnny Football's grandpa.

Norman "Big Paul" Manziel was born Oct. 21, 1942, alongside his twin Nolan Edward. On Nov. 20, 1958, cops busted Norman Paul street racing on Broadway Street in Tyler, Texas. When he slammed on the brakes, his car collided with that of his 16-year-old competitor. The boy was injured in the crash, and his family sued Norman Paul for damages. The Manziels won in court, but only after three years of appellate challenges.


It would hardly be the last time Norman Paul saw a courtroom. In 2001 he faced felony evasion charges after an attempted DWI stop and eventually pleaded down to a misdemeanor with five years of probation. Part of the deal required him to perform community service, but a year later he was back in handcuffs—with cops claiming he'd bribed his way out of performing it. (Those charges were dropped when the FBI, which executed the sting, refused to turn over the equipment used to record it—claiming "national security concerns."19) The case cost him his probation, though, and later he'd spend another seven months in prison for witness-tampering.

But Norman Paul could have avoided a lot of trouble if he'd just stayed away from his older brother.


Bobby Joe Manziel named his first son for himself. And in many ways Bobby Joe Jr.—Johnny Football's great-uncle, born Nov. 16, 1938—was the heir to the rougher corners of the family business. He, too, raised gamecocks, and he, too, was something of a hustler.


Bobby Joe Jr.'s first major brush with the law came in 1965, when he was busted for counterfeiting. This was no normal counterfeiting case, though. Here are the words of Irving Goldberg, a federal judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit:

In 1963 Howard Wallace Barbee and Bobby Joe Manziel, then gullible and motivated by avarice, lost ten thousand dollars in a confidence racket. The memory of that hoax lingered with them, and two years later, still motivated by avarice, they sought to recoup their losses by instigating the same racket for their benefit. The only difference was that their intended victim notified the police, and Barbee and Manziel were arrested. They were convicted in a federal district court for illegal possession of altered currency in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 472, which currency had been the subject of their fraud. Their appeal, unlike many criminal cases that come before us, is not burdened with significant factual disputations. Barbee and Manziel admit the facts of their scheme and even concede that it may have been morally reprehensible. They contest merely its illegality.

The confidence racket which was employed in 1963 and in 1965 involves a "stir man," a genuine federal reserve note, an altered federal reserve note, and of course a "sucker." The "stir man" contacts a "sucker" and shows him a "counterfeit" reserve note which is an exact duplicate of a genuine note and which even experts would claim to be genuine. He guarantees that a revolutionary duplication process can be put in motion for quite a reasonable investment. To the "sucker's" dismay, after contributing his share of the investment, he learns that both reserve notes were genuine and that the only process performed had been the altering of serial numbers and other markings on one note to correspond with the other.


The court didn't buy Bobby Joe Jr.'s argument—"it is impossible to defraud a dishonest man"—and he was convicted of a federal felony.


In 1980, Bobby Joe Jr. was indicted on a conspiracy charge in the 1975 murder of a Tyler grocer, supposedly over unpaid gambling debts.20 He persuaded the assistant prosecutor, Doug Mulder, to flip sides and represent him instead; Mulder got the homicide charge dropped.21 We couldn't locate the file anywhere. The only allusions to the case we could find were in a pair of old newspaper stories.

In 1990, Bobby Joe Jr. made a cameo in a case involving a man named Reginald Dean, a bank robber appealing his conviction. Testimony in the case tied Bobby Joe Jr. and an associate named Mondee Stracener—one of Dean's original co-defendants—to gambling and to something called the "Dixie Mafia"24:

Q. Now, it's no secret that Mondee Stracener and Bobby Joe Manziel are colleagues or friends. It's no secret to the police department, is it?

A. No sir.

TR, April 7, 1986 at 20. Testimony of Paul Black. Officer Black also agreed to defense counsel's assertion that it was no secret that Stracener and Manziel liked to gamble and bet on rooster fights. On re-direct, the prosecutor returned to the relationship between co-defendant Stracener and Manziel:

Q. Mr. Carroll also brought out that Mr. Stracener here is a colleague of Mr. Manziel, and you agreed that he was. Would you explain what you meant by colleague?


A. Okay, it's my understanding that Mr. Stracener and Bobby Joe Manziel have ties in the gambling world and also could be members of the Dixie Mafia out of Louisiana.


THE COURT: Well, do you still suspect Mr. Manziel of being a participant in the activities of the Dixie Mafia?

THE WITNESS: Your Honor, that's just what I've heard on the street and from other police officers.

THE COURT: Do you still suspect that Mr. Stracener was a member of the Dixie Mafia?

THE WITNESS: I have nothing to back that up with, no, sir.

THE COURT: Well, do you suspect him of it? That's what I'm asking you.

THE WITNESS: Yes, sir.

In 2002, Bobby Joe Jr. found himself in handcuffs again when a federal jury indicted him on cocaine trafficking charges in what was described22 as a "$2,000 quick-money scheme." There was a plea deal, according to federal court document, and according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Bobby Joe Jr. was released in 2005.23


Nevertheless, Bobby Joe Jr. managed to spend most of his life as a free man; he still operates the Oil Palace, where he regularly welcomes notable conservatives like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.

His son, Bobby Joe III, hasn't been so lucky with the law. The Texas Department of Public Safety reports that Lone Star State cops have busted Bobby Joe III, born Aug. 21, 1962, at least 13 times. Charges range from grand theft to fraud to felony drug possession. He's spent most of the past 20 years in prison or on probation. (His last sentence, for drugs, ended seven weeks ago). Interspersed among these are more minor crimes, like theft of a value less than $50. A post on a cockfighting message-board suggests Bobby Joe III followed his dad and grandfather into the sport:

Sometime in the early nineties, Little Bobby Joe Manziel III came over to train our birds he used a socket knife that had a different curved design. He used it during his first derby at roligon a 5cock. He used the same knife on all ten of the birds and did not sharpen it once. He lost the first and then won 9 straight. The knives (3of them) were stolen after the derby.


Bobby Joe III's first cousin John Paul Manziel, born Dec. 6, 1966, is Johnny Football's dad. Paul, as he's known, has been busted once—for criminal mischief, in 2002, though details on that incident seem to be lost to history. He has otherwise avoided the kind of trouble that found Bobby Joe III, unless you include his repeatedly getting banned from college football message boards. (Paul married a Tyler woman named Cindy Boaz in 1987, according to Nevada marriage records. They divorced in 1990, and a year later Paul married Johnny Football's mom, Michelle. Texas A&M's official website describes the pair as "high school sweethearts.")

Paul is general manager at Fenton Honda in Longview, Texas. That's a three-hour drive from Bryan, where the Manziel family lives. (It's more than six hours from Kerrville, where the family used to live.) In fact, he comes home only on the weekends.25 That's a lot of hard work for the grandson of an oil heir. He certainly doesn't possess the air of a man living idly off a family fortune.


And in any case the oil money may be more narrowly held than the many profiles would have us believe. Remember grandpa Norman Paul's twin brother, Nolan Edward?

Compared with the rest of the Manziels, who traveled loudly through 20th-century America, Nolan Edward Manziel might as well be a ghost. Other than state and county business records, he barely exists on the Internet or in periodical databases. He's never been in trouble with the law, that we can tell, and he's never been individually sued. The only public drama in his life was the 1981 death of his 12-year-old daughter, Deborah, in a fire that destroyed their house. He was not home at the time.26


As recorded in publicly accessible databases, business filings for the Manziel family oil practice throughout the 1970s and 1980s featured not the full set of Manziel heirs (as seen in the '60s) but just two names: Bobby Joe's widow, Dorothy Nolan Manziel, and Nolan Edward. When the Manziels bought something, Dorothy and Nolan signed the note. When they sold assets, their names went on the deed. The family fortune, at least outwardly, was moving away from Bobby Joe Jr., Norman Paul, and the other Manziel children.

On June 21, 1993, Nolan Manziel created the Manziel Family Oil & Gas Partnership Limited. Public records show he's the sole officer and registered agent. Two months after Nolan created the company, county records show Dorothy Nolan Manziel sold what appears to be the entirety of the family's oil and gas interests to the partnership. The price? $10.


[Clarification, Oct. 4: The price was $10 "and other goods and valuable consideration," which is boilerplate contractual language. Also, according to John Tedesco's rigorous but generally sententious bird-dogging of our story, Dorothy Manziel sold only her personal share. You can read all of Tedesco's criticism here. It's based on a very narrow and ungenerous reading of this story, but he does clear up several details.]

On paper, the cash doesn't appear to reach Johnny Football's branch of the family. Some of it may come that way regardless. But the real inheritance for the young quarterback appears to be the greater Manziel legacy. In his Sports Illustrated profile of Manziel, Andy Staples wrote:

After Manziel won the Heisman, the signature requests exploded. He had learned to avoid the professional autograph hounds, but he didn't know how to manage the ones in his own inner circle. School officials wanted him to sign memorabilia. Manziel says one teammate filled a pool table and a Ping-Pong table with items to be signed. Friends of Manziel's mother, father, grandmother and aunt sent dozens of items with requests for autographs. At one point early this year Manziel's parents' garage was stuffed with memorabilia awaiting his signature. He couldn't take it anymore. He spent hours each week signing, and he grew angry with his parents for accepting the autograph requests. But Manziel, who posed for hundreds of pictures during the same period, was just as bad as his family members. He couldn't say no.


In the early 20th century, a celebrity athlete helped open the spigot for the family; in the 21st, the family's very own celebrity athlete has become the spigot himself. Maybe the autographs weren't merely a token of his new and overwhelming fame, as the many profiles have it. Maybe they were exactly what they seem to be: a way to make a buck. Wildcatting in the NCAA bylaws, you might say. Defrauding college sports' dishonest men. Just another piece of family bidness.

1 Immigration documents show the Manziel family reported themselves as Syrian. Contemporary articles often claim Johnny Football's family is Lebanese. Neither Lebanon nor Syria existed as independent countries before the Manziels emigrated here, both being regions belonging to the Ottoman Empire.
2 The Southern Reporter, Vol. 97, 1924.
3 Texas A & M's official Manziel website says Bobby Joe is Johnny's "great-great uncle." This is wrong.
4 The Atlanta Constitution, July 17, 1927.
5 Time, February 19, 1934.
6 Jack Dempsey, Dempsey By The Man Himself, 1960.
7 The Victoria Advocate, July 11, 1956.
8 Ogden Standard-Examiner, Feb. 7, 1934.
9 Dallas Morning News, Feb. 27, 1934.
10 Dallas Morning News, Aug. 23, 1951.
11 Pampa News, Oct. 21, 1951 .
12 Dallas Morning News, Sept. 12, 1956.
13 Paris News, March 15, 1950.
14 Odessa American, May 4, 1985.
15 Dallas Morning News, April 19, 1960.
16 Time, March 8, 1948.
17 Ibid.
18 Josh Katzowitz, Johnny Football: Johnny Manziel's Road from the Texas Hill Country to the Top of College Football, 2012.
19 Roger W. Shuy, Creating Language Crimes, 2005.
20 Seguin Gazette-Enterprise, Dec. 5, 1980.
21 Fort Worth Star-Telegram, March 28, 1993.
22 Shuy.
23 Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Oct. 3, 2002. And if you haven't figured it out yet, Norman Paul's bribery charge was a direct result of the FBI's (successful) sting operation on Bobby Joe Jr.
24 Testimony from Dean v. United States, U.S. District Court, 1990.
25 Katzowitz.
26 Seguin Gazette-Enterprise, Dec. 31, 1981.