Is Uncle Nate smarter than the NCAA?

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Find one of the famous photographs of Johnny Manziel floating around the Internet: holding up wads of cash, or grinning next to a supermodel, or posing with his Heisman Trophy. Any one will probably work. Got it? Now look next to him.

That's Nate Fitch.

"Oh, Nate's on his way!" Manziel said one night at dinner, a month ago, a lifetime ago, before autograph dealers started coming out of the woodwork. "Perfect! We have a driver."

"You're gonna make him drive?" a reporter at the table said. "Poor Nate."

"No," Manziel said, deadpan, "not poor Nate."

Manziel's grandmother joked that nobody could figure out Fitch's exact role in the ever-expanding circus tent that had become the Manziels since Johnny won the Heisman.

"You know," Manziel said, "I have to think about what Nate really does."

A half dozen sources and counting have said that, among other things, Fitch helped run a Manziel autograph business, setting up signings, handling logistics. He's the unknown hole at the center of a famous person's scandal, both caught up in events and a driver of those events, a participant in a cultural tug-of-war: Will he join Manziel in the spotlight, or will he slip back into the shadows?

"When Sports Illustrated does 'The Rise and Fall of Johnny Manziel,' Johnny is not going to be on the cover," one autograph broker told ESPN. "Nate will be."

Fitch is a Turtle who wants to be an E.

He's a college dropout, in the entrepreneurial sense of the word, more dreamer than slacker. He's Manziel's assistant, media coordinator, business manager, designated driver. He goes by Uncle Nate, which is a nickname Manziel says Fitch gave himself. Fitch, 20, allegedly works for free, betting on the come, looking into the future when Manziel is an NFL star. He wears a gold rope bracelet, acting like an agent on a television show, talking with confidence about tit-for-tat horse trading and his deep knowledge of the NCAA rulebook. If you wanted to get Johnny Football, at least before Sunday, Fitch could do in two days what Texas A&M couldn't do in two months. As publicists go, he handled himself like a pro. Many people in College Station know Fitch's role in Manziel's life. This summer, three days after the now infamous tweet, former Aggies defensive lineman Spencer Nealy walked into a local restaurant and beer hall and found Fitch posted up in the corner with his parents, who were in town from Kerrville, Texas.

"Hey, dips---," Nealy said, "when are you gonna delete Johnny's Twitter?"

This odd relationship flows from a coincidence: Fitch and Manziel were friends in high school. Among other things, this means that the NCAA counts Fitch as a pre-existing relationship. In the beginning, the Manziels said, that was part of Fitch's draw. He had a family member who promoted concerts and events, and Manziel could go with him without it being an "illegal benefit" per the NCAA. As Manziel became a star, he leaned on the people he knew before everything changed. He lived out Drake's song "No New Friends." When Manziel rose, so did Fitch. It started innocent and fun. This past fall, Fitch got into Manziel's Twitter account and posted a phone number for "fan questions." The number belonged to Fitch's roommate, whose phone died after more than 7,000 text messages and 1,500 FaceTime requests.

"These are still just college kids," Fitch's dad said, listening to his son tell the story in the restaurant.

Fitch is up for anything, ready to go anywhere with Manziel. He enjoyed being friends with the famous guy, but, as last season progressed, he realized that there might be more than some wild nights in it for him. Manziel trusted him.

"After the Heisman, he needed help," Fitch said. "There are opportunities here for people. It got real."

Fitch started "working" full time, separating himself from the other friends who were content to remain Turtles. He wanted something more. This worried the Manziel family, whose unease about Fitch was palpable, even before word of the autographs. After the Aggies' trip to Oxford, Miss., Fitch told Michelle Manziel that he wanted to go to school at Ole Miss, and Michelle later joked that she'd fill out the application for him. In the summer, before the autograph stories began breaking, Michelle expressed hope that eventually Fitch would find his way out of her son's life, just as he found his way in.

Sitting in the corner of the restaurant, talking to a reporter writing a Johnny Manziel profile, Fitch drank his beer. A black Mercedes-Benz swung into the parking lot. Beautiful women started unfolding themselves out of it, and Fitch smiled, wondering whether Manziel had decided to come out on the town. He looked closer. It wasn't Manziel's Benz.

"Those girls are only 8s," Fitch said.

Fitch laughed. In time, he'll be smooth. Right now, he can seem less like an operator and more like someone playing an operator, using the right words, and even the right body language, but just as new to this world as his friend. Almost overnight, both have found themselves playing on a big stage, and there are many things to gain, and many things to lose.

In the restaurant, the new Aggies quarterback coach, Jake Spavital, wandered in and sat at a booth. Nate slid in across from him. It was the first time they'd met, Manziel's coach and Manziel's personal assistant. They talked quietly, and Fitch said something like, "I'd love to work with you," and Spavital just stared at him, unsure how to respond. The look on his face was a cartoon thought bubble: Why does the quarterback have a personal assistant, and why in the hell is he talking to me?

So now Fitch is where he thought he wanted to be: at the center of the action. On the day after the autograph news broke, his mother said, in a Twitter direct message, "It's been a Fahrenheit 451 kinda day." Nate didn't, and hasn't, responded to text messages. He's gone underground. Everyone inside the Manziel inner circle has been told to keep quiet. There's no way to tell from the outside whether Fitch is still in control or whether he's a panicked mess huddled in a corner or whether the family has decided to hire high-priced attorneys and call in the adults.

All of the allegations seem wound together, complicated. But really, the whole thing is fairly simple. Did Johnny take money for autographs or know they ultimately would be sold? If not, he can go about his life. If he did, his future essentially comes down to a single question: Is Uncle Nate smarter than the NCAA?

"They're gonna have a hard time proving it," a former NCAA enforcement official told ESPN. "Where's the proof?"

James Garland is the lead NCAA investigator, and he has been trying to get people to talk for months. He's part of an investigative office that has been depleted by a growing number of departures. The NCAA can compel Manziel to cooperate, and maybe even Fitch, but if they stick to their stories, if the autograph brokers stay silent and if Nate covered his tracks, all this smoke won't lead Garland back to a fire.

If Nate …

A month ago, Fitch and Manziel and a crew of friends met up in Tyler, Texas. They hung out on a country singer's tour bus until it was time to walk around to the front door of the honky-tonk for the show. It was a Texas Wednesday night, with muffled music echoing off the sheet metal walls.

The tension built at the door.

A small crowd gathered in the dark by the vestibule, peeking for a look at the football star. In the loud shadows, it became hard to tell what was and wasn't aggressive. Manziel took off his hat, and a bouncer stepped up and barked at him to put it back on, flexing on the superstar. Fitch stepped in, and, before anything could escalate, he pushed Manziel through the crowd into a private room near the stage.

Everyone noticed Johnny, and nobody noticed Nate.

ESPN reporters Darren Rovell and Mike Fish contributed to this report.