The joke was on the game announcers. Seeing Johnny Manziel bury his face in a towel as Duke attempted a field goal, one of them said, “He can’t even bear to watch.” Um, that wasn’t quite the situation.
Seems Manziel was throwing up into the towel, two hours before the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve.
Let the innuendo explode on social media. By now, America realizes Johnny Football is much more a whiskey-stained country ballad than a fairy tale, and that he’s such a joy to watch as a pinball-meets-asteroid tornado that we’ll just have to deal with his vices as he heads to the NFL. He might be the most electric, mesmerizing performer in all of sports, as creative an ad-libber as we’ve seen at the quarterback position. I realize he’s closer to 5-11 than his listed 6-1, and that he may be squashed like road kill at the next level, but it sure as hell will be fun following him as he tries to somehow stay alive on and off the football field.
I’m not sure where he came from. I’m not sure where he’s headed. But his 16 months in America’s sports and pop culture consciousness have whizzed by in a mad blur, which perfectly describes Manziel with a ball in his hands. At 21, he is what every young man envies and what every old fart despises, a hard-partying rascal who became one of the greatest players in college football history while posting his 24/7 life of wine, women and wildness on Twitter and Instagram. And while there’s no certainty his pro career will be successful, doubts about his size and durability may not matter to franchises as much as his mass popularity, the way he resonates to a nation that has made him a cult hero, the way he ran around the Georgia Dome like a little kid after leading an amazing comeback in his final college game — accounting for five touchdowns and 455 yards in Texas A&M’s 52-48 victory — and signed autographs for anyone who asked.
“It’s unreal how things have played out,” Manziel said.
No, it’s unreal witnessing this phenomenon.
“I was in a zone I haven’t been in before. Ever,” he said, referring to the victory. “I just wanted this game. It’s an unreal feeling.”
It may seem unreal. But it’s real.
The question is whether a team has the balls to draft him high in the first round. At the moment, four other quarterbacks are highly regarded: Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota (if he officially enters the draft) and Blake Bortles. Bridgewater, in all likelihood, will be matched with QB-developer Bill O’Brien in Houston. Any doubters didn’t see Teddy Touchdown dominate Miami in Orlando: 35 of 45 for 447 yards and four TDs (one rushing). But what about Jacksonville at No. 3? If you’re trying to revive a relationship with a bored fan base, wouldn’t Jaguars owner Shad Khan gamble on Manziel? Same goes for Cleveland at No. 4 after the Browns irritated their perpetually angry fans by firing coach Rob Chudzinski after just one season. Tampa Bay and Minnesota also fit this category. Of course, some conservative organizations will be scared off, thinking Manziel’s disproportionate media attention will be unhealthy for team chemistry and that his nightlife drama will cause distractions.
But Manziel, who fell off the national radar a bit after A&M’s loss to Alabama in mid-September, had matured in recent months. He improved as a passer, showing better arm strength, accuracy and decision-making while staying in the pocket more. And while he was photographed in an Atlanta club on Christmas — couldn’t he have hung out with his family or watched an NBA game? — there are signs that he’s not quite the same party animal of last year, though an offseason looms.
“There’s a lot of scrutiny if you don’t walk a fine line,” said Manziel, speaking of lessons learned. “I was a little bit uncharacteristic, a little bit out of the box, and I caught some flak for it. Figured it out a little bit as the year went on and continued to live my life and learn as I went along. It was tough, but I had to do it.”
At the Heisman Trophy ceremony last month, he imparted wisdom as Jameis Winston listened. Compared to Winston’s recent plight — he was investigated for sexual assault, but charges were not filed by the Florida state attorney’s office — Manziel’s scrapes have been minor. “I had to go through controversy and I had to go through some things,” Manziel said. “To see him at such a young age, to put his head down and to focus on his teammates and where they are and where they’re headed … I do give him a lot of credit for that with all the scrutiny he’s under. I feel like he’s done a tremendous job of focusing on his team and on his family and what matters most.”
He may be wiser, but wherever he’s headed next, Johnny Football will not be seen in a rocking chair anytime soon. “Live it up. Enjoy it,” he said. “Continue to be yourself and don’t let anybody change from that. You’re going to have to adapt to how life is going to be after this.”
It will be frenzied, stormy, maybe a little berserk.
And we’ll all be watching, by appointment.