Sure, he could become a recluse, live in a hermetically sealed cave and have all meals delivered by an operative in a hazmat suit who must recite a double-secret code in Portuguese. Johnny Football could withdraw from the planet and surface only on autumn Saturdays, when he is dropped off at the stadium in a tank, then accompanied home by Secret Service agents via an elaborate network of surveillance-monitored tunnels.
Like millions of 20-year-olds today, or like you and I when we were on the bridge from adolescence to adulthood, Johnny Manziel needs to grow up while living in the world. The problem is that his world, unlike ours at that age, is one of runaway celebrity exacerbated by his partying exploits, a defiant willingness to participate in social-media madness and, now, the inevitable NCAA investigation into whether he took a five-figure fee to sign hundreds of photos and memorabilia pieces in January. Amateur shrinks are urging him to run and hide from it all, but what would isolation solve? It’s much too late to slow down a Truman-Show-meets-phonecam-meets-Google bullet train speeding between College Station and Hollywood. It’s careening out of control, and we only can hope the ending isn’t tragic.
“Yeah, it could come unraveled. And when it does, it’s gonna be bad. Real bad,” Manziel’s father, Paul, told ESPN’s Wright Thompson in what sounded like a cry for help, part of a revealing profile that turned Johnny Football mania from a fun curiosity into a serious drama.
We’re all worried about our children. Paul and Michelle Manziel are no different. They happen to have a son who, in a tsunami blur, morphed from life as another athletic teenager into one of the most famous people in a sports-and-star-obsessed nation. Every parent is concerned about their kids going to college and drinking too much, but their son is imbibing more heavily, they fear, to cope with the pressures and traps of fame and Internet scrutiny. What has happened to Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes and other child actors is the early stages of happening to Johnny Manziel.
They’ve sent him to alcohol rehab and an anger therapist, a Hollywood thing. They don’t trust the Hollywood studio chiefs — in this case, the administration and coaches at Texas A&M. “He still needs love. He still needs guidance,” Paul Manziel told Thompson. “He still needs to see he’s wrong — and how to control his temper. And if I give up on him, who’s gonna take over? The school sure the hell isn’t gonna do it.”
But there’s nothing Texas A&M can do if Manziel, capitalizing on his fresh Heisman Trophy-winning marketability during a trip to the BCS National Championship game, actually jeopardized his college eligibility and career by dipping into the same sort of extra-benefits scandal that popped Ohio State two years ago. It’s inexcusably dishonest for Manziel to take a sizable sum for his autographs when he knows it’s against NCAA rules. We can debate all day whether college players should be paid for autographs and use of their likenesses — I now say yes, which is the basis of the Ed O’Bannon suit against the NCAA — but the immediate issue is whether Manziel has lost a shot at another Heisman, ruined his team’s 2013 hopes and maybe even played his final game at A&M.
Wouldn’t that be the all-time crash — unheraled freshman to American pop-culture megastar to scandal-banned bum, all in a one-year swoop? Isn’t this a Tom Petty song, something about a rebel without a clue?
What I’d like to do is tell creeps enabling some of this behavior — autograph brokers, sneaky photographers, snarky Web sites, immature college kids — to find something else to do in their pathetic lives and stop playing “gotcha” with Manziel. But Johnny Football also is fueling the process by continuing to be Johnny Party Brotha — dancing in an animal costume with coeds in lingerie, clutching a Champagne bottle in a nightclub, waving wads of money in a casino, bragging about all his new celebrity pals, using Twitter to give his 400,000 followers a peek at his life, sending tweets he’ll regret in the morning and frequenting bars where some mope will take his photo and title it “DRUNK JOHNNY” even if he has consumed only a sip. When he makes those decisions, he is left to face all the potential consequences as the first college-sports rock star of the social media era.
And who am I to be hypocritical when, admittedly, I’m as fascinated by the Manziel story as anyone? I’m anxious to see how he deals with the scrutiny, performs on the field and handles his ravenous haters, including resentful opponents who want to grind his scrunchy face into the turf. A compelling lab experiment is happening down yonder. We are watching to determine if a kid quarterback self-destructs, or rebounds and lays the groundwork for a prosperous life ahead. Manziel knows he’s losing NFL money and traction every time he screws up off the field. He knows his good-times persona leads to rampant lies and reckless speculation. He knows he was one of Jon Hamm’s punchlines at the ESPY Awards, as he sat sheepishly in the audience in L.A., and he knows he’s the Justin Bieber of college football because he made the comparison himself. He knows he was removed from a frat house when he tried to enjoy a summer weekend at the University of Texas, ballsy stuff in that Austin is enemy turf for any A&M person, much less the wildest Aggie of all.
It’s one hell of a story, a reigning Heisman winner on TMZ, if not something you’d want your 15-year-old son to be studying as role-model fodder. Johnny Football is the anti-Tim Tebow. Of course, after hearing that comparison about 3,000 times, he appeared to mock it by wearing a Tebow/Jets jersey.
“I’m not going for the Miss America pageant. I’m playing football,” Manziel said last month at the SEC football media orgy, where 1,300 reporters recorded his every utterance. “I’m a 20-year-old kid in college. You can take that for what it’s worth. I’m enjoying my life, continuing to live life to the fullest. Hopefully, that doesn’t bother too many people.
“I’m not gonna change because I’m in the spotlight. I told people the night of the Heisman, no matter what happens, I’m going to adapt but I’m not going to change. I’m still the same person I was.”
Oh, but that attitude does bother people, especially the football establishment. As it is, being a 6-footer without much arm juice, Manziel doesn’t project as a high-level NFL draft choice if he leaves A&M after this season. With his 2012 arrest and subsequent misdemeanor guilty plea after joining a friend-in-need in an off-campus fight — Manziel also gave police a fake ID — and with the suspicious events last month surrounding his early departure from the prestigious Manning Passing Academy, NFL franchises are casting wary eyes. They won’t be investing large guaranteed sums even if he wins a second Heisman and keeps dazzling as a dual-threat magician. He’s right when he says of his off-field issues, “I don’t feel like I’ve done anything that’s catastrophic.” These are not murders, rapes. But scrutiny of personal conduct is at all-time levels in the NFL. There also is a certain dignity with which a Heisman winner is supposed to carry himself.
Not surprisingly, America’s elite college football program, the University of Alabama, and its authoritarian coach, Nick Saban, are seizing upon Manziel’s issues. Johnny Football wouldn’t last a nanosecond under Nickie Old School, and while we don’t know if Saban has instructed his own celebrity-touched quarterback on how to handle Manziel questions, it’s clear AJ McCarron wants us to know he’s above that fray. When Brent Musburger went dirty-old-man on us last January and praised the looks of McCarron’s girlfriend, Katherine Webb, it wasn’t AJ’s doing, he is quick to point out. He’s just another kid in the spotlight who knows how to handle it — and has two national titles to show.
“I’ve never been one to ask for the spotlight or to want to be in any type of spotlight,” McCarron told reporters. “I’m trying to never bring any type of bad light on my last name or the university in any type of way. So I’m just trying to do everything the right way and leave the University of Alabama where all they can say is he won and did everything he was supposed to do.
“Every 22-year-old’s not doing what I’m doing. And I’m not able to do what they can do. I can’t go out and act the fool in public and drink excessively and end up being wild. I can’t do that. I’m not saying I want to in any type of way. But I want to be the type of guy that younger kids can look up to me.”
Good vs. Evil.
McCarron was Manziel’s roommate at the Manning camp. Somehow — hmmm — it was leaked and framed that the angelic McCarron tried to roust the devilish Johnny Football out of bed one morning, to no avail. “I can’t answer on Johnny Manziel’s part. My name’s AJ. He’s his own man,” McCarron said. “I’m not going to speak on another man’s business. That’s how I was raised. If it don’t have nothing to do with you, don’t speak of it.”
All of which will be re-hashed in a few weeks, when the earth moves and Alabama travels to A&M, trying to avenge last year’s loss to Johnny Football in Tuscaloosa. I don’t care what’s going on in sports that week. Nothing will be bigger.
Kevin Sumlin could be called the creator of Johnny Football, if not the enabler. In his first year as A&M coach, he chose not to suspend Manziel for the off-campus fight and let him compete for the starting job that he won. He turned Manziel loose and made history with him, but Sumlin knows he must watch his project closely, especially after Paul Manziel’s remarks about not trusting the school. “Is he perfect? No,” Sumlin told reporters at the SEC fest. “I think he has done some things that he’s not very proud of, has made some poor decisions. He’s made some good decisions. Unfortunately, the poor decisions are the ones that are really publicized. It’s a growing process. It’s a learning process … Can he be better in that area? Certainly. That’s something that we’re working at.”
Which makes his vow to keep partying and living his life all the more audacious. It’s important to know that Manziel doesn’t come off as brash or jerky. Matter of factly, he points out he’s a college kid who’s going to have his fun, just as I had my fun and you had your fun. Should he join the chess club and spend all his nights singing with A cappella groups? What is so wrong with using sudden fame to enjoy new, amazing experiences? “It’s been lots of fun. I continue to meet people and do things that were bucket list,” he said. “I got to go to Toronto, got to meet LeBron (James) for the second time and have more of a conversation. I got to go (NBA) Finals games. And I’m thankful my parents could go to those places — and I got to go to these camps and work with kids, the Elite 11 and the Manning camp.”
He also was thrilled to meet rappers Drake and 2 Chainz, play golf at Pebble Beach and sit courtside at NBA games. He’s Johnny Football … famous people want to meet him and hang with him. Oh, he could stay out of the casinos, but he’s of legal age. And he could stay out of bars, where he’s not of legal age, but really now, is he any different than most kids on a campus? Where Manziel makes his mistake is diving head-first into social media. He’s asking people to join his joy ride, inviting idiots to make him look bad on the Internet. Maybe he could shut down his Twitter account, for starters. That way, he gives himself some social relief and eliminates the temptation of sending out a revenge tweet, such as his June observation — “(expletive) like tonight is a reason why I can’t wait to leave college station … whenever it may be” — that reportedly resulted from a parking ticket. It was followed by the predictable tweet delete and apology. He could make it easier on himself, right?
“It gets to me a little bit. I’m not going to lie,” Manziel told reporters. “I feel like, to be honest, I haven’t done anything criminal this offseason. I haven’t done anything like that. I’ve made my mistakes. I’m still growing up. I’m still learning. At the end of the day, I’m going to make mistakes, and the big thing for me is to learn from them and not make the same one twice.”
Who knows what happened at the Manning Academy? But with a mutual agreement that he leave camp early after missing sessions, Manziel became a pain to Peyton Manning, who had to issue a statement denying he was upset about it all, despite an incriminating photo of Manziel … in a bar. Johnny Football denied being hung over and claimed he overslept because his phone died. Mature people do not make such excuses.
But, again, he is 20. A year ago, he was known only to family and friends, another teen trying out for a spot on a college football team. His folk tale grew quickly and exploded until it was out of control, and young Johnny decided to board Flight Celebrity and go wherever it took him. “I knew the spotlight was bright,” he said. “I knew all my actions were being watched. Lately, it’s been magnified. And I’m OK with that. It is what it is.”
You sure don’t want to examine Johnny Football and come off like Mark May, the ESPN college football analyst, who scolded Manziel on his Twitter feed with this blast: “Alright Johnny Football enough is enough this is your last wakeup call STOP BRINGING SHAME TO THE GAME!” This is the same Mark May who in 1979, as a sophomore lineman at Pittsburgh, was arrested and charged with “disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, criminal mischief, terroristic threats and inciting to riot.” According to police, May was jumping on cars at 2:30 a.m. and urging others to fight the police. That would be bringing shame — and, um, Mayhem — to the game.
Just remember, we all were young once. We just weren’t winning the Heisman Trophy, with an arrogant nickname, and daring fate with a lot of phones, tweets and Instagrams around. I could urge Johnny Football to grow up and be careful out there, but honestly, that colt is out of the barn, and I’m curious to find out where and how all this ends. The Hall of Fame? The gutter? I’m betting it’s somewhere in the wide expanse in between, and that young Mr. Manziel will be OK.
Instantly, I find myself regretting that forecast.