Johnny Manziel says he wants to be treated like every other college student. Johnny Football sits courtside at NBA games, hangs in clubs with rappers and counts LeBron James as a friend. ¶Johnny Manziel told reporters that he’d seek advice from Tim Tebow on how to handle celebrity status as a high-profile college athlete. Johnny Football showed up at a frat party at a rival school wearing a Tebow replica New York Jets jersey.
A year ago, Johnny Manziel was an anonymous redshirt freshman quarterback competing for the starting job at Texas A&M. Today, he’s Johnny Football, Heisman Trophy winner and face of college football who’s reportedly under investigation by the NCAA over allegations that he sold his autograph to memorabilia dealers for large cash payouts.
Manziel’s overnight express train to stardom serves as a cautionary tale of an athlete who becomes too big too fast in an era of social media and TMZ. A combustible mix of instant fame in a sport that breeds fanaticism, Manziel’s own lack of self-control and a support system that failed to monitor him turned a feel-good story into a public-relations nightmare that could derail Texas A&M’s national title hopes, if the NCAA uncovers rules violations that result in a suspension.
As that process plays out, Manziel-mania 2.0 debuts this week with the start of a new season.
“I never realized the magnitude of [fame],” Manziel told reporters this summer. “People told me. I’d heard it time and time again, but it’s one of those things that you don’t really understand until you go through it, until you deal with it. None of us, not Coach [Kevin] Sumlin, not A&M, not anybody in the country knew what we were really prepared for.”
The circus often leaves behind a mess, which is a reality that Texas A&M now faces. ESPN reported that NCAA investigators met with Manziel on campus for six hours Sunday to question him about those autograph allegations.
If Texas A&M decides to play Manziel in the opener Saturday against Rice and the NCAA subsequently determines he violated rules, the football program could face punishment that includes vacated victories.
If the NCAA is unable to prove Manziel accepted money for his autographs, the Aggies, ranked No. 7 in the preseason poll, move on with legitimate national title hopes.
An ESPN story this summer raised the ante by shining a light on the depths of his issues. The story included revelations that Manziel’s parents are concerned about his anger management and that Manziel visited an alcohol counselor last season.
The story also noted that the hysteria surrounding Manziel reached a point last season that police drove him home after games.
An offseason smorgasbord of parties and celebrity sightings gave the appearance of a kid who had lost control of his life.
“It could come unraveled,” Manziel’s father, Paul, told ESPN. “And when it does, it’s gonna be bad. Real bad.”
As he spoke to hundreds of reporters at SEC media day in July, Manziel admitted he made mistakes but sounded unapologetic for enjoying his fame. He noted that he’s a 20-year-old college student — never mind that he took only online classes in the spring semester because of his post-Heisman whirlwind.
“I’m not going for a Miss America pageant,” he said. “I’m playing football. I’m enjoying my life and continuing to live life to the fullest. Hopefully that doesn’t upset too many people.”
Focus on the field
Ironically, maybe football can become his salvation, the one place where his brash attitude and reckless nature serve him well. The way he plays quarterback is breathtaking, with his innate ability to make something of nothing, a Houdini on the field.
He became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy after setting an SEC record with 5,116 yards of total offense. He accounted for 47 touchdowns and is the only player in NCAA history to compile 5,000 total yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a single season.
Those numbers represent his baseline, and fair or not, Manziel’s personal life will be assailed if his production drops by a meaningful degree this season.
“My offseason, all this stuff that’s gone on, will have no effect on me going into the season,” he said.
Encores can be tricky, though, because they’re usually accompanied by grand expectations that are hard to duplicate. Manziel is a marked man now and every opponent would love to turn him into a human piñata.
“Everybody wants a piece of him,” Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith said. “If you sack him, it makes you feel pretty good about yourself. He’s a great player with a lot of moves and very few sacks. You just try to contain him and get after him.”
Manziel is slippery in close quarters and at his best when forced to freelance, but he focused his summer workouts around developing as a pocket passer. He trained in California with quarterback guru George Whitfield on drills designed to improve his footwork and fundamentals.
“Are we going to change who is fundamentally? No,” Sumlin said. “Are we going to try to develop him as an overall quarterback? Yes. The ability to go through his reads, the ability to see the presentation of the defense quicker comes with experience, comes with knowledge.”
Manziel’s hallmark will remain those highlight plays that shape his Johnny Football persona. Depending on the NCAA’s investigation and how Texas A&M officials proceed, Act II of Manziel-mania could begin this week with the start of a new season.
The spotlight is here to stay.