This has been Johnny Manziel week in the sports media, as both SI and ESPN had feature length profiles on the A&M Heisman winner.* Well, just about every week this offseason has been Johnny Manziel week, but now he's moving up to the glossy feature story.
*There was also the inevitable backlash piece from Deadspin, in which the author criticized Wright Thompson for not drawing conclusions for the reader, because we all hate it when we have to think for ourselves and form our own opinions. Damn you, Wright!
We've been silent on our conference rival's lightning rod quarterback for a few reasons, but mainly because I don't really care all that much. His transgressions are all pretty minor college kid acting out stuff, and as soon as you start chucking rocks from your glass house, bad things often happen. LSU's pretty familiar with nightmare offseasons.
But these two profiles give us a pretty decent picture of the man behind the legend of Johnny Football, and it is the picture of a 20 year old douchebag. I am not up in arms over this because, frankly, I'd be pretty surprised if a 20 year old kid from a well to do family suddenly found national fame as an athlete and wasn't a bit of a self-involved jerk. One of the perks of being twenty is getting to be selfish and narcissistic without many repercussions. One of the perks of being the star quarterback is having that narcissism validated. Live it up, Johnny.
It is important to remember the first rule of sports fandom: we do not know these people. Everyone thought Kirby Puckett was a fun loving nice guy, and it turns out he was a violent sociopath. We really are just cheering for laundry. That's fine, but don't get upset when it turns out the guy you're cheering for isn't who you thought he was.
The overarching theme of both articles is the overwhelming change that becoming instantly famous has had on Johnny's life. Normally, it's pretty hard to feel bad for the guy living the celebrity life, as he has that big pile of money to cushion his fall. College players don't even have that. They get the massive crush of attention and the bewildering sensation of not knowing who their friends are anymore, but without the perks of being wealthy.
Is what Manziel is currently going through all that different from Tyrann Mathieu here at LSU? Mathieu went from a little known player on the back of the roster to a superstar seemingly overnight. He had a catchy nickname that sort of became his persona, taking over the person who was there before. And he also saw just about everybody make a buck off of his fame except for himself. He got all of the hassles of being a celebrity without the perks.
For Mathieu, it came crashing down hard. He tried to escape the pressures of being the Honey Badger by smoking a lot of pot. Manziel seems to escape by turning to a more socially acceptable drug, but it is an escape. These players are under intense media scrutiny, and if they so much as take one wrong move, we are there to point out their mistake and judge them for it. This media beast doesn't feed itself.
Manziel is currently walking the high wire. He is living out the Johnny Football fantasy, which sounded real cool a year ago, but now seems like it is overtaking everything in his world. He is not Johnny Football. It's just a nickname. There was no Honey Badger either, until we created one. And then Mathieu fell off the high wire and we moved on to the next big thing. So now it's Manziel's turn under the microscope.
This likely ends badly.
That makes me sad, and I'm not saying it to try and trash talk the Aggies or Manziel. But it takes a remarkably self-assured twenty year old to handle this much this fast and not have it shake you to your core. Hopefully, he can come out of this on the other side, mostly okay. Mathieu found the absolute best situation for himself in the NFL, and while his success is a long way from guaranteed, it looks a lot more likely today than it did six months ago.
Jonathan Manziel can't be Johnny Football forever because he's not Johnny Football. Eventually, he will get tired of living up to the persona, and he'll grow out of it and find out who he really is. More likely, he is going to have some sort of incident that we're all going to blow out of proportion, which he'll react badly to, and it will just spiral out of control. With any luck, that incident will be something as simple as throwing a critical interception which costs his team the game.
Or he'll just lose some games this year and the magic will be gone. He'll be the same guy, but he won't be the folk hero anymore. Maybe Aaron Murray or AJ McCarron will win the Heisman, and Manziel can go back to being just a really good quarterback. That, honestly, is the best possible outcome for him.
These people who build you up will turn around and tear you down at a second's notice. Aggies love Manziel not because he's a good dude, but because he wins them football games. We may not know the real him, but he has to remember he doesn't know us, either. These people don't love Johnny Football, they love A&M winning football games.
We loved the Honey Badger, too. Until we didn't.