Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel still adjusting to celebrity life
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Sitting across a conference-room table at Texas A&M's Bright Football Complex on Wednesday, March 6, Johnny Manziel hardly looked the part of a high-flying, celebrity-schmoozing football star. Scruffy-haired and sporting glasses, wearing an unzipped Nike warmup jacket, a T-shirt and flip-flops, he could have easily passed for an ordinary college student.
But there's nothing ordinary about the life of the 20-year-old Kerrville, Texas, product, starting with the fact that his jacket had an official Heisman Trophy logo emblazoned on the sleeve. Or that nearly everything about his day-to-day life -- the car he drives, the classes he's taking, the sporting events he's attending -- becomes a national news story. Or that millions of people he'll never meet have opinions about those stories -- many of them negative.
As the Aggies opened spring practice this week, last fall's overnight sensation, Johnny Football, is still coming to grips with the subsequent dawn of Johnny Backlash.
"For me, it went from one day being, hey, I can still be a normal kid, I can still post pictures of this, tweet this, tweet that," Manziel said in an interview on Wednesday. "Then you get the repercussions from it, and it's like, 'Oh yeah, I forgot, I won the Heisman as a freshman and life's a lot different now.' It took some getting used to."
It's not just that Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman in its 78-year existence. And it's not just that he accounted for 5,116 yards of total offense while leading A&M to its first top-five finish in the AP Poll since 1956. It's that six months removed from his first college game, he's already reached a near-unprecedented level of celebrity for a college athlete. Even the fervor that followed Tim Tebow's 2007 Heisman season seems antiquated when compared with the current media climate surrounding Manziel. Tebow's win came before the minute-by-minute news cycle created by Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and a host of rapid-response blogs, all of which have chronicled Manziel's eventful offseason.
The fact that he's taking only online classes this semester was a mini-controversy. So, too, were the copyright infringement lawsuits his family filed against a couple of parties selling unauthorized Johnny Football merchandise. This week, he made news by virtue of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class he was seen driving in an ESPN all-access segment.
And there's an obvious undertone to it all. Given Manziel's arrest last summer for disorderly conduct and providing a fake ID and an alcohol-related incident in high school detailed in a New York Times profile, much of the college football public seems to be waiting for the other shoe to drop. Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops made a joke on a radio station questioning whether A&M "can keep him out of jail or keep him eligible." Pictures of Manziel (some posted by Manziel himself, others by sites like TMZ) at parties, at a casino and hanging with celebrities and pro athletes at the Super Bowl and NBA All-Star Game have further fueled the notion of Manziel as a walking compliance nightmare.
"My situation kind of went from football player that would make some headlines, to then being on TMZ, where I was thrown in more with a celebrity world than sports world," Manziel said. "I have no idea [why]."
Manziel is learning to take that shift in stride. "The thing I've learned from everyone watching my every little move, every story that's come out -- all the jealousy, all the bitterness, all the hate that's been generated toward that -- has given me another thing, which is thick skin," he said. "Anything that's said [on Twitter] now, it doesn't get to me."
In January, Texas A&M athletic director Eric Hyman held a meeting with Manziel, Manziel's parents, coach Kevin Sumlin and school publicity, marketing and compliance officials. While portrayals at the time made it seem like the player got a talking-to about his behavior, several of the participants said it was more of a strategy session for dealing with Manziel's newfound fame. Manziel said he now checks in with the compliance staff before making any public appearances or attending any high-profile events.
"We've got a support system in place for him," said Sumlin. "The meeting that has been talked about that Eric Hyman had, it wasn't a get after you, tell you what to do meeting. It was everyone involved saying, listen, we're here for you, you don't have to handle this on your own."
Once a prolific tweeter, @jmanziel2 has recently slowed to a crawl. He used to fire back at the rival fans who baited him; now he retweets innocent practice news or a Valentine's Day picture with his sister. It seems the Heisman winner's biggest challenge is autograph requests -- he's received several thousand of them since December, either in person or arriving in the mail at his or his parents' house.
In fact, Manziel got a cruel initiation during a layover at the Dallas-Forth Worth airport en route to the Home Depot College Football Awards Show in Orlando. A full-uniformed solider approached him with a "mountain" of helmet decals, telling the player he was stationed overseas and wanted to pass out autographs to the fellow soldiers at his base. Manziel gladly obliged.
The decals wound up affixed to actual helmets being sold on eBay.
Back on campus, picture- and autograph-seekers prompted Manziel's much-chronicled decision to take all of his classes online this semester. Because of the crush of attention, it was taking him a half hour or longer to walk across campus from the football complex to his English class, so he dropped it in favor of four online classes in his major, sports management.
"I didn't want it to seem like I wasn't taking school seriously or that I was just doing all this so I could be lazy and go do these other things," Manziel said. "... All this stuff happened in the fall, and spring is just loaded. I said, let's just simplify one thing in my life while still trying to get my degree. ... I didn't think it was too big a deal. I'm sure it won't completely die down in the fall, but it will be easier."
As for the Mercedes, there's a story behind that, too -- but it's sure to only prompt some more eye rolls. The car isn't actually Manziel's first Mercedes. His family got him one as a high school graduation gift but eventually sold it; his father, John Paul, who works at a car dealership, found this one as a replacement.
"It's a touchy area," said the younger Manziel, "with the stereotype of athletes and how a majority of guys in the NCAA come from families that aren't as fortunate as my family has been to have money. ... Being in the situation I am, having the parents that I have, it's different than the stereotype that's out there."
After three months of life in the celebrity arena, Manziel returned to a more familiar environment this week: the practice field. Despite showing noticeable improvement with his arm over the course of last season and finishing with a completion rate of 68 percent, the generously listed 6-foot-1 quarterback is still far from a polished passer. Whereas a year ago at this time Manziel was first learning coordinator Kliff Kingsbury's offense, adapting to a frenetic tempo and fighting to win the starting job, this spring he can concentrate more on his footwork and mechanics.
With Kingsbury (whom Manziel still communicates with daily) gone to Texas Tech, Manziel is now working with new position coach Jake Spavital, a 27-year-old Dana Holgorsen protégé who previously worked with Houston's Case Keenum, Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden and West Virginia's Geno Smith. All made significant improvements in their second seasons in the offense.
"[Manziel] is still not where he needs to be throwing the ball," said Spavital. "The approach he's taking in the spring is focusing on being a better passer, staying in the pocket longer and using his athletic ability when the time is right. He can be a lot better passer right now."
So while Spavital teaches him about quarterbacking, Manziel continues his education in celebrity and its accompanying backlash. It's a trial by fire -- and some in the public and the media seem to be eagerly awaiting his next misstep.
"There's points where I'm trying to be a normal kid just like everybody else, and I have to sit there and realize that's not how life can be for me anymore," Manziel said. "It took me a while to learn that. It's not like one day I woke up and said, 'Hey, I know how to handle this.'"
How could he? One spring, he was a backup quarterback. The next, he's a one-man national news wire. There's no guide for navigating Manziel's current terrain, because no college player has ever experienced it.