Johnny Manziel coming to grips with life in the limelight
HOOVER, Ala. -- The most powerful man in college sports stood by himself on Wednesday morning as a throng of reporters surrounded the ESPN set on the second floor of the Wynfrey Hotel. For once, no one wanted to talk to Mike Slive. "Isn't it great?" Slive said, grinning.
The crowd wanted to hear Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, and the reporters leaned in hard and listened. They couldn't hear Manziel's ESPN interview, of course. Manziel was too far away. They'd have been better off watching a television at the sports bar downstairs. Later, Manziel cycled through several rooms. In each, he answered the same set of questions about the Friday night and Saturday morning that caused his premature departure from the Manning Passing Academy in Louisiana last weekend. He overslept, he said. He wasn't too hungover, he said. His phone died and didn't wake him. He and the Manning brothers parted on good terms.
We asked those questions because Manziel is the kind of celebrity who makes people ignore even the guy who runs the conference that has claimed the past seven national titles. Outside of Texas, where he was a folk hero quarterback at a Hill Country high school, Manziel has been famous for a little less than 11 months. But he's not famous in the way that other excellent college football players are famous. He's famous in the way that people who sing pop songs after quitting their Disney Channel shows are famous. The adjustment to this fame has come in fits and starts. Now, after almost a year into his time in the limelight, Manziel seems almost ready to come to grips with the life he has been handed. "I knew the spotlight was bright," Manziel said on Wednesday. "I knew all my actions were being watched. Lately, it's been magnified. And I'm OK with that. It is what it is."
Manziel leaving the Manning camp early is news because everything he does is news. He fascinates us for reasons we can't even explain. Like Tim Tebow before him, Manziel moves the meter even when he isn't doing much of anything. On Wednesday, Manziel compared himself to Justin Bieber. While that's not a comparison anyone should make voluntarily, Manziel has a point. Everything he does will draw attention because he fascinates the public. In the absence of news of import, minor incidents, amateur psychoanalysis and hypocritical moralizing fill the vacuum. Manziel is ideal for today's 24-hour news cycle. He likes meeting celebrities. He likes socializing at bars. Even though most of what he does wouldn't necessarily qualify as important news, he's just interesting enough. Tossed into the swirl of television, internet media, social media and sports talk radio, his adventures make their own gravy.
Manziel had legal issues before his historic 2012 season made him famous. The New York Times reported that he was taken to the police station while in high school on suspicion of underage drinking. Manziel was sentenced to community service. In June 2012, Manziel was arrested in College Station while trying to keep his friend from getting pounded for saying something incredibly stupid. Manziel was drunk and in possession of a fake ID. On Monday, Manziel pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of failure to identify and agreed to pay a $2,000 fine. Since that incident, Manziel hasn't been accused of breaking any law.
He has spent time with Drake and LeBron James, and that made people mad. He has participated in a trick-shot video, and that made people mad. He has complained about a parking ticket on Twitter, and that made people mad. One writer at the Orlando Sentinel suggested freshmen shouldn't win the Heisman Trophy because Manziel was having too much fun during his offseason. I'd suggest that any sportswriter who hates fun should seriously reconsider his career choice.
"I'm not going for the Miss America pageant," Manziel said on Wednesday. "I'm playing football. 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."
It apparently bothers a lot of people, though it's difficult to figure out why. A giant chunk of the college-educated population did exactly the same thing at his age. (Minus the celebrities.) Thankfully, the adventures of 20-year-old college sportswriters in 1999 weren't covered like the exploits of 20-year-old quarterbacks in 2013. I can only imagine the press conferences.
Reporter: Andy, is it true you spent Sunday night playing quarters at a bar in the Virginia Highlands district? Did you face any discipline from the people in charge of your internship at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution?
Me: Playing is a relative term. Struggling is a more accurate term. And no, my bosses didn't care. All my work got done, and for that I'd like to thank the fine folks at Advil.
Reporter: Is it true that a few of your fellow interns and several sorority members drank you under the table?
Me: No comment.
Reporter: Any truth to the rumors that tequila makes you cry?
Me: Depends. Did I just watch Old Yeller?
Manziel handled himself fine on Wednesday. Hearing him address the topic that dominated the college football discussion the preceding two days only served to drive home the silliness of it all. He sounded coached. He had talking points. But he also made a lot of sense. A popular theory holds that Manziel's social life will keep him from winning a second Heisman Trophy. More likely, if he doesn't win a second Heisman Trophy, it's because the Alabama or LSU or Mississippi State defenses prevented that from happening. "You don't get a Heisman by doing stuff off the field," Manziel said. "You win a Heisman because of your play on the field."
And Manziel hasn't become a lesser quarterback. If anything, a full offseason as the starter has made him even more comfortable with the Texas A&M offense. He has spent more time with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. and spent much of the offseason with first-year Texas A&M quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital, who worked with Geno Smith at West Virginia the previous two years. We haven't written about the time Manziel spent in the weight room, because that's boring.
On Wednesday, Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin discussed his staff's offseason work with Manziel to make him a more assured pocket passer. Aggies' coaches don't want their star thinking run first. They want him to stick with the play called for as long as possible and then, if everything breaks down, they're fine with him taking off for a 25-yard gain. But Sumlin made clear that they don't want Manziel so far inside his own head that he ignores the instincts that make him one of the most exciting, devastating players in the game. "Are we going to change who he is fundamentally?" Sumlin asked to no one in particular. "No."
Sumlin could have said the same thing about Team Johnny Football's management of Manziel's off-field life. Sure, everyone at Texas A&M would prefer less frequent headlines. But as long as no one gets hurt, letting a 20-year-old act like a 20-year-old instead of trying to shove him into a box might be the wisest course of action.