Tracking Johnny Manziel: The quest to profile Texas A&M's star
|Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel is learning that his newfound fame comes with perks and pitfalls.|
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In a regional cover story for this week's Sports Illustrated, senior writer Andy Staples details Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel's adjustment to life in the spotlight. Staples, who landed an exclusive two-hour interview with Manziel last week, here describes his experience tracking down the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. Click here for the complete magazine story and to buy a digital version of the issue.
The email came on July 22 from SI college football editor Jim Gorant. It bore the subject line "Mr. Football." I was in a Dallas hotel ballroom listening to my fellow scribes attempt to bait Big 12 coaches with questions about the SEC. Before I clicked the email open, I knew exactly what Gorant wanted.
He wanted a status update on the Johnny Manziel story I'd pitched to the magazine's editors in mid-June. Shortly after the reigning Heisman Trophy winner tweeted his displeasure over a parking ticket and then followed up with an apology that asked his followers to spend a day in his shoes, I had called a muckety-muck at Texas A&M and asked if I could shadow Manziel for a day. Basically, I wanted to take Manziel up on his offer and spend a day in his size-15s. The A&M muckety-muck seemed optimistic when I pitched the story. He seemed pretty sure Manziel would agree to the conceit. I shared this optimism with the editors at the magazine. Big mistake.
Aspiring sportswriters, if I can teach you one thing, let it be this: Never complain about free food. If I can teach you a second thing, let it be this: Never tell your editors you're optimistic about a story. In fact, don't even mention that you might be working on a story until you've already interviewed everyone. When you pitch the idea of a story, they get excited. Visions of headlines and layouts and lead art dance in their heads. Potential run dates are discussed.
Ideas are great, but execution is all that matters. If you get your editors excited, you have to deliver the story you promised. No editor likes a story tease, unless it's the editor who actually writes story teases. (Those are the lines of type that hype up what's inside the magazine or inside the web story you're about to click on. "Story tease" is one of many journalism terms that sound vaguely dirty. My favorite? Bastard measure.) So when I saw Gorant's email, I knew I wasn't heading home from Dallas. I was driving to College Station.
By the time I received Gorant's email, more than a month had passed since my story pitch. The spend-a-day idea had been scuttled in favor of a sit-down interview in mid-July. That interview had been canceled after Manziel's dismissal from the Manning Passing Academy took on a life of its own. So I knew I'd have to take one more shot. I texted the media relations professionals at Texas A&M and told them I'd be driving in from Dallas that Tuesday night. I had a previous commitment that would require me to be in Southern California on Sunday night. If it was at all possible, I hoped to spend a few moments in the presence of one Johnathan Manziel. I'd wait until the weekend if necessary, but then I'd have to bail on the story. I prayed I wouldn't have to bail.
Jason Cook, Alan Cannon and Brad Marquardt, the aforementioned media relations professionals, seemed optimistic. But they were also honest. Manziel had been put through a wringer at SEC media days, and he might not feel like sitting down for an in-depth interview. This was a fair point. After the wall-to-wall coverage of the Manning camp episode, I'm not sure I'd have wanted to talk to anyone, either.
So I went to College Station and waited. Tuesday night passed with no update. On Wednesday, I went on the offensive. I met a lot of people in Manziel's world when I wrote this story for the magazine in December. I texted or called some of the people I know Manziel trusts and asked if they could help. They promised to call or text him to vouch that I would write an accurate, fair story. Wednesday night, I had dinner with two people who are close to Manziel. They couldn't guarantee I'd get that interview, but they did give me an idea for the thrust of the story.
I'm fascinated by how aspirations change over time. Six years ago, when I was grinding out gamers, sidebars and notebooks as the Florida beat writer for The Tampa Tribune, the idea of writing a cover story for Sports Illustrated seemed preposterous. Obviously, real people got jobs at Sports Illustrated. I'd met some of them. But at that point I had never once thought I'd join that club. I didn't dream about writing an SI cover story because I had no clue how to make that leap. In May 2007, my wife asked why I'd never applied for a job at SI or ESPN.com or Yahoo! Sports. I told her those jobs went to an elite class, not hack beat writers. "How do you know if you don't apply?" she asked. She had a point. So I sent packages to all the major sports publications and websites. No one called back. Until SI did. That December, I was hired to cover football recruiting for SI.com. The idea of writing a cover story still seemed preposterous, but slightly less so. Needless to say, my job has evolved. With each passing year, that idea seemed less and less out of reach. It had gone from a complete fantasy to a pipe dream to an achievable goal.
I wanted to know how Manziel's dreams had changed. My journey was gradual. His took place virtually overnight. A year ago, he was trying to win the starting job. Now he has won the Heisman Trophy and rubbed elbows with Drake and LeBron James. How did he adjust his aspirations? One of Manziel's friends told me Manziel had scribbled out a bucket list while on a plane in May. Suddenly, I had to know what was on that bucket list. I wanted to know how dreams change after a person shoots to nationwide fame over a three-month period and then watches every velvet rope disappear.
To get that information, I'd need Manziel to consent to an interview. I got word that Thursday might be the day. I emailed Gorant and SI managing editor Chris Stone to say that things looked promising. Then I conceded that I might have jinxed myself by even writing the email. "This makes my day," Stone replied. "And I don't believe in jinxes." Well played, boss. By early Thursday evening, I'd heard nothing. I'd eaten some excellent tacos during my time in College Station, but I came for a story. I worried heartburn would be the only thing I'd take home. Frustration began to creep in. I didn't want to have to call the editors and tell them I'd failed. I wondered if I'd get a wink of sleep.
Later Thursday night, the text messages began arriving. They all carried basically the same message: It's happening tomorrow. Definitely. For sure. Buoyed by the news, I drifted off to sleep while listening to the dulcet tones of Ken Burns' Prohibition documentary on Netflix.
When I woke on Friday morning, I scolded myself for getting too optimistic. I still didn't have a time for the interview. I still didn't know if there would be an interview. And after all that badgering, would Manziel even want to talk? So I went to the place most sportswriters go when they need to think: Panera Bread. Panera has everything a traveling sportswriter needs: caffeine, free wireless internet and brownies. I settled in and waited. The night before, I had knocked out my Florida scouting report for the college football preview issue. My Florida State scouting report was due that day, and at 9:43 a.m. Central time, I had just cued up 18 minutes of Jimbo Fisher interview audio when my phone buzzed.
The caller was Manziel's mother, Michelle. I had left word that I hoped to interview her as well. She said she had some time at 11. She told me to come by the house, which is in the next town over from College Station. This was a breakthrough, but I still had received no definitive word on Johnny. I hoped I might talk Michelle into brokering the actual interview.
I arrived at the appointed time. The Manziels' West Highland White terrier, Scottie, greeted me along with Michelle. But there was someone else in the house. Sprawled on the couch was the Heisman winner himself. The interview was actually going to happen.
I have a work phone and a personal phone. After a handshake, I pulled out both and turned on their voice recorders. I hate taking notes during a long interview, because it disrupts the flow of the conversation. I'd rather just record everything and transcribe it later. With two recorders running, I'd probably avoid the nightmare scenario of clicking on the interview and realizing the recorder cut off after three minutes -- as my dedicated audio recorder had during a Will Muschamp interview session at SEC media days.
If Manziel had been reluctant to talk, it didn't show. He gave long, thoughtful answers to questions about the Heisman, the Manning camp, his struggles with fame, his lifestyle, how much longer he'll stay at Texas A&M and the way he is perceived relative to his reality. We talked for two hours. He told me all about the bucket list, and he answered the two questions I most wanted to ask. The first question: What did you dream about at this time last year? His answer: Just playing -- maybe five to 10 snaps a game. The second question: What do you dream about now? Manziel's answer: You'll have to pick up a copy of the magazine to find out.
We wrapped the interview standing in his parents' kitchen. Manziel mentioned two pieces of information: He had ordered a Tim Tebow jersey, and he planned to head to Austin that weekend to visit friends at the University of Texas. Great, I thought. What could go wrong?
The headlines generated by that Austin trip only reinforced some of the points Manziel made in the interview. Manziel pulled no punches, and after a few minutes it became clear he has wanted to get some things off his chest for a while. He may take some heat for some of the things he said, but he spoke honestly and passionately. After reading the story, those who dislike Manziel probably will dislike him more. Those who already like him will absolutely love him. He seems perfectly OK with either result.
As for my editors, they were thrilled I got the interview. They were not so thrilled that my Florida State scouting report remains unwritten. I'll get right on that.