Posted: Wed December 12, 2012 12:09PM; Updated: Wed December 12, 2012 2:57PM
Steve Rushin
Steve Rushin>RUSHIN LIT

With Heisman win Manziel signals resurgence of All-American Johnny

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Texas's A&M's Johnny Manziel wins the Heisman trophy
Texas A&M's Johnny Manizel became the first freshman in college football history to win the Heisman Trophy.
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The 2012 Heisman Trophy was not just a victory for Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, newly renowned as Johnny Football, but a triumph for the quintessential American name: Johnny

There was a time, before they fell into steep decline, that Johnnys were the most indispensable cogs in both sports and pop culture. For much of the 20th century, Johnny was what you named your son if you wanted him to excel at football, as so many did, among them Johnny Lujack, Johnny Lattner and Johnny Rodgers, all of whom won the Heisman, a trophy named -- alas -- for a John, not a Johnny.

There is, of course, a world of difference between Johns and Johnnys. Think of the difference between John Mayer and Johnny Cash. John McEnroe is dour but Johnny Mac is jaunty. You can no more imagine a John Bench than you can a Johnny Quincy Adams. Johnny is more fun, less full of himself. For the better part of our history, Johnny was Everyman in the USA. It was Johnny who was On The Spot, Johnny who Came Lately, Johnny who Couldn't Read.

If Johnny couldn't read, he could sing and throw a baseball. "Johnny B Goode" was, by many estimates, the best rock and roll song of the 1950s, when rock was born. As an insuperable baseball name, Johnny cast a happy shadow over the 20th century from 1902 (when Hall of Famer Johnny Evers debuted) to 1983 (when Hall of Famer Johnny Bench retired), those two Johnnys acting as a pair of parentheses around the eminent mid-century careers of Johnny Mize, Johnny Sain, Johnny Pesky, Johnny Podres, et al.

Pop music and athletics intersected in the middle of the 1950s with a San Francisco State high jumper who had to decide between attending the US Olympic trials in Berkeley (ahead of the 1956 Games in Melbourne) or recording his first record for Columbia. Nineteen-year-old Johnny Mathis chose the latter, though he really couldn't lose, Johnny being a star's name in either discipline.

In short, Johnny was a name you could hang your hat on, hang it from the hook of that capital J, except that nobody wears the kinds of hats you hang up anymore, and nobody goes by Johnny, both phenomena having sharply decreased after John Kennedy -- not Johnny Kennedy -- went hatless at his inauguration in 1960.

That decade was the peak of American Johnnydom, a golden age in which Johnnys Carson, Cash, Unitas and Bench were all in their glorious primes. Each had that elusive Johnnyness: that je ne sais quoi -- that Johnny sais quoi -- best defined as "something that I can't resist," as Shelly Fabares put it in her number 1 bubble gum hit from 1962, "Johnny Angel."

In the next three years, music changed completely, but it was still Johnny in the basement, mixin' up the medicine, on Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Johnnys were then, and would always remain, our brightest stars.

Or so it seemed. But sometime around Johnny Bench's retirement, we stopped producing Johnnys. What happened? America used to sow them the way Johnny Appleseed sowed orchards, new Johnnys perennially ripening on the vine.

But since the 1970s, the larger pop culture has only borne us a Johnny every once in a great while -- usually a Johnny who is safely dangerous, a rebel without claws: a Johnny Rotten, a Johnny Depp, a Johnny Knoxville.

Sports, unfortunately, have not even managed that meager pace. Baseball still gives us the occasional Johnny Damon or Johnny Cueto, plus the Johnny 2.0s that are Jonny Gomes and Jhonny Peralta.

Basketball has virtually no Johnny tradition whatsoever -- quick, name a Johnny besides Dawkins or Flynn -- and it isn't about to start one now. The NFL is bereft of prominent Johnnys, which is a pity, as it was once such a reliable cradle of them.

Consider the Pro Football Hall of Famer Johnny McNally, who played semipro ball under the name Johnny Blood to preserve his eligibility at Notre Dame -- home of aforementioned Hesiman winners Johnny Lujack and Johnny Lattner -- to which he had transferred from St. John's (in Collegeville, Minn.), whose nickname is the Johnnies.

It was not unusual for an individual man to play an entire football career as various Johnnys, for various Johnnies, so ubiquitous was that name. Johnny Football was once a redundancy.

Johnny may not have had the blunt-force American appeal of a Joe (DiMaggio, Montana) or the gunslinging aura of a Wayne (Gretzky, Rooney), but the two-syllable elegance of the name carried a mystique the others never could. And that may be the most wonderful aspect of Johnny Football's story: Not that he's the first freshman to win the Heisman ever, but that he's the first Johnny to win it in 40 years.

Johnny, we hardly knew ye, but we're pleased to renew our acquaintance.

Steve Rushin is the author of The Pint Man, a novel. Purchase it here. Also check out steverushin.com.

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