Last year, when it seemed as if he came out of nowhere, Johnny Manziel was everything right about college sports. He was an undersized quarterback with a cool nickname who was given an opportunity to play the highest collegiate level. He was short in size but long on competitive spirit. He was a fearless underdog, a fighter, a winner.
You liked him because he wasn’t the robotic 6-foot-5, 230-pound quarterback with a cannon arm and smooth delivery you see molded from passing camps. Manziel electrified college football with his legs and imagination in ways that hadn’t been witnessed since Doug Flutie’s magical days at Boston College.
Manziel led Texas A&M to an 11-2 record, including a major upset of top-ranked Alabama. He passed for 3,706 yards and 26 touchdowns, rushed for 1,410 yards and 21 TDs. He won the Heisman Trophy. He was on full display in the Cotton Bowl, when he threw for 287 yards and ran for 229 and four touchdowns combined.
He was Johnny Football.
Less than nine months later, Manziel has become an example of everything wrong with college sports. He has become a cautionary tale for people who enjoyed too much success too soon, whose innocence was swallowed by big business before they were pushed to the side. It defined college football as a whole.
Of course, the same multibillion-dollar industry that granted Manziel an opportunity to his stardom also failed to provide him with the support needed to handle his success. Now, he’s under investigation for making money from the fame that the NCAA helped create, a violation that could make him ineligible this season.
His demise was predictable if not inevitable, if only because so many others who were unprepared for the spotlight spiraled out of control before him. They are actors and musicians and athletes and others who followed a similar pattern from relative obscurity to overnight celebrity.
Manziel was just another college football player a year ago. He’s now a player of the highest order who has been pulled in so many directions by so many people that he lost sight of what led him to greatness in the first place. It’s enough to derail anyone’s career — fitting because lately he’s been a train wreck.
It has been one incident after another during the summer amid stories of his heavy-drinking, hard-partying ways. He turned a parking ticket into national headlines via Twitter. He prematurely left the Manning Passing Academy after supposedly missing an event with a hangover. Two weeks later, he reportedly was kicked out of a frat party.
His father was so worried about Manziel unraveling that he told ESPN the Magazine the end would be bad — real bad. “It’s one night away from the phone ringing, and he’s in jail,” his father said. “And you know what he’s gonna say? ‘It’s better than all the pressure I’ve been under. This is better than that.’ ”
If his father felt the need to go public about his son’s problems, you can assume he had exhausted all other alternatives in private.
From a distance, it appears Manziel is seeking normalcy in a life where there is none.
He signed up to play quarterback. He accepted the scholarship. Something tells me he didn’t sign up for this.
This is not to excuse Manziel or treat him like some poor, innocent victim. He’s not Little Johnny anymore. He’s 20 years old. If he wants to enjoy the benefits that come with being a football star, he needs to act like one.
He may be a kid in college, but he’s not some ordinary college kid, either. At some point, he needs to take responsibility.
The latest controversy is Manziel making money from selling his autograph, a violation of the NCAA’s hypocritical rules. Manziel owns his name.
He owns his signature. But he’s not allowed to make a dime for writing his name on a jersey that generates money for the university and the NCAA.
It doesn’t make sense, of course, but at this stage Manziel must be wondering what does.