First of all, I just want to say that I am a little frustrated with myself for even writing this article. I have a lot of thoughts on the subject of Johnny Manziel and the outrageous attention he has been receiving this offseason, and as a result I am very passionate on the subject. But as much as I have wanted to write this article for the past few weeks, I also regret doing it because it is just adding to the list of articles and news stories talking about him, and that is not something I am proud of doing. I am proud of what I have written here, but I am not proud of continuing to excessively discuss Manziel and everything that has happened to him. I think we have gone beyond overkill, and I think we all as members of the media and society need to take a step back and think about what we are doing and the impact it could have. However, in order to do that, I must talk about myself a bit to help create some context for why I think the way I do.
It seems pretty clear to me that Manziel is overwhelmed by everything that has happened to him, and I can’t say I blame him one bit. I am a NFL Draft analyst and I pride myself on finding potential stars or breakout players before the season starts, and even a week or two into the season I had never heard of Johnny Manziel. In that sense, watching him play and develop over the course of the season was beautiful to me. I didn’t see it coming at all, and that was refreshing. As I strive longer and harder to turn covering or participating in football into my long term career I am finding that making football my job removes a little bit of the fun from watching it. I can’t help but look up players I have never watched before when they make a play that sticks out to me. I can’t help but analyze the plays as they unfold, and I find it harder and harder to turn off the scout inside me and just watch the game to enjoy it. In a weird way, that is why I think I, in some miniscule way, understand what Manziel is attempting to grapple with.
Let me be very clear: I have never played a down of organized football. I worked for Beloit College’s football team for three years doing film work while I attended the school, but I have never played. I realize that makes what I just asserted seem completely ridiculous, but I have no interest in deceiving people by making them think that I too was a superbly talented quarterback who had to struggle to comprehend and control his own fame. That has never happened to me. However, I did grow up in affluent suburb called Edina in the state of Minnesota and I think I understand, in very small way, how Manziel has grown up. I lived in the same house for my entire life until two years ago when my parents told me they were getting a divorce. I visited during my school’s October break my senior year of college and everything was the same. My parents were clearly unhappy, my basketball hoop was still intact in the backyard, and all of my possessions were in my room or downstairs in front of our big screen TV. I was happy with things remaining the way they were, but I knew they wouldn’t be that way for long. When I came back for Thanksgiving just a month later my mom had moved into a new house 30 minutes away in the country and my dad had moved into an apartment ten minutes away, but still in the city of Edina. My house was empty and on the market, and I felt like I was robbed of the chance to say goodbye to it. It was my own fault for not doing so ahead of time, but I still I felt like I had missed the chance to pack up all of my things one possession at a time, reminisce about all the memories I had made in that house, and then make my peace as I moved on with my life. When I go home I still drive by my old house, thinking about all the memories I made living there for over 21 years of my life, and how lucky I was to have not had to move out of my family home until I had nearly graduated from college. But this clarity and perception of what was happening has only come to me after having been removed from that time period, and I am hopeful that the same will be true for Manziel, though by then I am afraid it might be too late.
Let me pose you all a question. How often after a tragic event happens to a celebrity or someone who is perceived to “have it all” do we all say “it’s always the happy ones” or “no one saw it coming”? I did not anticipate Junior Seau, a Hall of Fame linebacker with thousands of adoring fans, committing suicide as he unsuccessfully grappled with his life post-football. The point is, it’s not “always the happy ones,” it is always the ones that are perceived as happy from the outside, from fans, and from the media. As unfortunate as this is, Wright Thompson’s brilliant article on Manziel and his family have made it obvious: A tragic event may be coming. There are signs, the writing is on the wall, and yet no one is letting up. Everyone who writes about him continues to push him further and further to the brink. Why? Because he won a Heisman trophy? Because he tries to escape his own persona by living a normal college life? Because he makes mistakes??
I realize many people think Manziel is spoiled, and as a result have absolutely no sympathy for him. After all, he and his family are wealthy, if he wants something he can buy it, and even if he doesn’t succeed as a NFL quarterback he likely won’t ever be working two low-paying jobs just to pay the electric bill. But isn’t there an old adage that money doesn’t buy happiness, or did I just make that up? Just because you or I – complete outsiders as it pertains to Johnny Manziel’s life – think to ourselves, “Wow, if I had everything he has then I would be very happy with my life,” doesn’t mean that Manziel is happy. That likely has everything to do with his perspective as well as your own, but I don’t think there is anyone who has read an article about him that would argue that he doesn’t seem like he is troubled, or perhaps even deeply troubled. I have no proof of this, but I believe Manziel is partying and trying to have fun to escape the reality that he has stumbled into. And you know what? I don’t blame him. I’ve never been under nearly the same microscope that Manziel has been under, and yet I have gone out and partied to try to deal with the stresses of my life in a similar, albeit likely less extravagant, fashion. This all dawned on me over this past weekend that I spent in Madison, Wisconsin with my best friend since I was in middle school.
I woke up on Friday, July 26th and as I do most days I got up, grabbed my phone, and checked Twitter. I tend to get on Twitter and read my timeline like a personalized newspaper, catching up on things that may have happened over the hours that I was sleeping. It may seem ridiculous, but there have been many nights I have gone to bed at 2:00 or even 3:00 am and woken up the next morning behind on a story regarding a suspension, an arrest, or even at times, a death. That was the case on the morning of July, 30th when I woke up and saw an ESPN alert that Texas A&M’s Polo Manukainiu, and incoming Utah Ute Gaius Vaenuke had tragically lost their lives in a one vehicle accident.
However, last Friday, something much different happened. I looked at my Twitter notifications and to my shock and awe David Pollack, an ESPN analyst and member of the College Football Gameday crew, had followed me on Twitter. This may not seem like a big deal to you, but it was to me. I watched Pollack dominate the SEC as a Georgia linebacker as I was growing up, and I watched him blossom into a very good NFL player prior to his career ending neck injury. I was relieved to see him land on his feet with ESPN and continue to be involved with football, something not all football players manage to do after their careers end whether on their own terms or someone else’s. Not only was I honored to have him follow me at all, but he was just shy of 95,000 followers (he has since exceeded that total) and follows under 100 people. It absolutely blew my mind, and I really couldn’t wrap my head around it. I immediately texted my best friend, asked him what he was doing this weekend, and in minutes it was decided that I would be heading up to Madison, Wisconsin – one of the country’s greatest college towns – to hang out with him on his last full weekend before he went back to school. I needed to get away and share the absurdity not only of David Pollack following me on Twitter, but of Bomani Jones, a man I have been reading and watching on ESPN First Take since I was in high school (if not longer) following me on Twitter two weeks beforehand. I may not have been Johnny Manziel but, not to toot my own horn, I felt like I was getting popular on Twitter. I began to think about whether or not I should get a personal account for my high school and college friends to interact with me on, something I never thought I would do, that I honestly thought was a ridiculously egotistical thing for anyone to do when I first created my NFL Draft Blog and Twitter account. “Why would I ever need a personal account and a professional one? Will I ever be that egomaniacal?” It seemed absurd to me, and yet here I was, contemplating the very thing that just a few years ago I practically swore I would never take myself seriously enough to do.
Both fortunately and unfortunately, the craziness did not end there. I went out with my best friend and some of his friends from college and had a great night. It really helped me get out of my own head. I woke up at 8:00 am the next morning, and while my friend slept in the other room, I began working on my Arkansas Razorbacks prospect preview by watching their entire Spring Game on YouTube prior to watching the games I have on my external hard drive. I completed my evaluations of about half of the players that I wanted to include in the preview, but decided to delve deeper into my evaluation of Travis Swanson, Arkansas’ highly touted senior center prospect who I have seen regarded as the top center in this class. He has all the size, football IQ and leadership capability you could want in a center, so without having scouted him it made sense that he would be discussed in such a way. However, upon watching him play I was disappointed. I expected a 1st or 2nd round player, but I felt like I was watching a 4th rounder. That shouldn’t sound like an insult (though I realize it likely comes off that way) because being drafted at all is a monumental accomplishment. I elected to tweet my thoughts about Swanson being a “mid-rounder”, not knowing what would ensue that afternoon.
A local TV reporter in Arkansas happened to see my tweet and in his response he casually mentioned that my opinion of Swanson seemed to fly in the face of what the Razorbacks’ new head coach, Bret Bielema, seemed to think of the senior center. We had a brief, civil discussion, and as a result I received tweets from a few Arkansas fans eager for me to further explain my position. Understandably so. I continued to watch Arkansas games to further improve my evaluation of Swanson as well as the rest of his teammates that I was including in the preview, when all of a sudden I saw a new interaction pop up on Twitter. I paused the game, opened the Twitter tab on my laptop, and to my complete surprise, Bret Bielema had seen the tweet, looked at my Twitter page and sent a response. Without quoting it directly, he essentially insinuated that because I was a “former” draft analyst at the web site NFL Draft Monsters (where I cut my teeth in my coverage of the NFL Draft) my opinion should not be trusted, and that his evaluation of his center was correct. I was not offended by this, rather I enjoyed the confrontation and another insinuation that I simply didn’t know what I was talking about. I thrive in those situations as Alex Holmes and his family found out when they attacked my credibility as it pertained to my evaluation of his brother, Khaled Holmes, after I projected him as a 4th round draft pick in June 2012 prior to his being drafted in the 4th round of the 2013 draft. I simply couldn’t believe that Bielema, the former head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers (whose town I was staying in for the weekend) and the new head man of an SEC football team had taken the time to look at my Twitter profile and respond to my tweet, even if it wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence in my skills as a draft analyst. I respectfully responded and, as I expected, received no response from him, but that didn’t stop a number of angry Arkansas fans from calling me a hater, looking through my past scouting reports to find guys that I had missed on, or simply telling me I had no idea what I was talking about. My phone went off with new tweets for the rest of the afternoon, as well as text messages from friends who thought it was absolutely hilarious that I had ruffled Bielema’s feathers enough to get a response out of him.
As the night wore on I went out to have some fun and get my mind off of this new Twitter interaction, and after a couple particularly specific shots at my credibility I responded to a couple of angry Arkansas fans in a less than professional manner. I didn’t swear at them, but I did use a heavy dose of sarcasm and I was less than nice to them. I was tired of being attacked, particularly since they hadn’t even gotten to read my analysis of Swanson because I hadn’t even written it yet! The next night I again went out with my friends and had fun, but unfortunately got in an argument with a Vikings fan who disagreed with my selection of David Fales in a Twitter mock draft I had been participating in. He wasn’t being very respectful, and I was pretty short on patience after my bout with the unhappy Arkansas fans the day before, so I wasn’t very respectful back. It was just another ridiculous Twitter interaction, and I was starting to get overwhelmed by the whole thing. This was capped off beautifully by gaining a number of influential followers who were beat writers or reporters in Arkansas and Kentucky following discussion of the Razorback prospects and the release of my Kentucky Wildcats prospect preview on Monday, July 29th. That same day, I was followed by Chris Smith and Trey Flowers, two very talented starting defensive ends on the Razorbacks, just days after their coach insinuated I wasn’t exactly credible. The brightest moment of all was, without a doubt, one of my all time favorite players, Alge Crumpler, following me on Twitter. Crumpler was a star tight end on the Falcons back when Mike Vick was on the team, and I have been a huge fan of his for at least the past ten years. Seeing him finally follow me on Twitter was a huge moment for me, and yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds. But later, to top it all off, I got dragged into a pissing match that a New York Post beat writer found himself in after mistakenly tweeting about the read option being a formation, rather than just a play. If you had told me on Thursday night when I went to bed that within the next four days I would be followed by all those people, tweeted at by Bielema and involved in any of those absurd arguments, I would have told you that you were crazy. And yet…here I was.
I am telling you all of this not to try to put you to sleep, not to try to act like I am a hot shot, but to get all of this off my chest in what I consider to be a safe space on my blog. I may not be proud of this, but all of that overwhelmed me. I began to realize that I couldn’t just tweet whatever I wanted without ever having to face the consequences of the things or people I was tweeting about seeing my thoughts. I finally understood that I had to be more professional on Twitter, and though I had learned those lessons previously, I had never learned them as intensely as I had this particular weekend. And finally, I am telling you this because this is the context that I needed to paint for you so that I could prove to you that in some miniscule, fraction of a way, I think I understand how Johnny Manziel feels.
I have spent thousands of words trying to explain why I think I understand how Manziel feels, and yet even as I type it that sounds ridiculous to me, as I’m sure it sounds just as ridiculous to all of you. Yet I still believe it anyway. I have not felt the pressure he has, nor have I been attacked the way he has been, but on a microscopic level I have experienced a small fraction of what he has. I have let my frustrations get the better of me after reading too many negative tweets, I have lashed out at people who I felt have criticized me unfairly, and I have tried to get away from it all by surrounding myself with trusted friends who, as much as I want them to, didn’t understand what I was going through. Doesn’t that sound, just a little bit, like what Manziel is dealing with?
I have spent a lot of time trying to legitimize my claim that I get where Manziel is coming from, but now it’s time to delve deeper into what he is dealing with. It is clear to me that Manziel has stumbled into this fame without knowing exactly what to do with it, and before he knew it, partially because he was barred from interacting with the media per Kevin Sumlin’s coaching policy, Johnny Football took off and no one got to know the man behind the mask. I see people criticizing his maturity, lambasting him for poor decision making, and shredding him for how he carries himself. I see people call him cocky, arrogant, spoiled, and various other adjectives. But how many of you reading this had your life figured out at 20 years old? How many of you were vastly more mature than Manziel is at the ripe old age of 20? I certainly wasn’t. I might have thought I was at the time, but I like to think I’m smart enough now to realize that I wasn’t. I made mistakes. I screwed up. But most importantly, I learned from it. I can’t speak to whether Manziel is learning from it or not, but for his sake I hope he is. And if he hasn’t yet, I have faith that as he gets older and hopefully wiser that he will.
So is Johnny Manziel just a kid too immature for the fame he has stumbled into? Or is he a metaphor for all of college football and our society in general? We have this very talented 20 year old kid who we should be cherishing for his mesmerizing play on the football field, yet all we ever talk about is him going to courtside basketball games, going to fraternity parties, putting up pictures on instagram or tweeting things he should probably keep to himself. He is making Texas A&M and the NCAA millions of dollars, he helped Kevin Sumlin get a $1 million raise, and Texas A&M is building a new stadium, yet all Manziel has gotten out of the deal is largely unwanted limelight and near constant attacks on the content of his character. Not that he needs the money, but he is clearly a precious product on the field, yet he benefits from his performances much less than those running the show around him. He is such a bright light on the field, yet all the attention he receives off of it threatens to smother that light until it burns out. As a society and as a collective media shouldn’t we at least consider giving him a break?
Maybe it’s not fair to think that someone who has achieved so much at such a young age should even have a chance for, much less deserve, a break like that. But the more I hear about Manziel the more I keep thinking back to Ryan Leaf. Leaf was considered arrogant to a point that people disliked him, he was consistently getting in trouble off the field, and after he retired a complete disappointment he was indicted on burglary and controlled-substance charges in Texas in May of 2009. In March of 2012 he was arrested on burglary, theft and drug charges in his home town of Great Falls, Montana. Then, four days later, he was arrested again on burglary, theft and two counts of criminal possession of dangerous drugs. He was sentenced to seven years in custody of the Montana Department of Corrections, but he continued to cause trouble, including threatening a staff member and violating the conditions of his drug treatment placement. He was clearly a very troubled young man, and he never got his life together. As a result, he ended up in jail. Can’t you say similar things about Jamarcus Russell? Or Maurice Clarett?
Yes, they brought this on themselves, and Manziel has brought this on himself as well, but even in spite of all he has accomplished, all the fame he “enjoys” every day, and all the money he could potentially make, I feel bad for him. He clearly doesn’t want all of this attention if you ask me. I think he wants to be a normal college kid, and I think he wants to be able to have fun and play football. But his immense success has taken that away from him, and that’s something that is hard for people to understand. They see him win games and they see him partying and think “wow, that kid has it all” but I think he parties to try to escape his own celebrity, or to at least try to wrangle it. I think that way because I think that is exactly what I would do if I was in his shoes. The world is obsessed with “Johnny Football” the electrifying athlete who beat Alabama as a freshman, was the 5th player to ever pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 more in the same season, and the only freshman to ever win the Heisman trophy in the history of the award. But they do not know Johnny Manziel the person, they only know some of the infamous things he has done off the field while he tries to escape or hide from the insatiable demand for updates on his whereabouts or activities from any news outlet you can think of. I would bet you $1,000 that all Manziel wants right now is some time to himself with his friends, with his family, without having to worry about someone taking a picture of him having fun, and without having to worry about being swarmed by strangers trying to catch a glimpse of his greatness. It’s hard to explain, and even harder for a normal person to understand, but I think that sometimes when you want something so bad for so long and you finally stumble into it you realize that it isn’t exactly what you thought it would be and it’s harder to control than you ever could have imagined. I think Manziel is finding that out right now.
It is for that reason that I am hoping and begging all of you to collectively give Manziel a break. Will that actually happen? No, it almost certainly won’t. But amidst all the overzealous analysis of his character without ever having spoken a word to him, amidst all of the criticism of how he carries himself off the field, and amidst all of the constant discussion about him and his future I would feel remiss if I didn’t at least voice my opinion on the matter and say that I am worried about him. I am worried that as the attention he garners from the media continues to intensify it will push him closer and closer to the edge of the cliff, and I don’t know what is waiting for him if he falls off of it. Drugs? Alcoholism? Jail time? Death? I have no idea what it could be, but I know I am not alone in worrying about him now that I have read Thompson’s article, which involves his parents openly agonizing about what will happen to him if he doesn’t mature and if this pressure doesn’t let up. I don’t want to find out what happens to him either, so I am hoping that Manziel finds a way to block out the pressure, live his life, and mature. I’m only 23 years old and I can’t imagine the pressure he is under, and I can see minute similarities between him and myself aside from the major difference in athletic ability and fame. I still have a lot of growing up to do, and so does Manziel, especially because he is three years younger than I am. If I was in his position I would want people to cut me some slack, and even though from a NFL Draft perspective he is raising a lot of red flags, the last thing I am thinking about right now is his NFL Draft stock. I am more worried about him as a person, and if he can’t find a way to cope with all of this pressure I think he is going to crack like Ryan Leaf did, although perhaps not in the same exact manner.
When he officially declares for the NFL Draft we will cross that bridge and discuss his draft stock, but for now I’d rather just appreciate all of the talent he has and marvel at what he can do on the football field. Shouldn’t we enjoy what we have in Manziel before he is gone? And more importantly, shouldn’t we focus on the positives and try to give him the benefit of the doubt for some of his shortcomings? Wouldn’t you want someone, or everyone, to do that for you if you were in his position? Haven’t people given you second chances in life, looked past any of your shortcomings, and given you the benefit of the doubt? I know I have, and I still believe in the golden rule that you should treat others the way you want to be treated. So tell me, are you treating Manziel the way you would want to be treated if you were walking a mile in his shoes? If you aren’t, maybe you should reevaluate how you perceive his situation. Like most things, it’s not as black and white as “he’s a hero” or “he’s a villain.” He is just Johnny Manziel, and he deserves a break.