Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Sad Yet Predictable Downfall of Johnny Manziel

I still remember the night I saw Johnny Manziel win his Heisman Trophy. It was an evening where the air was thick because Manti Te'o was present, dead girlfriend story and all. There was another man there, one who's name escapes me that had no real chance of getting the coveted prize of the man holding the football.

Manziel won. He gave an eloquent  speech. Johnny Football was handsome yet didn't seem like the type to love 'em lie to 'em, and leave 'em. Despite his win, he was very humble thanking his family, teammates, and friends. Unlike past recipients, he didn't speak for too long or go on some bizarre tangent. Instead, he made it about the evening, the award, but most importantly, his team.

The Manziel clan was present to support the member of their brood, the one who's dreams they had fostered since he was a small child. Yes, that God fearing little boy from Texas who tossed football in the backyard with his father. The same young man who had a Bible verse on his twitter feed. Johnny had never been to New York before the ceremony either. If anything, he was a wide eyed boy from a state that was once it's own country and still acts as such. He was young, naive, but ready to deliver. There was nothing not to like.

His parents were so proud, especially his father. They had played backyard football since their son was able to walk. Since he was small, Johnny Manziel had admitted to wanting to win The Heisman. Playing throughout childhood and high school, and then ultimately college, he risked injury as his poor mother dreaded every time he was tackled. Each woman who had children felt for her on a visceral level. Yet Johnny Manziel always bounced back with super human strength as most sports heroes of mythic proportion do. And now all the hard work paid off and the childhood dream had become a reality. Heisman winner.....

Everyone in the Best Buy Center melted a little as this down home boy spoke with a voice laced with a gentle but firm Texas twang. He was Johnny Football, the toast of Texas A & M. He was the Aggie's Aggie. And now there were other little boys at home dreaming the same dream watching him intently on the screen.

Johnny's win did not go without controversy that evening. There was scandal about him being  a freshmen, although a red shirted one, which technically made him a sophomore. Everyone had been rooting for Te'o, because his backstory was the most heart wrenching. Yes, the dead girlfriend who was not really dead but didn't exist in the first place. Oh there is never a dull moment in the world of sport.

While I agreed he was young yet to win the award, he was indeed ready. Adrian Petersen, who had been nominated as a true freshmen, should have won the year Matt Leinart won in my opinion. However, although Petersen left after his junior season he stayed two more years and developed into a power house. Johnny Manziel was a good college quarterback, and actually by a lot of standards the best. We felt his future would be as bright as his mega-watt smile. But was he pro-ready, truth, after winning the Heisman so early in the game probably not.

At the time, unlike now, Manziel had a nice girlfriend and they seemed to have a semi-healthy, not so codependent relationship. One who was a beautiful model, but not one who was offensively clingy and clearly wanted a meal ticket. She seemed to like him and they got along. Sure they were young and things and that age don't last. At the time I thought, "Go, Johnny go!"

Stories began to emerge about another Johnny Manziel, one who would not hold his liquor let alone control his temper. The Texas boy had a dark side like we all do. Pre-Heisman, he had gotten into a drunken fight while helping a friend who felt the need to yell a racist slur at a person of Mexican descent across the way. When things got heated between his friend and the stranger, Manziel stepped in the middle and according to some even exchanged a few punches as well. Needless to say things didn't look good for the lad when he handed the cops a fake ID with a fake name, aka a pass to drink illegally under aged.

Manziel apologized for not only his conduct but the incident in general. He claimed he  changed his ways. Manziel was a young man who probably was ignorant about the fact that alcohol brings out the proverbial jerkoff in all of us. His coach, a Cus D'Amato type, banished Manziel to the field and made sure he literally never left the stadium. This man understood the likes of the Manziel's and knew the only time they couldn't find trouble is when they were focused and training. Johnny Manziel made a mistake. We never said he was perfect. People were quick to forgive and even quicker to cheer him on as he delivered victory for his school.

In Texas football is king, and Johnny Manziel was now ruler of the sphere he unofficially governed. In a culture where Jock worship is the norm, Johnny began to run with the ball, but this time in a way that wasn't good. Translated, he began to believe his own hype. Akin to the actor or comedian who has had only one major break, he began to believe the sun rose and set on his presence, and the people around him were not telling him any different. However, what Johnny didn't realize is that success is not built on one break or victory but many. Instead of being humble and continuing to work hard like some past Heisman winners, winners who were a little older and more level headed when they got the award, this hayseed cowboy was content to rest on his laurels.

Tales began to emerge from College Station about partying to the point where he literally lived in the frat house, drinking from noon until night. Gone was the beautiful, level headed girlfriend and replacing her were an army of women, all opportunists who readily took advantage of the oft inebriated football star. In his haze, Manziel forgot that with great power comes great responsibility. Just as the world had watched him when he won his Heisman, now they were watching his every move. The photos began to pop up on blogs. People excused him that he was young, stupid, and ignorant about his status, behaving like a normal college man. While I believe this to be true, bloggers were brutal nonetheless.

The stories got worse. Manziel began to behave like Diana Ross, simply showing up to practice when he wanted to. This included but was not limited to bratty tweets and oversleeping at The Manning Passing Academy which resulted in an early departure. He had already won the most coveted prize in college ball, so perhaps he felt he was above any and all rules. Instead of curbing his behavior when warned, as he was beginning to be a pain to the A & M athletic program and an embarrassment to the very award he won, Johnny continued. It's not that he was stupid and didn't get it, rather he was too young to understand.

Johnny Manziel was given the world on a silver platter, and instead of carrying it gracefully like Atlas, he was dropping it because the weight was crushing him. Signs of further trouble began to show themselves when Manziel was accused of selling autographed photos of himself. He did not help he cause as he posted photos of himself on social media flashing dollar bills. The NCAA did an investigation, and while Manziel was cleared for the most part, he was suspended for the first half of the game against Rice.

During football games, the practice of trash talk is nothing new. I know from years of seeing my own brother on the starting line. The pre-play dirty dozen included one opponent player mimicking someone signing something with his fingers in order to rattle Manziel.  Instead of being mature enough to ignore the young man and save his fury for the play, Manziel got into an altercation. When my father heard he said, "He's a young man with a bad temper. If he wants to continue, he needs to grow up a little bit."

Manziel felt he was pro-ready after his sophomore season.  When Manziel announced his intentions to prematurely leave college and enter the draft not only did I sense doom, but I smelled it as the center dish cooking that would become the main course for Johnny Football's future.  It was reminiscent of a conversation my sister and Janet Hill, mother of Grant Hill, had. Young players were leaving high school or dropping out of college to enter the pros in droves. Mrs. Hill scoffed, "Stay in school. Learn how to play ball. I don't want to watch you learn how to play ball."

 Manziel had talent, no one was disputing that. However, in no way was he truly ready to be a pro quarterback. While he was good, he had still some work to do before he was pro ready. His attitude had become rather abysmal, and no NFL coach was going to tolerate his diva-like behavior, especially such antics coming from someone who had not dawned an NFL championship ring on his finger. Johnny Manziel had grown used to an environment where he could get away with anything. He was a college kid enjoying the party. Mr. Manziel was a college kid who was not ready for the strain, stress, and reality of the working world.

Yes, working world. The NFL is a different animal. Just as a successful high school player does not make a successful college player, the same goes with the pros. Most college players do not last in the pros, only a very small number. While the odds are not totally impossible, one can be great but one must be ready when the time comes. The pros are a world where one's body is truly their instrument because it's how they make their living. Practice is serious business, and losing is not tolerated because the franchise loses money if they don't sell tickets. While the antics of some players are tolerated, most of the time if they embarrass the team they represent they are given the boot because the team doesn't want to lose sponsors. Again, it's a job. Also, if you misbehave the world is in your business moreso than when you were just a Heisman winner. If public opinion turns against you, it could be a nail in the coffin and kill your career before it truly ends. It's a lot of pressure to be great. Yet a lot of guys do it because they are adult men when they make their ascension to the ultimate arena of the modern day gladiators.

Of course, while it is hyped up in the press about famous NFL party animals, they are the exception. Many live healthily because as I explained their body is their instrument. There are some with quick tempers like Mr. Manziel, but they reserve that for the field. An injury could end everything, especially in a frivolous fight in time not on the field. Even if a star returns after injury or suspension, there may have been someone who took his place. Someone better. Someone who was just waiting to shine and finally just did. Someone who wanted the job and got it and now isn't letting go. Someone who wanted the promotion.  I said promotion. I said job. This was a formula that the very sheltered, very naive Johnny Manziel didn't understand as he was in a rush to have something happen before it's time.

There are a lot of reasons for this.  While athletics is a nice ticket, things do happen that end the dream long before it's starts. One such story is the brother of a very good friend of my dad's. While this man was released from the Miami Dolphins after breaking his leg, he has since gone on to earn millions of dollars in real estate and has a posh home in New Jersey. It was because he was smart enough to major in economics in college and to get a four year degree. While everyone's story is different, one never knows what the future might bring, good or bad.

Of course when one is in the NFL draft and they are calling the names of those picked, they don't want to entertain the darkening of the crystal ball. As John Lennon says, "Life is what happens when you are busy making plans."

When I made my rather pessimistic prediction, many of my male friends scoffed at me. They told me Johnny Manziel had to strike while the iron was hot. If Manziel got hurt in college, this could any end hopes of any NFL career. While I understood there point, Manziel is not a female athlete. More or less, women athletes especially have to capitalize off the small wrinkle in time they have. However, as a male athlete they are likely to peak well into their twenties if not early thirties. As a matter of fact, there are some young men who grew until they are 21.

Immediately, and not to my pleasure, my prediction proved correct. To say Mr. Manziel was inconsistent was an understatement as he dawned his jersey as starting QB for the Cleveland Browns. For starters, and to the ironic chagrin of my male friends, he was injured out of the gate. The athletes Manziel was up against were not same age males, but rather specimens in tip top physical shape, some on steroids even, and he got eaten alive. On top of that, Manziel could not control his temper on the field, and the opposing teams took advantage of this weak hand as he continued to show it. Manziel had not a clear thought in his head, and was a mere pee wee dawning a pro jersey not ready to play with the big boys.

At first the Brown's franchise was semi-forgiving of his lackluster, insistent showing on the field when he wasn't injured. However, he proved rather problematic and a PR nightmare in real time as well.  For starters, there were the alleged concussions when he in reality he showed up to practice drunk. Then there were times he was busy partying instead of being with his team. Mind you he also threw a water bottle at an autograph seeker when playing at a celebrity golf tournament. Johnny Manziel was nothing short of a lush, and one who found trouble like a squirrel finds acorns.

On top of that, Johnny found a girlfriend named Colleen Crowley. Whether she wanted to leech off his fame or help the troubled star we don't know. However their relationship was turbulent at worst and codependent at best. First a cop pulled Manziel over, and discovered the two of them fighting, and according to some reports Manziel may have even physically assaulted her. Because of the heat the NFL has gotten post Ray Rice, he was scratched from his starting position and benched. Manziel's woman troubles did not stop there.

According to another report, Manziel pulled Ms. Crowley into a car by her hair, and told her if she left he would kill her and then himself. While many of Manziel's alpha male fans as well as his family members blame this girl for his downfall, this is hardly Ms. Crowley's fault. Unfortunately dating violence is a two way street, and this enabling was only leading Mr. Manziel further down a terrible trajectory. These were two kids playing house and the Easy Bake Oven exploded. However, one was famous and the other wasn't. And the famous one was no longer a cute kid, but rather a pain in the ass one that was costing the Brown's franchise money, embarrassment, and continually under performing.

Slowly, everyone began to wash their hands of Manziel. First his agent let him go, and then his manager. Finally, the Browns ultimately announced their decision to release him. Manziel has said he wants to go to the Cowboys, but what makes him think the Cowboys want an overgrown playbaby who can't hold his liquor? They had Michael Irving after all, but Michael Irving knew how to win on the field. Either way, it is safe to say Manziel is snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

It's interesting to get perspective on Manziel from long time football fans. My landlord told me that someone else would grab Manziel up because of his talent, and because a lot of men, especially those in the draft could not be pro-quarterbacks. He said in his time he has seen a lot come and go, and there were very few naturally as talented as Manziel.

While this might be true, Manziel has proven to be more drama than he is worth. It is like any job, if you can't do it you get the axe. In the curtains there is yet another class of greats ready to storm the field and leave their mark. In there might be a Heisman winner akin to Joe Montana, and that person might not only be adult enough to handle the responsibility, but less of a headache able to deliver on game day when it counts. Translated, Johnny Manziel unknowingly put himself out to pasture, the glue factory, the bone yard, the place where washed up quarterbacks go long before his time.

My landlord said something else that I thought was interesting and felt held very true.  He said in his lifetime, the best quarterbacks were always backups first, and for years at a time. They not only learned the game at the NFL level from the sidelines, but eased into the stress of the professional sports environment. Therefore, they were mentally and physically ready when they won the Super Bowl. These days, he told me, they now threw them in the game to sink or swim, to see if their million dollar investment was worthy before even breaking it in. While the likes of Cam Newton rose to the occasion, others like Robert Griffin III did not cut the mustard. If anything, the NFL was a willing, wanton, and know nothing conspirator in this melodrama.

And then there may have been personal things going on with Mr. Manziel and his very public meltdown. One might be the the fact that he is suffering from a case of burn out, pure and simple. We see it all the time in professional sports. Vanessa Atler was perhaps the best gymnast in her generation, but was plagued by injures and eating disorders. Ultimately, the world saw her meltdown the day of the Olympic Trials on live TV. Even outside of sports there is the case of celebrities like Charlie Sheen and Britney Spears unravel in front of the cameras. The antics are entertaining, that is, until they crescendo into a sad demise like that of Amy Winehouse. As a world we watch and do not help, yet like a massive car pile up we can't take our eyes off of it either.

The sad truth is, Mr. Manziel might have just peaked. Yes, kids, I said it. This might be it for him. Mary Lou Retton and Oksana Baiul were gold metaled and retired by age 18. Granted, as a gymnast and ice skater their time window for success was relatively small. Still, I went to high school with kids who shined academically and athletically only to drop off the map. One young woman I knew from college dropped out after receiving a lead in on Broadway. Then she was on a television show that was ultimately cancelled then left show biz altogether. Now is she married with two kids and not pursuing entertainment in any way. Then there are the slew of one hit wonders. Bottom line, some people shine for that period of time and then it's over, plain and simple.

However, the sting of that reality is even harder for Heisman winners, especially if they are filed under Heisman bust. Yes, former winners who could not smoothly transition into the pros.  The list includes but is not limited to Matt Leinart, Troy Smith, Jason White, and Gino Toretta. Now these shoulda beens show up to the ceremony every year to rehash the good old days, sign footballs, and then have an awkward smile as they broach the subject of what they are up to now. Some even play arena ball, but most of the time that is where most pro dreams go to die.

More of the tragedy comes when it is the case for those people, and they grapple with life in the present, trying to find their place. Maybe, this is the sad case with Manziel. It's over and he knows it.  As a crime psychologist once explained when an overachieving woman went on a killing spree, "Some people are successful as teenagers but the success does not translate to adulthood, and when this happens they are at a standstill."

When people come to such a standstill the experience is frightening. It's like they are trapped in the past never to move forward, akin to Al Bundy speaking about the winning touchdown at Polk High. Others make up lies and pretend they are still doing well when it is all just a fabrication.  I knew a young woman who won a huge award in high school, National Merit Scholarship to be exact. She got married and had kids but wasn't really working. In a newsletter, she claimed she wrote a New York Times Best Selling Book. People even posted to congratulate her.

One small issue, she didn't write the book. Not only had I met the author in passing via social media, but one could go to the local Barnes and Noble and see his name on the spine of the book. While this lie was petty, egregious, and could have gotten her sued for theft of intellectual property, it showed adulthood wasn't as rewarding as she had hoped. She wasn't achieving the brass ring she had as a teen.  Perhaps Mr. Manziel too is looking for that brass ring that was once so easy and now elusive.

The Manziel family is supportive, but yet a supportive family can feel like a burden rather than a blessing. Perhaps by voicing his fears and anxieties, Manziel was afraid of disappointing the people who loved him the most. And perhaps as he moved further into his journey, that same support not only felt like pressure to succeed, but pressure to pretend like he had it all figured out. And in doing this, a terminal uniqueness washed over his life.

However, the mistake of many young people is that they assume their parents don't understand. Maybe they don't "get it," but they have lived long enough to identify. Perhaps the Manziels would have stepped up to get their son assistance sooner had they known what was even going on in the first place.

Feelings are not facts, and thank God for that. Johnny Manziel's support network is strong as ever. Mr. Manziel, the man who was teary eyed when his son gave the legendary acceptance speech, one so humble you wanted to hug him, now plea for the NFL to help his out of control son, the one unable to handle adulthood and the great responsibility thrust upon him. Former NFL players, such as Earl Campbell, have even offered to have a sit down with the wayward star who is quickly burning out and fading in order to save him from complete and utter demise.

The victory of this whole situation is that we live in a society that now looks at addiction as a disease and not a character defect of someone who "can't control themselves." Johnny Football has already taken a stereotypical celebrity trip to rehab. While it can be a punchline, especially if the person suffering is famous, it is also an education that addiction is an equal opportunity offender.

Addicts are all proverbial Johnny Football's, people who were not hard wired to deal with life on life's terms, or life as the rest of the world says. However, the beauty of rehab is not just recovery, but a tool kit for life. Addicts are told that they show up to grow up, or change or die. That's right, change or die. The end result of addiction if untreated is death, and sometimes it is a slow and painful one where others are dragged down as well. And when this happens everyone says the same thing, "They were so brilliant, talented.....what a waste, what a waste."

Perhaps these are the last of his gridiron days. But if that is the case even if Johnny Manziel turns his life around, he might get his dreams in a way he never expected. Some Heisman winners have not retained their glory on the field, but they achieve success in other ways. Tim Tebow was a professional bust but now works as a color commentator on ESPN for college football and lives a complete and happy life. Archie Griffin, the two time winner, did not have the same success in the pros. However, he has found a second wind as an entrepreneur. Only filled with gratitude, Griffin says he is grateful not only for the Heisman but for football in general, because without it he would not have gotten the educational opportunities he did.

Or maybe not. Maybe this just might be another chapter of adversity in a life story of a man who will go on to be one of the greatest to play the game. And maybe people will talk about how he got knocked down, grew up, and turned it around to become a legend. Either way, as a spectator and fan, one who has seen both his rise and fall from grace, it saddens me that he has fumbled so badly in the game of life.

However, just like everyone else, I am rooting for Johnny Football not only to make a comeback, but a touchdown. And as a person with slightly more time on this planet I am hoping it is as a happy, balanced, grownup ready to play as an adult on and off the field. 


  1. This was a good, thoughtful piece combining a solid understanding of football and of humanity. Hopefully he does turn things around and figure out his place in the league and/or the world. I think he's still got time for that.

  2. Me too. I hope and pray he turns it around, poor thing. Either way, I am still a fan. And thank you for reading xo