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What Manziel Can Learn From Tyrann Mathieu

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By Chris Mahr

Here we are less than three weeks until the start of yet another ballyhooed college football season, and the star of an SEC team with national championship aspirations has been under fire all summer. Despite his transcendent performances on the field, his seemingly out-of-control, off-the-field behavior has people worried that he’ll never realize his true potential as a player.

Wait a second ... weren’t we obsessing over this same storyline at this exact time last year?

In 2012, it was the trials and tribulations of LSU star CB Tyrann Mathieu — kicked off the Tigers team last August 10th, allegedly for repeated failed drug tests — that dominated the headlines in the month or so before the start of the season. A year later, we can’t stop talking about Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, whether it’s “Autograph-gate” or his struggles with fame.

Besides enduring the same bumps in the road after becoming college football cult figures, Mathieu and Manziel are alike in a lot of ways. They both star (“starred” in Mathieu’s case) on the gridiron in spite of being undersized for their respective positions. They’re both driven by an in-your-face, won’t-back-down attitude — for better and for worse. Heck, their teams are now SEC West rivals as well.

As Manziel continues to deal with all the distractions buzzing around him in advance of the 2013 season opener against Rice (provided that he’s not forced to sit out any games for “Autograph-gate”), he can learn a thing or two from Mathieu, his predecessor in SEC Bad Boy infamy.

No. 1: Drop the Nickname

 

There was a tipping point between the 2011 season and his dismissal from the LSU team that Mathieu stopped becoming “Tyrann Mathieu: Football Player” and allowed his “Honey Badger” alter ego to take over. As my colleague Jim Weber wrote a year ago today, it was similar to how Brian Bosworth lost self-control in the 1980s and allowed “The Boz” to consume him.

When anyone in the spotlight ceases to be a person and becomes more of a caricature, only bad things seemingly happen. The Johnny Manziel we see and read about all the time now is less “Johnny Manziel: Football Player” and more “Johnny F*cking Football.” Like Bosworth and Mathieu before him, he’s letting his alter ego consume him.

Even though most people will initially perceive it as a symbolic move rather than a dramatic life change, Manziel can still do himself a world of good by dropping the “Johnny Football” moniker. Just look at what Mathieu’s been like since he stopped being “The Honey Badger” when he was going through the pre-draft process.

“For me, going forward, I want people to recognize me as ‘Tyrann Mathieu,’ ” Mathieu told reporters shortly after being drafted in the third round by the Arizona Cardinals this past spring. “I don’t have anything against ‘The Honey Badger.’ Honey Badger just happened at such a dark time in my life.”

Focusing more on Johnny Manziel and less on “Johnny F*cking Football” might just prevent the reigning Heisman Trophy winner from having to deal with more damage caused by his alter ego.

No. 2: Make a Mea Culpa

In retrospect, Mathieu’s January interview with ESPN’s Joe Schad was one of the key moments of his rehabilitation process. Why? Because it was the first time he came clean about the damage he had done to himself.

Manziel has yet to have such a moment. Wright Thompson’s widely talked-about ESPN the Magazine profile on him was revealing, but if anything it only further vilified Manziel as a pampered superstar with potentially self-destructive tendencies. The world needs to hear from Manziel directly — and not his father — about his biggest fears and the reasons why he does what he does.

It’ll make him come across as much less of a caricature and much more of an actual human being. He might not have anything to actually apologize for, but if he shows a genuine interest in appeasement, anyone who holds anything against him will be more willing to forgive him.

No. 3: Shut Up and Play Football

 

This is bound to happen on its own, what with the Aggies’ 2013 season opener against Rice just 18 days away on August 31st. For the first time since A&M’s Cotton Bowl triumph, our focus will be back at least partially on what Manziel does on the field — rather than being entirely about what he does away from it.

All the while, he should hold back from speaking his mind, showing off the accouterments of his privileged life or responding to his “haters,” as he’s so often done in the past. Yes, it’s in his nature to do so, but keeping quiet will give his detractors that much less to criticize him for.

For the most part, Mathieu was pretty good about this between the end of the 2012 season and when he was drafted, but he wasn’t immune to slip-ups — as evidenced by a bizarre Boston Marathon bombings tweet and a pre-draft party (later cancelled) whose flyers billed him as a “first-round pick.”

Manziel’s best means of revenge is to take care of business on the field, and revenge is a dish best served cold. Right now, such a dish for Manziel would be coming out of the oven piping hot; even if he succeeded as a player, he wouldn’t be loved for it.

A key difference between these two SEC stars is that while Mathieu had to rehabilitate his image while sitting out last season, Manziel will more likely than not get to play. Yet how the player formerly known as “The Honey Badger” has gone about his business this year can nonetheless be a helpful template for Manziel to follow.

It’s time to let “Johnny Football” make his exit. It’s time for Johnny Manziel to retake control.

Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.

 
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