By Chris Mahr
Athletes with transcendent abilities can only get away with being “just” a superstar performer for so long. When the big payoff comes — whether in the form of an award, a championship or some other recognition of their success — they become brands.
Johnny Manziel used to be “just” a quarterback. Then, with every touchdown pass he threw or ran for and every head-turning highlight he generated, he became a quarterback and then some. When he was awarded the Heisman in December, “Johnny Football” was well-known even to people who had never seen a college football game in their life.
That near-universal recognition has come with a cost. No, Manziel isn’t overburdened with the added attention. If anything, he loves the spotlight. But in this age of sports stars as brands, Manziel’s “Johnny being Johnny” habits might not have a place.
“I told them he’s no longer a freshman, and he’s no longer a sophomore, junior or senior,” said Texas A&M athletic director Eric Hyman, when recalling a meeting he had with Manziel’s parents earlier this month. “He is a ‘Heisman.’ It’s (about) education, and we’ve got to help the family and Johnny with the transition into being a Heisman award winner. There are things you have to learn, and we have to help him with that.”
In the immediate sense, Hyman was addressing the pseudo-controversy resulting from Manziel’s visits to an Oklahoma casino and a Dallas nightclub following the Aggies’ Cotton Bowl win. Yet there is something disconcertingly Don Draper-ish about Hyman’s “He is a ‘Heisman’ ” descriptor for Manziel.
Because of Manziel, many eyes were fixated on Texas A&M this past season. All those eyeballs stand to account for more money for the school, more of a national profile in a sport where success is dependent on it. The last thing Hyman or his constituents would want to see is Manziel giving people a reason not to pay attention.
The biggest threat to that, reason dictates, is if Manziel’s off-the-field activities somehow prevented him from suiting up. “If they can keep (Manziel) out of jail or keep him eligible, he’s gonna be pretty good,” said Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops recently. “If they can keep him off the Twitter, he might have 3-4 Heismans.”
Yet that same penchant for mischief — whether it’s sitting courtside at multiple NBA games, cavorting with coeds in a Scooby Doo costume on Halloween or getting arrested for disorderly conduct — is what draws people to Manziel in the first place. They want to see what he does next. And, after all, the only thing Manziel’s been guilty of – aside disorderly conduct – is acting like a college kid.
Don’t take this as me suggesting Manziel should be free to do and act as he pleases, especially if it falls on the wrong side of the law. Rather, what I’m imploring Texas A&M to do is not try and change the way he enjoys himself off the field. If they do that, it’s more likely he’ll continue to enjoy himself and experience success on the field.
Remember that crazy touchdown pass Manziel had in the upset of Alabama? It wasn’t something that you’d draw up or teach — nearly fumbling the ball, catching it mid-air and then firing to an open man in the end zone is improbable, to say the least — but it was a play whose end result was well worth it. It was zany, improvisational and slightly dangerous. In other words, it was vintage Johnny Manziel.
Johnny Football has a gift for playing by the seat of his pants and performing quite well while doing so. No doubt it’s because he’s lived his life by the seat of his pants (and still is) and has, from all appearances, loved almost every minute of it. By threatening to take away the latter, A&M officials run the risk of tampering with the mojo that allows Manziel to make plays like the one above.
The Aggies’ higher-ups can’t be blamed for wanting to capitalize on the Johnny Football Brand. But while doing so, they would be wise not to forget about Johnny Football the player and person – even if both come with a dose of mischief.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.
Photo Credit: Matthew Emmons/USA Today Sports