This time last year 90 percent of college football fans had not even HEARD of Johnny Manziel.
He was a redshirt freshman and just another quarterback in the mix at Texas A&M. The depth chart in the Aggies' 2012 preseason media guide listed "Jameill Showers OR Johnny Manziel OR Matt Joeckel" at quarterback.
I had a couple of conversations with new head coach Kevin Sumlin in the preseason, and in one of them he said: "Jameill Showers was the leader coming out of the spring, but we have a redshirt freshman named Manziel. If we can teach him to throw a little better, he might be able to help us this year."
Kliff Kingsbury, then the offensive coordinator, told me last August: "Manziel is a little different. I think he has a chance to get on the field."
Fast forward 12 months and Johnny Manziel is not only one of the most famous athletes in the world, but through a series of steps and missteps, today the sophomore finds himself intoxicated and ultimately trapped by a TMZ level of fame.
And now comes a report on Sunday that the NCAA is investigating whether or not Manziel took a five-figure payday to sign memorabilia. If he did it, Manziel is looking at a serious suspension at best. Remember that Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green lost four games for selling one of his game jerseys for $1,000. At worst, if he lied to NCAA investigators, he could be done.
There is really no point in fans wringing their hands talking about the injustice of it all and how athletes should be able make money off their signature because everybody else, by God, is making money. That's a valid argument and one that we should have. But it ain't gonna help Johnny Football.
We should have seen this coming.
Last week two very good pieces of reporting and writing, first by ESPN The Magazine's Wright Thompson, and then by Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated, gave us an uncomfortably close look at Manziel's struggles to stay "normal" in what is anything but a normal world that has grown up around him since he became the first freshman in history to win the Heisman Trophy.
Both of these articles paint the picture of an extremely talented young man still trying to grow up under a spotlight that sometimes glows too hot and is always too intrusive. He enjoys the fame when he's sitting court side at the NBA playoffs or throwing out the first pitch at a major league baseball game. He enjoys the fame when he and his dad are playing Pebble Beach (He birdied 18 for a crowd-pleasing 79).
He doesn't enjoy the fame when he gets hammered on Twitter after complaining about College Station when his car got keyed. He doesn't enjoy the fame when video goes viral of him getting tossed out of a fraternity party at his school's bitter rival, the University of By God Texas.
And I'll just bet he's not enjoying the fame right now.
In an age of Twitter, Facebook, and the 24-hour news cycle, Fame is a cruel sword that cuts both ways. Two quotes from Andy Staples' piece summarize where Manziel's head appears to be right now:
"I'm adapting. I'm learning. I'm trying to learn from these mistakes. But I'm not going to change who I am because the media wants me to be this, this or this. I'm not going to do that. ... You love me when I'm running around being dangerous and a loose cannon. What makes me special on the field is what people don't like off the field. I'm still learning how to put that into perspective."
And this one, which also makes it clear that Manziel is having problems with the idea that Fame should change his lifestyle.
"That probably is what's getting us in trouble -- wanting to be normal," Manziel said. "We want to be just like we've always been, where none of this is a big deal."
So from one perspective Johnny Manziel is a victim of his own success and his difficulty of living up to the demands of his media-created persona. Texas A&M, goes this narrative, is getting rich off the kid while Manziel and his parents wonder if he can make it through another year of this madness and not explode. The family doesn't like the fact that the NCAA is all up in their business. So they really aren't going to like what happens next.
Based on these stories, it's pretty clear that the tension that exists between the Manziel family and Texas A&M is significant. But as our Dennis Dodd pointed out earlier Sunday evening, Texas A&M did everything it could to keep the kid from self-imploding.
I'm not here to downplay the pressures of what it is like to be Johnny Football. As Staples points out, the world in which Manziel now lives didn't exist 10 years ago. Most college football fans are as nice as they can be. Others are flat out crazy and will chase celebrities across the street to get something signed. They either don't recognize boundaries or they recognize them and really don't care. What Johnny Manziel and his family are going through is very real.
But another perspective on this issue takes me back to something my father said to me more than once: "Son, if somebody wants to shoot you, don't hand them the gun and the ammunition."
Johnny Manziel is not the first college athlete to reach icon status at an early age.
I was around when Herschel Walker arrived at Georgia in 1980. As an 18-year-old true freshman, Walker led Georgia to an undefeated season and the national championship. I can promise you that no athlete in my lifetime was more adored and mobbed than Herschel Walker was in his three years at Georgia. But thanks to Claude Felton, Georgia's Hall of Fame Sports Information Director, and head coach Vince Dooley, Walker's fame was managed. Walker played two more years of college football after winning the national championship and then turned pro.
"It got to the point where we had to have two state troopers with our traveling party. One for me and one for Herschel," said Dooley, who won three straight SEC championships (1980-82) with Walker as his tailback. "Everybody wanted a piece of Herschel. But he handled those sorts of things so well."
There has never been an athlete more in demand than Florida's Tim Tebow, who played from 2006-2009. He won the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore in 2007 and then played two more seasons for the Gators. But what Florida did -- and we in the media didn't like it at the time -- was put up a wall around Tebow to protect him so that he didn't have to say no to the thousands upon thousands of requests for him to appear in public. And Tebow was willing to live inside those walls.
You don't think the whole world wanted a piece of Bo Jackson when he was playing at Auburn? Jackson played four years of college football, winning the Heisman Trophy in 1985. Bo knew how to handle it because he and his coach, Pat Dye, listened to David Housel, one of the best sports information directors who has ever lived.
Yes the world has changed. The media beast has grown much larger and needs to be fed 24 hours a day. Everybody can be a reporter/gossip columnist with their cell phones. Nothing a high-profile athlete does in public is ignored and most of it ends up on the Internet. I get all that.
The point is that fame, and the demands that come with it from media and fans, cannot be controlled. But it can be managed. You have to have a plan and a client willing to make the adjustments to carry out the plan.
Based on Wright Thompson's reporting, Texas A&M had a plan which included some behavior modification by Manziel. In short, the Aggies quarterback and those around him needed to put up some walls and set some limits. He needed to get off of Twitter, period. Manziel would also see a therapist to deal with his anger and frustration over the issue. In short, the very public life of the 20-year-old quarterback needed to get a lot less public.
The reality, however, is that Johnny Manziel enjoys being Johnny Football. He enjoys sitting at courtside for the NBA playoffs. He enjoys meeting LeBron James and Drake. He enjoys throwing out the first pitch at a San Diego Padres game. There is nothing wrong with any of that.
But on the heels of his early exit from the Manning Passing Academy -- and some people will forever be skeptical about his story (I overslept) on that one -- Johnny Manziel absolutely, positively must know that he CANNOT go to a fraternity party at the University of Texas. That is tempting Fate one too many times. It showed a tone deafness that many people find off-putting.
I don't think Alabama's AJ McCarron goes to frat parties at Auburn. I don't think Tebow spent a lot of time on the Florida State campus knocking back brewskies with his buds.
And Johnny Manziel damned sure knows, whether the rule is fair or not, you can't sign a bunch of stuff that is going to be sold on the Internet.
I really enjoy watching this kid play. He's special. I hope that this turns out not to be true and he has a monster year. I hope he gets back to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation. When the time comes I hope he makes a ton of money in the NFL.
But he has to learn that, at the end of the day, no one is bigger than the game. You have to adjust to the game. The game doesn't adjust to you. And for the elite college athlete, managing Fame and temptation is part of the game.
If he has ignored that fundamental truth, Manziel's college football experience is not going to end well. And that would be a very sad thing to see.