I have a memory of Johnny Manziel that lives beyond the false hype, that survives after the Browns and the burnout and the parties and the young gun going so suddenly from hero to cautionary tale, and it goes in my mind like this: Manziel, a lone light against a daunting and unstoppable 2013 Alabama team, reeling off touchdown after touchdown, scorching magic against Nick Saban and his stable of future NFL players, the phenom phenomenal even in what turns into a loss against a better, bigger, stronger, faster team.
I can still hear the fans watching the televisions around the restaurant, audibly expressing their awe like me. I remember Manziel's sure poise, his fresh face and undaunted game, and the cheers and shrieks as he nearly and single-handedly led that Texas A&M team to a stunning win.
That, always, is key to Johnny Manziel's hold over us, and himself, and the game of football that propelled him so early to such heights and, it turns out, to such a long and arduous fall.
He nearly beat Alabama that year.
He nearly showed flashes of that same competitor's grit and greatness in the NFL. He nearly turned his TMZ-style stardom into the kind of real star power reserved for a very, very few.
He nearly got sober in time.
The glorious and sudden rise has given way to a painful, slow and it now seems sure slide into ugliness. The latest news seems simply more predictable steps on a journey that over its course and in looking back was inevitable: A week ago, his own father called him a "druggie" and lamented the possibility of having to simply bury him, a goner not just in sports but in life. His own attorney in a domestic violence case inadvertently sent the defense's strategy to the Associated Press and, among other things, bemoaned his client's inability to stay sober. And now, from Cabo, Manziel pledging like some sad and broken cliche to stop the partying and drinking and God knows what on July 1. That going cold-turkey is as simple as sputtering the vow to get clean.
And, on Thursday, the NFL announced Manziel faces a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
If he ever lands another job in the league.
If he'd stayed in college longer. If he'd hung with the right people. If he'd controlled, just a little, his appetites. If someone, maybe anyone, other than the Cleveland Browns had drafted him. If he'd burst onto the scene a little more slowly. If we -- you, me, all of us -- had taken a little bit less interest.
That's a well-known and painful word for those of us who have dealt with the dread, guilt and reality of a loved one inflicted with this kind of disease. For Manziel there was an additional burden. He was a young nobody who sprung in bright colors and under the bright lights of our popular culture's most grueling spectrum of fame. Suddenly, he belonged to all of us.
One day, no one. The next day, Every Man.
He was football version's of a child star, its first freshman Heisman Trophy winner. Such status rarely goes unpunished. Fame and youth, and our obsessions with such pop culture touchstones who happen to be young and vulnerable, rarely end well. Michael Jackson. Lindsay Lohan. Britney Spears. Macaulay Culkin. The list is long and ugly.
Which is to say this: Manziel did this, like all tortured souls, to himself.
But we helped him along. We did.
I do not know if Manziel will ever play in the NFL again. I hope so, but I've always rooted for him, from that first moment he became a sports figure I couldn't look away from. It was like rooting for yourself. We all like to believe we have a hidden hero, some as-yet-unmasked greatness just ready to burst onto the scene, waiting within us. And we all have demons we try to stuff down, and in this life we try to do the best we can.
Usually our sports heroes remind us of the better end of that spectrum of our days and jobs and lives. But sometimes, as with Johnny Football, they show us the other side.
So as his life plays out for all of us to take in as some kind of television show for our bemusement- and, so far, falls apart - try and do this: Root for Manziel. Root for him because you're rooting for all of us. We all have demons. We all contributed in a small way to this. We all, of nothing else, should root for those who stumbled and couldn't quite recover.