By Jason Keidel
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With the NFL mushrooming into a nuclear corporate, sports, and social behemoth, the shards of its power splattered across every corner of society, it’s crossover power has created crossover stars.
Tom Brady isn’t merely a quarterback, or even a football star. He’s an A-Lister, a red-carpet entity whose Q Rating matches his QB Rating. The NFL, with assists Facebook and Twitter and all manner of ADD-friendly devices, has spawned a new galaxy of stars, and hence an equally new fan base.
And thus we have the poster boy of the new media age, an amalgam of snippets and snapshots and Instagrams.
That would be Johnny Manziel, who, like everyone who breaks the membrane of stardom, needs a neat sobriquet. So he morphed into Johnny Football, a pretty sweet handle, really, like the football version of The Natural.
But he’s more than the rare white kid with fast twitch. He’s got the dark side, the leather-jacketed, James Dean 1950s noir, who rides his motorcycle on the edge of reason.
Manziel is not a new concept. But with the proliferation of phone cameras and the ability to post his petulance online in 20 seconds, he is a guinea pig of the new medium of the new millennium. Every movement is framed, recorded, and plastered across cyberspace. And since Manziel’s off-field proclivities rival his reckless style on the gridiron, we don’t know where the person ends and the persona begins.
We see the “stacks of f@*%ing cash” glued to his ear, no doubt learned from Floyd Mayweather, one of Manziel’s new besties burned into his smart phone. Then there’s Justin Bieber, Manziel’s other mentor into the nouveaux world of notoriety. If boxers and pop stars are Manziel’s GPS through the minefield of celebrity, he should tread cautiously.
Manziel isn’t so much a quarterback as he is a walking avatar, an amalgam of media contrivances, as though each media appendage fuels his next stunt. Johnny Football is always in character, his id, ego and super-ego in constant lockstep toward mayhem, as if he’s auditioning for Bad Boy of the Year.
So, of course, he just became Johnny Finger, for the nationally televised, middle-digit he flashed during the Redskins game. Since he’s the most dissected rookie in sports, we need to slap some Freudian handle on his actions. Petulant. Pampered. Arrogant.
Boomer & Carton held court on Manziel, with the the former NFL quarterback far more heavy-handed in his critique, while Carton seemed less vexed by Manziel’s ad hoc version of Hail to the Redskins.
Mike Francesa had his say, too, and lauds the Browns’ decision to start Brian Hoyer over Johnny Football in Week 1 of the regular season. Francesa asserts that someone of Manziel’s star power should know better than to loses his cool over a few loose-lipped barbs from the defense. Mike is right, of course, but it’s hard to imagine such a fleeting infraction costing Manziel the starting gig.
Frankly, if any of us ran into the stratospheric fame Manziel stumbled into on his way to the Heisman, we might emerge a little jaded, as well. Not that we would take it to his preteen extremes. But when we ponder Johnny Footballl, like all mortals who feel they are immortal, we should consider Manziel’s origins.
Manziel isn’t an impoverished kid from the broken nooks of our nation. He didn’t grow up in trailer parks or projects. His family has bank. Long before he was drafted, he was seen courtside with LeBron, backstage with Drake, and always deep inside the velvet ropes of the aristocracy.
Who knows? Maybe the Browns contract was a pay cut. Maybe he doesn’t know how to survive on just a few million. It’s easy to just brand him a brat. But how will he handle humility or humiliation? How will he rise once he is flattened on the cold mud in the third quarter?
But whatever he is, we watch him, either with one excited eye or two cynical eyes. Some of us want him to prosper, some of us want him to be pancaked on his first regular season snap and never come back. Manziel is at that odd axis that all teen idols face. Will he be a child star like Macaulay Culkin? Or will he have the glittering career of Leonardo DiCaprio? Eventually, your pro chops speak louder than any antics.
But for now, he’s good for the sport, much in the way Mayweather is good for boxing. Manziel hasn’t approached the loquacious boxer’s accomplishments, but the truth is young men are no longer satisfied with being craftsmen. And we oblige by watching their every gesture and reading every tweet. With our lives sliced into highlights, we need an hourly fix of a famous person telling us how great they are.
More than ever, today’s celebrity has embraced the old advertising maxim: there’s no such thing as bad publicity. And enough of us must agree, because it sells. But how long will we buy Johnny Football if he doesn’t make it in football? The next six months will go a long way to inflate or deflated the Johnny Football brand.
Is Manziel a viable NFL quarterback? Is he the next Doug Flutie, Fran Tarkenton, or Anna Kournikova of pro football? We’ve seen little this preseason to suggest he’s going to own — or even rent — the NFL. He’s the first QB under 6-foot to be plucked in the first round since 1953. He looks smaller and slower in the league, no longer able to improvise his way to big plays, like he did at Texas A&M.
Manziel has looked gun-shy and has short-armed throws to open receivers, prematurely bracing for the next blast from some swollen lineman. But maybe he’s just learning. Maybe he’s got that thing, whatever it is that makes someone demand the ball and command the huddle.
Either way, we will be watching, because, at least for now, it’s hard to watch football without wondering about Johnny Football.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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