Watching Johnny Football Die
He put his thumb on top of his index and middle finger and rubbed them together. "Show me the money!" This was his thing. This is how Johnny Manziel introduced himself to us. This was just college, where certainly he wasn't getting any such money, save for a scholarship funded by the Texas A&M athletic department. What kind of education though? The mind wonders.
Johnny Manziel is the ideal poster boy for the spoiled brat athlete. The problem is, he is really talented. The other problem? He's dying.
That's what friends and family say. In a recently attempted intervention from loved ones, Manziel flipped out and walked away. "They describe Manziel, who is noticeably thinner, as being "reckless with his drug problem recently — even blowing lines (of cocaine) in front of people he barely knows." (TMZ.com) Much like he did to the Cleveland Browns, the team that trusted him to be their future quarterback when they drafted him 22nd overall in the 2012 draft. But Manziel hasn't been that superstar. He hasn't even been serviceable. Really, he hasn't seemed to even be, well...anything.
Where did things go wrong for Manziel? It's hard to know for sure, but coming into that 2012 draft he quickly became one of the most polarizing players in draft history. Sure the talent was through the roof, but the talent is enough to win everyone over. "I don't like his antics. I think he's an arrogant little prick". That's how former NFL coach Barry Switzer felt about Johnny Football. Still, the Cleveland Browns saw enough to trade up and draft him with a first round pick.
From that point on, it would be unfair to describe Johnny Manziel's football career as anything less than a dumpster fire. In one of his first preseason games in 2014, Manziel was fined for throwing the middle finger up in a game against the Redskins. Silly, childish behavior. But that's it, right?
In limited time during his rookie year, Manziel did little to impress anyone, and that includes off the field. His work ethic and commitment were questioned by teammates and coaches. Now just over two years removed from being a first-round NFL draft pick, Manziel is unemployed. Accusations of domestic violence and drug addictions embody the man known as Johnny Football. His attempts at cleaning himself up, though noble as they may have been, were little more than fronts for a man who simply cannot keep himself from being his own roadblock. Not even the Cowboys, who have taken on their fair share of questionable players in their history, have any interest in the former Heisman hero from Texas A&M.
Instinct would have us kick back at the smug million-dollar athlete. Somewhere in life, Manziel was denied something. Something wasn't given to him that was desperately needed. Something that most of us get, which is why we live lives of non-extravagant normalcy, with little drama or need for headlines. Johnny Football was denied the chance to hear the word "no".
And the coddling of such an individual isn't rare so much as it is dangerous. When kids never hear no, when they experience the glamor of the high life when, in reality, they've done nothing to earn it, the sense of entitlement can be overwhelming. Here you have your poster child: a man with more money and fame than he would ever need deciding against doing the hard work it requires to maintain those things in adulthood.
When life as a youngster is not a training ground for life as an adult, you might as well put diapers back on and wobble around on training wheels. This isn't just for prima donna athletes, but for every adult who got by when they were younger without hard work, without humility, and without a square kick in the pants from time to time when they messed up.
This isn't to rail against the riches of a successful life. It's not even to criticize the athlete that wants his cake and the chance to eat it too. Look at Rob Gronkowski. There isn't a bigger frat boy in the NFL, and yet he earns his right to enjoy life because he clearly separates his responsibilities to his work from his personal life. He studies film, lifts weights, stays in shape, and makes meetings on time. He parties, but he recognizes the weight of adulthood in relation to those parties.
Johnny Football isn't there. At least not yet. And by not yet you might as well assume he never will be. Manziel has transformed from life as an annoying football player oozing arrogance to national sports punchline. But we're getting close...too close...to seeing the end of what has been a terrible joke. We're literally watching Johnny Manziel die.
When your employer cuts you, when your agent abandons you, and when your marketing team scrambles for some other athlete to invest in, you know there are problems. Some men will look in the mirror and face them head on. Some, like Manziel, either don't see the problems or simply don't care.
There's a sobering (pun only half-heartedly intended) image of Manziel watching the NFL draft alone seated at a bar. See, until recently, Manziel was a punk. He was a punchline of exaggeration, the star athlete who parties like a frat boy no matter what new responsibilities he has. Now, Johnny Football is anything but that. Sure he parties like few others, but therein lies the problem: Johnny Manziel doesn't understand limits. He's lost control. Johnny Manziel is embroiled in addiction.
Manziel has faced his demons in some ways. He's had some stints in rehab, in private facilities where friends and family could only hope the program worked to drive out the disease Manziel has. So far, nothing has worked. So now we have a case of a guy who was a phenomenal football talent now just trying to survive life while we sit on the sidelines and watch his struggles. This is beginning to get really uncomfortable.
Some friends of mine who have a brother that struggles with drug addiction know all too well the pain it can cause. It's easy to stand outside looking in and tell Manziel what needs to be done. GET YOURSELF TOGETHER. QUIT BEING A MORON. But truthfully, it's not that easy. It's never that easy.
"There's a reason the term "powerless" comes to mind when I think about my brother's addiction," my friend says. "It's one of the terms of the trade of 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous: it's the sixth word of the first step. Powerlessness extends from the user to his or her family, friends, and colleagues in a pretty dramatic way. For example, I have to ask myself if taking my brother out to dinner has an opportunity cost - if I give him a free meal, will he use the money he saved to get high? And does that make me complicit? It doesn't take too long before the spiral of powerlessness turns into a question of agency, and whether there's anything that a loved one has done or is doing that isn't only enabling, but essentially driving the needle into the addict's vein."
Tough love or more love? What does Johnny Football need? It's hard for us to say. What he doesn't need are a million casual sports fans chiming in about the absurdity of his struggles. What doesn't help at all is sitting behind a keyboard and posting a meme of a broken man's failures, of a man painted with embarrassment for the collapse of his career. Johnny Manziel started out as a joke. He was the cause for the rolling of eyes by those of us annoyed with entitled athletes. But to poke fun at who Manziel is now, a hopeless addict, is beyond insensitivity. It's sacking the quarterback and then kicking him while he's down, then taking a picture of him crying and selling it to TMZ.
Seeing athletes as real life people is hard. The brokenness of personal failures evens the playing field and causes us to learn empathy for the men and women who have unworldly talent. For whatever reason, Johnny Manziel, a man of great talent, cannot do what seems so simple to do: get his stuff together. And his struggle now may or may not tie back to the lack of character development in his life when he was younger. That doesn't really matter now. As my friend so eloquently states: "It's important to note that nobody wants to become or stay an addict. In fact, insofar as the addiction masks a deep pain or longing, addiction only serves to further remove the addict from true healing. Johnny Football's off-the-field exploits are really easy to laugh at and even to lambast, but - and this doesn't excuse poor behavior or the deleterious ripple effects of addiction - these are just the symptoms of a larger problem: a young man is desperately in pain."
The next time you see Manziel's pictures posted all over social media, remember you're not being casually entertained by celebrity gossip; you're watching Johnny Football die.