Earlier this week, the Cleveland Browns put NFL fans — and Johnny Manziel — out of their misery by announcing that the troubled quarterback would be released from the organization. It was a liberating move for not just the league’s most destitute franchise, but also for who was once football’s most exciting player, is now back on the open market. For the 31 other general managers in the NFL with the chance to sign “Money” Manziel, the multi-million dollar question has to be asked: Have two years in Cleveland ruined the former phenom forever?
It is hard to fully comprehend the magnitude of Manziel’s catastrophic fall from grace these past two years. For a brief moment during his Heisman-winning season at Texas A&M, Johnny Manziel was seemingly the only football player that mattered in America. For months at a time he dominated ESPN coverage, juking and sidestepping on Saturdays for highlight videos that went viral on Sundays. The sporting community is normally so adept at assigning nicknames — see “Megatron,” “Matty Ice” and “Primetime” — but Manziel was so mind-numbingly good, football fans’ brains malfunctioned and out popped “Johnny Football.” Some might consider his nickname an an excessive display of greatness, but think — when has there ever been a “Charlie Basketball” or “Frankie Baseball”?
It’s because of this former monumental greatness that I refuse to accept a cruel and premature end to Johnny Manziel’s career. If Randy Moss can rise from the ashes of his two years in Oakland to become the best receiver in football on the Patriots, and Michael Vick can return from Leavenworth Penitentiary to make an impact for the Eagles, surely Manziel can find success after Cleveland. A team will eventually sign him — if not for his talent alone, then at least for the profits on his jersey sales to fraternity brothers.
Yet analysts everywhere are convinced his time on the gridiron is up. Shows such as SportsCenter that once dedicated entire programs to presenting Manziel highlights are now pronouncing his career dead, which is ironic seeing how a suffocating media presence is one reason he suffered in Cleveland. Some say it has become too hard to look past his off-the-field issues, especially his abuse of drugs and alcohol. TMZ still airs a sports division today thanks to the myriad screw-ups Manziel had as a Brown, and he appears on Total Frat Move’s website more than any other “bro” alive. Perhaps, in a cruel twist of fate, the same digital age that spawned hype for Manziel may have delivered the death knell to his career.
I sincerely hope that is not the case. People talk about the kind of athletes that bring people together. Legends like Jim Brown, Jerry Rice and Joe Montana bind an entire generation together with nostalgic talks in local bars and family rooms, reminiscing about the time he did this or he won that. During a brief period at Texas A&M, Manziel was one of those special athletes of our generation. Thirty years from now, people will still talk about Manziel’s enthralling upset of Alabama in 2012. I’ll pull up clips of Manziel hurling touchdown passes and boogying in the open field for my kids to see. Each year the game of football gets more structured as offensive coordinators continue pursuing a perfect winning formula. We may never see artistry like Manziel’s again.
To experience the thrill of Johnny Football recaptured on the NFL stage would be nothing short of magical. Five years ago people didn’t think a dual-threat, school-yard quarterback had a place in the run-heavy, defense-driven Southeastern Conference — and then Johnny shattered SEC records for total touchdowns and total yards accumulated by a quarterback. Today, people hold the same claim in the NFL — quarterbacks with an artistic flair and a tendency to flirt with disaster have no place in a league with such concrete formulas for success.
Maybe Johnny will go the way of Tim Tebow and be considered unfit talent-wise for the NFL. Maybe, with some mentorship behind a solid veteran quarterback, he will be the next Steve Young. Maybe he will show up on TMZ tomorrow and have no choice but to fade quietly out of the public sphere for a while. Johnny being Johnny, there’s no way to tell which way he will go. One thing however is certain: Twenty years from now, there is guaranteed to be an ESPN 30 for 30 about Manziel. It’s up to him to determine, and to us to wait and see, whether the documentary will focus on the feats of Johnny Football or the failures of Johnny Manziel.
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