The real education of Johnny Football is just beginning. So he better enjoy all the clowning while he still can. He’s about to learn there’s no more wearying job in sports than being a marked man all the time.
For starters, you’re always looking over your shoulder for the next guy trying to make his name. It’s dispiriting, too, hearing nothing but boos on the road and knowing that even the guys who are supposed to have your back think of you as a calculated risk.
A few athletes have done it well for a while. But you can count on one hand how many of those — Ty Cobb comes to mind — parlayed the role into a long and productive career.
At the moment, sure, it seems like nobody can stop Manziel.
The NCAA whiffed on its shot and Rice — Texas A&M’s opening opponent — turned out to be overmatched. And this weekend’s opponent, Sam Houston State, arrives straight from the tomato-can division.
Neither A&M’s chancellor, a fanboy named John Sharp, nor it’s coach, Kevin Sumlin, who got a big raise riding the Johnny Football wave last season, are inclined to change a thing about him. He brings in too much money. Judging by recent remarks from his father, Paul, even Manziel’s parents have given up.
One referee in last Saturday’s game did his best, slapping Manziel with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the fourth quarter that even Sumlin couldn’t ignore. The coach finally benched his star — after Manziel had delivered three touchdowns, and as many insults, at the expense of Rice’s defenders — and then called it a “foolish penalty.”
“No matter what the comments are, he’s going to face that every week with people chirping. That’s not OK,” Sumlin added, “and obviously I addressed that on the sideline after it happened.”
Of course, that was also after Manziel had apparently mimicked signing an autograph after he got tackled and then pretended to count some cash after throwing a TD.
“If I’d seen that,” Sumlin said about the “autograph” pantomime, “I’d have done something about it.”
But like most coaches, Sumlin wasn’t about to commit to anything until he had a chance to watch the film.
“And if that did happen,” he added, “I will address that.”
Sumlin better — and fast. Next up after Sam Houston on A&M’s dance card is defending national champion Alabama, and you can bet Nick Saban has watched film of the Aggies’ opener more than once already.
The Crimson Tide are still fuming over last year’s upset — at their place no less — and being reduced to bit actors on the stage where the whole Johnny Football drama caught fire.
And don’t think that Saban is beyond teaching the kid a lesson about how exhausting it is to be cast as the villain nearly every time out. Saban could give anyone who asked chapter and verse on the subject. The insatiable work ethic that marks his whole career is a testament to that. Despite three national titles, it still makes him chase each win more relentlessly than the last.
Manziel will turn 21 in December, but even judged by the most charitable standard, he’s headed in the exact opposite direction. He’s avoided real trouble so far, but his offseason yielded a steady stream of questionable choices and annoying distractions. When those things happen, the higher-ups in charge always say they need to get that ballplayer back on the playing field, because that’s their “office,” the one place where they can get away from things that don’t really matter.
Except it’s not, at least not when Manziel is allowed to pull some of the same stupid pranks he did when no one was around to play grown-up. The referees will be watching him more closely and the teams he’ll face will have had plenty of time to look at exactly what made Johnny run and pass so effectively the first time around. His opponents, too, have plenty more buttons to push.
None of this seems to have sunk in with Manziel, no matter how many times those around him protest that it has. Sumlin recalled how just the night before the Rice game, Manziel gave a speech in the locker room stressing “that everyone’s individual actions affect the football team.” Then he went and played as if Manziel meant everyone but him.
Talent is a wonderful thing, and Johnny Football has plenty. It’s gotten him this far. But unless things change, he’s on the front end of what will turn out to be a very short learning curve.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.