ESPN's Wright Thompson On Johnny Manziel A.K.A. 'Johnny Football'

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All the attention has worn on Johnny Manziel. (Dave Martin/AP)
2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel has been under intense scrutiny this summer. (Dave Martin/AP)

Since ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer Wright Thompson's profile of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, a.k.a. Johnny Football, a.k.a. the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy came out on Tuesday, other writers have been weighing in on what it all means.  "Johnny Manziel is a drunk," they say. Or "Johnny Manziel is like every young quarterback." Bill Littlefield spoke to Thompson on Only A Game.

BL: Unlike many college athletes who struggle to pay the bills, Manziel grew up in a family that is rich from Texas oil profits. How has that affected his story?

WT: Well, I think that, one, it gives him the resources to do whatever he wants. It also puts the NCAA in a place it’s never been before. It doesn’t know what to make of an athlete that doesn’t need their gift of amateurism. I think their whole myth that these guys are normal college students is on very public display as being a fraud because Johnny can live like some professional athletes just on his own money. This is a total aside: I sort of love that he’s doing it. It’s hilarious.

BL: Johnny Manziel has been in the news a lot this summer. First after leaving the Manning Passing Academy after saying that he overslept. And then after trying to attend a fraternity party at The University of Texas in Austin, which is of course A&M’s rival. Should we be concerned at this point about the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy?

WT: Well, yes, but not because of those two things. I have overslept a flight within the last two years because I’d been out too late the night before. I think the larger concern isn’t any little thing he’s doing. I think it’s the global siege that he isn’t handling well. 'Cause I think all of his lashes out feel to me more like symptoms than a disease. And I think the disease is also the greatest thing in his life: his talent and everything it brings with it.

BL: As much as Johnny Manziel’s parents try to shield him from the pressures that come with the fame and notoriety, they also seem to me to embrace it. They came close to getting license plates that read “JFFMOM” and “JFFDAD” even though the first "F" stands for something we can’t say on the radio.

WT: Yeah, and I think that’s an interesting example because when something like this starts and it’s a mania and it’s new, it’s fun. It’s fun for everybody. Their son is being recognized and is turning into a local then regional then national folk hero. And they know how hard he’s worked. They know the sacrifices they’ve made. It’s fun. There is no downside. It’s like the first hit of crack. It’s just awesome. And then it gets a little less awesome each time. What happens when your life changes that much and that fast, you make a series of very small decisions without ever realizing how all those decisions fit together or are related are related, and you just look up one day and everything’s different.

BL: Manziel’s father, Paul, told you that he’s trying to teach his son to control his explosive temper. But is it fair to say that Johnny inherited that temper from his father?

WT: Oh, I think, yes. There are only like three stories in the world, and one of them is fathers and sons. They are the exact same person. It’s hilarious. I think everyone sees it a little more clearly than they do. I think we inherit everything good and bad about ourselves from our fathers. And in some ways every new generation is trying to maximize the good and eliminate a little bit the bad. Pass the gene pool on a little better. It’s funny because when I wrote the story in my head it was a story about fathers and sons.

BL: Paul Manziel is also worried about his son’s drinking, and you reveal that Johhny had met with an alcohol counselor. Is alcohol at the root of these problems?

WT: Again, I think alcohol is the exhaust. And I think that being young and immature and struggling to deal with fame is the engine. He didn’t strike me as just a booze hound. I think the bigger problem is the inability to deal with the stress of everything’s that happened.

BL: Johnny Manziel's relationship with Texas A&M has deteriorated to the point where I guess nobody really expects him to return to college after this season. What do you think he will do?

WT: Well, I would bet anything that this will be his last year. Except that he’s a very smart, savvy guy and if he doesn’t feel good about his draft status, I think he would come back to try and improve it. That’s the thing that doesn’t get mentioned, is that in spite of the brief public flashes of idiocy he’s actually a very smart, self-aware guy. I think his eyes are on the next thing, being a great NFL quarterback. I don’t think he’s going to damage that goal just to escape a year early. Then again, if I were betting, I would bet that this was it.

This segment aired on August 3, 2013.


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