Quarterback Johnny Manziel had to wait until the 22nd pick of the NFL draft until he found a home with the Cleveland Browns. (Elsa / Getty Images)
On a patch of grass, the freshman wild-child improvised some plays, dashed here and there, threw some darting passes — and with millions tuned in on television carried his team to a victory over the best team in the nation.
Soon, very soon, the scrabbling kid had been dubbed “Johnny Football.” A star had been discovered. And before that season was over, the media members designated to select the best football player in the country voted the freshman the Heisman Trophy.
Johnny Football represents some fine qualities that make our human species special. Underdog. Grit.
And he represents other qualities that turn us into dullards.
We the journalists in the business of covering sports have this tendency of celebrating celebrities. And so do multitudes of others — people called fans.
Johnny Football is the tag that was stuck onto Johnny Manziel by some creative soul who now is, undoubtedly, preening about his clairvoyance over a few beers to some select listeners.
It was an November afternoon in 2012 when Johnny Manziel led Texas A&M to its upset, 29-24 victory over No. 1 Alabama. So Nick Saban’s Alabama team wasn’t invincible after all. Bama did go on to destroy Notre Dame for the national championship.
But Johnny Manziel remained the glory guy in our media spotlight — and future NFL draft scuttlebutt.
Way back when
Didn’t America’s passionate football fans and the doting media (spelled ESPN) learn anything from the NFL saga of Tim Tebow?
Remember? Tim Tebow? So recently ridiculed for his scatter-armed quarterbacking and mocked for his religious beliefs?
That Tim Tebow!
I was imprisoned in front of my television set, that Cyclops, the first night of the 2014 NFL draft like millions of others — most of them fans, me due to my curiosity addiction. We listened as ESPN drooled on and on about Johnny Manziel while NFL clubs drafted more worthy prospects. Including Eric Ebron, selected to give Matthew Stafford another target for the Lions’ offense.
Back in Radio City Music Hall’s blue room or the green room — or whatever color it was called — a television camera provided insight as to the body language of Manziel. He squirmed, looked at the camera, clutched a bottle water, sipped, and glanced back at the camera. He did not appear happy at all.
At last the Cleveland Browns — in their second incarnation, not the original franchise of Paul Brown and Otto Graham — traded up to the 22nd spot in the first round. The Browns, the new Browns, had already selected cornerback Justin Gilbert with the eighth pick.
“The Cleveland Browns, with the 22nd pick of the NFL draft, select Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M,” Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, announced.
The mob of fans in team shirts inside Radio City Music Hall erupted in cheers. Manziel appeared, wearing his suit jacket now, arms upraised. Smiling.
ESPN soon reported a homeless man in Cleveland had recognized the Browns’ owner Jimmy Haslam on a city street, and said, “Please take Johnny Manziel.” There were other reports of a rabble of fans following Manziel to the obligatory news conference after his belated selection, chanting “Johnny Cleveland” and “Johnny Super Bowl.”
Celebrating a celebrity!
The morning after, the Browns sold some 2,500 jerseys sporting Manziel No. 2 jerseys, according to the Associated Press. There was a bonanza in season ticket sales at the club’s box office.
And Manziel still must beat out the incumbent quarterback in camp to win the Browns’ starting nomination.
It is all déjà vu. This is the scenario that snowed us under just four years ago.
Recall: Tim Tebow, a Heisman winner as a sophomore quarterback, two-time collegiate national champion at Florida, selected in the first round of the NFL draft by the Broncos. The blaring publicity, the blazing television lights, the orange jerseys peddled with Tebow on the back. The speculation when he would start. Winning some games, a spectacular victory pass in the playoffs.
Then poof, fizzle. The mockery of his religious beliefs. The trade to the Jets. More publicity and added failure. Then gone, out of the NFL. All of it in three seasons.
Tebow, simply, just could not play in the NFL.
Drafting a quarterback is always dodgy in pro football.
Ryan Leaf: drafted as the second pick behind Peyton Manning in 1998. Leaf flopped, kicked around, finally dropped away from the NFL. Last February, Peyton Manning, with enormous publicity, played in his third Super Bowl and his first with Denver. Ryan Leaf, once pretty much an equal, was in a Montana jail.
Tom Brady: essentially ignored out of Michigan in the 2000 draft. Finally selected as a gamble by the Patriots in the sixth round of the NFL draft, the 199th player taken — a guy selected to serve as cannon fodder in training camp. An injury to Drew Bledsoe, the starter who had already quarterbacked the Patriots to a Super Bowl. Tom Brady, with enormous publicity, a true celebrity quarterback, has taken the Patriots to five Super Bowls. And won three of them.
Again, drafting a quarterback is a delicate, dodgy issue. Drew Brees, a Super Bowl winner. Aaron Rodgers, who waited and waited when available in the first round, a Super Bowl winner. Eli Manning, a Super Bowl winner, twice. Joe Montana, unwanted until the third round of the 1979 draft, four times a Super Bowl winner. Terry Bradshaw, picked by the perennial sad-sack Steelers first off the board at the 1970 draft, four times a Super Bowl winner. Jim Plunkett, Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman — all multiple Super Bowl winners. Bart Starr, drafted in the 17th round of the 1956 draft, a two-time Super Bowl winner and five-time NFL champion.
Trent Dilfer, Jeff Hostetler, Joe Flacco, Doug Williams — none ever a celebrated quarterback — all Super Bowl winners.
Fresh are the images of Johnny Manziel, with the water bottle, shown to us a dozen or more times, waiting in that pre-draft room for nearly three hours as ESPN ranted on and on about him. Then, at last — the cheers, the celebrity onstage, the weak smile. And the rush sale of Manziel jerseys in Cleveland.
Now all Johnny Football has to do is beat out Brian Hoyer in training camp. Hoyer: never a celebrity; undrafted out of Michigan State in 2009, a roustabout pro, but a game-tested veteran and last year’s starting quarterback in Cleveland until he was injured.
Can Johnny Manziel — flighty, untamed, an improviser and talented — play in the NFL?
Where have you gone Tim Tebow? Ah, the most recent word, into television — with ESPN.
Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter who recently earned a lifetime achievement award from the Detroit Society of Professional Journalists. Read his web-exclusive column Saturdays at detroitnews.com.