By Mike Rutherford
With everything that has and hasn’t happened to his career since, it’s easy to forget just how big a deal Johnny Manziel was in the summer of 2013.
As the star quarterback of the Texas A&M Aggies, Manziel had been a revelation the season before. Despite being a three-star recruit who had been redshirted in 2011, Manziel became the first freshman ever to win the Heisman Trophy after a 2012 season that saw him rack up more than 5,000 total yards of offense and account for 57 touchdowns. In the span of three months, “Johnny Manziel” was replaced forever by “Johnny Football.” At the time, that seemed like a good thing. The succeeding years would prove otherwise.
In the months that followed his historic Heisman victory, Manziel only saw his notoriety grow. He was arrested for a fight, caught with a fake ID, and saw his eligibility put in jeopardy after questions arose about his involvement in an autograph ring. Pictures and videos of Manziel partying with celebrities and at various campuses across the state of Texas became as much a fixture on ESPN as debates over LeBron James’ evolving stature. He sat courtside at NBA playoff games, sent early morning tweets about his desire to leave College Station and got sent home early from the Manning Passing Academy after allegedly missing meetings and practices because he was hungover.
All of this peaked in August, when Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated wrote a cover story about the “rise and fall of Johnny Football.” In the story, both Manziel and his family members spoke about the price of instant fame and not being able to handle it. They talked about wanting Manziel to be able to live like a normal college kid and their collective fear over what path he might go down in the future. Reading the piece, it was hard to believe that its subject hadn’t taken a single snap in a college football game just 12 months earlier.
It’s been a long time since Manziel was known first for being the dual-threat quarterback whose electrifying style of play captivated the entire country. That doesn’t mean that college football is hurting for a replacement who also fits that description.
Lamar Jackson is everything Manziel was in college, only more explosive. He’s bigger, he’s faster, he’s shiftier and he can throw the ball farther. For these reasons, Jackson spent the 2016 season torching the record books, claiming a couple of titles that had been Manziel’s for himself. At the end of the campaign, Jackson, like Manziel before him, claimed the Heisman Trophy at a historically young age. While Manziel had been the first freshman to ever hoist the trophy, Jackson became the youngest Heisman winner in terms of age to hear his name called at the end of the Heisman Ceremony.
To see the biggest difference between Jackson and Manziel, however, you must direct your gaze off the field.
Instant stardom may have broken Manziel, but being the world’s most famous college football player seems to have had no effect on Jackson whatsoever. There has been no “summer of Lamar” or “Jackson madness” for the national outlets to follow and obsess over. Jackson hasn’t had any run-ins with the law or any dubious celebrity encounters. In fact, there has been no news about Lamar Jackson this summer that would lead you to believe he was any more accomplished or nationally known than any of the other players returning to don the red and black this fall.
So what has Jackson been up to as he gets ready for his junior season? As Manziel did in the summer of 2013, Jackson spent a portion of his summer vacationing back home. While the Texas A&M quarterback spent that time doing interviews and playing rounds of golf at the Hollytree Country Club his family belongs to, the Louisville signal caller was headed to Pompano Beach, Florida, where the most notable thing he was caught on tape doing was playing laser tag with his mom and friends.
The easy thing to do here is say something about how we shouldn’t need to praise other human beings for simply doing the right thing. Given the news stories that make their rounds on the internet every single day, maybe we do. Maybe if there was more praise for people like Lamar Jackson, then there would be more people like Lamar Jackson.
Going from a relatively common citizen to one of the most famous athletes in the world in the span of a few weeks would have some strange effects on any person. Jackson dealt with it at age 19 and has handled it with as much grace as you could hope for. That demands pride, and it demands praise. VT