Examining Texas A&M Quarterback Johnny Manziel's Controversial Offseason
It's borderline baffling to think that one year ago barely anyone outside of College Station, Texas, knew the name Johnny Manziel. Twelve months later, there may not be a more polarizing figure in all of sports—college or professional.
By now, the practitioners of banality and bloviation have inundated us all with his story to the point we could each write a novella or short film titled "Our Year With Johnny."
The inciting incident (if we're going into film-speak) was last college football season. It was Manziel beating Jameill Showers in camp, then embarking on a barnstorming takeover of the pigskin consciousness. Johnny Football was created in Tyler, Texas, but that on-field legacy was cemented in Tuscaloosa, with a defeat of top-ranked and eventual national champion Alabama.
The 2012 season ended with Manziel creating a superpower at Texas A&M, winning the Heisman Trophy as a freshman and sending another twist of the knife into Bob Stoops' January legacy. While Manziel was silent—Texas A&M policy is that freshmen student-athletes do not speak to the media—his play created an instant legend. Overnight he had become the most famous face in college football, the perfect kid with the perfect game and the perfect nickname.
We're here to talk about the second act—when the silence stopped. While those who knew Manziel's story knew he wasn't the picture-perfect choir boy—there was the, you know, whole getting arrested thing—these past seven or so months have been a whirlwind romp into Johnny Football becoming Johnny Tabloid.
Beginning almost from the second the clock struck zero against Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, there has been a never-ending string of "breaking" news about Manziel's whereabouts and activities. There was the parking ticket incident. There was "dehydration." There were autographs and alleged payments. And then denials. Followed by the suspension.
We're here to cover it all.
I'm not here to moralize. There was no budget afforded to this column for a soap box. This is merely a recap, an examination of these tumultuous months, with more contextualization than op-ed stylings.
Because whether anyone likes it or loathes it, Johnny Manziel will get to write his third act. He'll suit up for Texas A&M during the 2013 college football season, lead the sixth-ranked team in the country, and we'll all be watching to see how the weight of this 12-month run has come down on a 20-year-old kid.
With that in mind, let's go in-depth on Johnny Manziel's offseason, as the Aggies prepare for their opener against Rice on Saturday.
January: Johnny Likes to Gamble and Party; Also, Meet Nate Fitch
While there had been some natural backlash against the cult of Johnny Football toward the end of the 2012 college football season, the criticism police didn't call for backup until the above photo surfaced.
The two people you see in that picture are Manziel and Nate Fitch, the quarterback's personal assistant and friend. Get to know him. He's important. There is also someone cropped out. He, whoever he is, is less important.
Manziel, Fitch and the mystery person were posing for a picture at the WinStar World Casino in Thackerville, Okla. The Heisman winner posted the picture on his Instagram account to flaunt what was obviously a pretty good night at the casino, and the world instantly went bonkers.
Manziel had become well-known enough at that point to garner a certain celebrity status. He had been seen courtside at basketball games and had been hobnobbing it with a more well-off crowd befitting of someone of his stature.
But the sports world's overreaction here is a duality between Internet rage and not knowing state law. Unlike a majority of the nation's gambling-friendly states, Oklahoma allows for 18-and-over gambling. Manziel was also not in violation of NCAA bylaw, as it affords him the right to legally gamble as long as it's not on sports.
In the wake of public outcry, Manziel deleted his picture. However, he couldn't help himself from letting the world know they were killing his vibe for no apparent reason, writing this on Twitter: "Nothing illegal about being 18+ in a casino and winning money...KEEP HATING!"
That controversy had all of about six minutes to simmer before Manziel's camp was putting out another fire. While still dealing with the aftermath of his casino fallout, photos surfaced of Manziel celebrating after the Cotton Bowl—a game in which Manziel put up a game-record 516 total yards in the 41-13 win, mind you.
In the most infamous picture, as first reported by TMZ, Manziel has a firework in his mouth and a bottle of Dom Perignon champagne in his left hand. Again, people were outraged.
Manziel is 20. Of course, the legal drinking age is 21. So Manziel was breaking the law, and the club was allowing him to do so. This is pretty cut-and-dried, right?
Not so much.
About 24 hours after its initial report, TMZ looked deeper into Manziel's evenings at Avenu Lounge and found the quarterback had again been doing nothing wrong from a legal sense. According to Texas state law, under-21 patrons can consume alcohol if their parents are present and give consent.
What's more, the owner of the nightclub claims Johnny Football didn't even consume alcohol or start a bar tab. That bottle of Dom? It belonged to another patron. Manziel was just using it to do what plenty of other college students do—take funny pictures when they're out on the town.
Two hubbubs. Zero NCAA violations. Zero broken laws.
But in the eyes of public perception, Manziel had already started his offseason with two major infractions. They wouldn't be the last.
June: Johnny Gets a Parking Ticket
The next few months for Manziel were overall pretty quiet. Sure, his hobnobbing with the stars continued and he became a regular fixture courtside at NBA games. But outside of pushing a graduate assistant during a spring scrimmage—not a big deal if you've ever attended a camp—Hurricane Johnny turned into a meek gale-force wind.
And then the ball started rolling.
The amazing thing about social media is that it's nearly impossible to glean anything from a tweet or Facebook post that's not exactly what it means. Sarcasm and jokes are exceedingly difficult to get across for those in the public limelight, which is exactly why a majority of athletes keep their feeds to retweets and banalities.
But in the early-morning hours of Sunday, June 16, Johnny Manziel had enough. He couldn't wait to leave College Station. To turn pro? To start a small-town car dealership? No one knew at the time. It wasn't clear whether Johnny himself knew.
All that mattered was, in that moment, Manziel hated the place that adopted him as a son enough to say he was ready to leave it all behind. The tweet, pictured above, was almost instantly deleted, but we all know how that works. Fans were quick to take their corners on the Johnny Manziel polarization scale, with many Aggies fans showering him with adoration while others dumped thoughts that were a lot meaner than "good riddance."
Manziel, obviously knowing the anger was coming, quickly sent out a semi-retraction.
"Don't ever forget that I love A&M with all of my heart, but please please walk a day in my shoes," Manziel said in a now-deleted tweet.
In that moment, he sounded more like a wounded college kid than Heisman-winning monolith. At the time, everyone speculated on why Manziel could have been feeling that way in that moment, digging deep into his possible motivations for sending such a charged statement.
It turns out the entire affair was over a parking ticket. ESPN's Wright Thompson would highlight that the parking ticket tweet came more of a result of building frustrations, but the root cause was Manziel was parked the wrong way. The police came to his apartment, asking the person to move it rather than receive a ticket. Manziel saw it as an "intrusion," and his family viewed it as a continuation of the constant "harassment" he receives.
Nevertheless, it was yet another controversy stemming from Manziel's use of social media. It's at least worth noting that Manziel hasn't tweeted since Aug. 1.
July: Manziel Leaves Manning Passing Academy Early
Every year, the Manning family hosts the Manning Passing Academy at Nichols State University in Louisiana. The four-day event is an opportunity for young quarterbacks between Grades 8-12 to learn from Eli, Peyton and Archie Manning along with a cabal of top talent—mostly current and former college quarterbacks.
While the Passing Academy is meant for the kids, it's also an invaluable experience for the other counselors, who get to learn from two of the NFL's current best. This season, Johnny Manziel was a counselor.
Until he wasn't.
Rumors & Rants first posted a story that Manziel was sent home by Archie Manning for being tardy for a Saturday morning session. The reason? The Aggies star had "enjoyed himself too much" on a night out in Louisiana before not getting to the practice facility until noon that day.
Translation: Manziel was hungover.
A camp spokesperson released a statement on the matter to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, citing "illness" as the reason he left for good:
Johnny Manziel did participate in some activities in the 2013 Manning Passing Academy as a college counselor/coach. After missing and being late for practice assignments, Johnny explained that he had been feeling ill. Consequently, we agreed that it was in everyone's best interest for him to go home a day early.
As for whether Manziel was hungover or just not feeling well, we'll never truly know. All parties involved have denied that drinking played a factor, including Manziel, who used SEC media days as his pulpit to categorically deny any wrongdoing.
“The speculation about me being hung over is absolutely incorrect,” said Manziel, per The Star-Telegram, who claimed he was late because his phone was dead and he forgot to set a second alarm.
He also apologized to the camp organizers and attendees for his shortened stay. Peyton Manning told Mortensen that he'd welcome Manziel back as a counselor in the future if he wants to return.
July: ESPN's Wright Thompson Illuminates the Life of Johnny Manziel
In the aftermath of Manziel's latest tweet heard 'round the world, he retreated home. He arrived four days after sending that fateful message, returning to Tyler and hoping to get some clarity away from his fishbowl lifestyle in College Station.
Upon arrival, ESPN's Wright Thompson was waiting. In easily the best and most in-depth look at both Manziel's life and his family history, Thompson weaves a story of a kid who is both in over his head in fame and too bull-headed to know the path he's headed down.
It's the perfect dichotomy. Johnny Football. Jonathan Manziel. Who wins?
While we could heap praise on the piece for days, the most important takeaways are the facts about Manziel's life. Here are some bullet points from the story. You might find that one of them in particular comes back later—in a big way:
- Remember when everyone wondered how Manziel could afford to sit courtside at NBA games without violating NCAA bylaw? Well, wonder no longer. He can do so because the Manziel family is rich. Oil money rich.
- Do not play golf with Johnny Manziel.
- Texas A&M and his parents made Manziel go see a therapist this spring. The therapist's first piece of advice was to limit autograph sessions to a half-hour per week. The autograph hounds had become so fierce that even though Johnny signed everything, he began resenting fans and those who asked him to sign items.
- Manziel's best friend, Nate Fitch, dropped out of school to become the quarterback's personal assistant. He's better known to the family as "Uncle Nate." He believes that Texas A&M has been leaking negative press about Manziel throughout the summer. He handles his public relations and media requests.
- The Manziel family doesn't trust anyone, most notably the NCAA and most officials tied to Texas A&M. Paul Manziel, Johnny's father, pointedly called those involved with college football's governing body and Aggies coaches/officials "selfish."
- Also from Paul Manziel: "It's one night away from the phone ringing, and he's in jail. And you know what he's gonna say? 'It's better than all the pressure I've been under. This is better than that.'"
An overarching theme of the story is that Manziel's parents also fear he has an alcohol problem. Not too long before Thompson's story broke, he was asked to leave a fraternity party at the University of Texas. That news isn't worth its own section, but it does tie into perhaps the most under-covered subplot of this entire fiasco.
August: ESPN Report Claims Manziel Was Paid for Autographs; Uncle Nate at Fault?
One of the stops Manziel made during his whirlwind January was to the BCS National Championship Game. There as a spectator, the reports of his attendance were mostly scant. It seemed like a nondescript, innocent event.
Little did anyone know that trip would go on to define Manziel's entire offseason. ESPN's Darren Rovell and Justine Gubar broke the story that he was paid a "five-figure flat fee" to sign hundreds of autographs over two sessions during his trip to Miami.
He reportedly linked up with a broker named Drew Tieman upon arriving at the airport, who approached him about the offer. Manziel later went to Tieman's house with Uncle Nate, and an NCAA investigation was launched after multiple items found their way onto eBay.
In the aftermath of that report, more autograph brokers came out, claiming that Manziel had signed items for them. One even provided a "proof picture" of him signing to ESPN's Joe Schad in order to corroborate his story.
Jeremy Fowler of CBS Sports also noted a strange flooding of the market in Manziel signatures, each similar in structure and submitted to authenticators at the same time. The signatures were also noted to have a cleanness about them, meaning they were not scribbles done in haste following a game.
While each of the brokers claim to have paid Manziel for his services, each down the line said they would not cooperate with an NCAA investigation. One told ESPN's Joe Schad, per Darren Rovell, that he paid $7,500 for 300 autographs. A source told Rovell that at one point this offseason Manziel signed 4,400 different items for three different brokers across three states—all in a month's time. No dollar figures were released with the additional signings.
In all, the operation looked like a well-oiled machine. Manziel linked up with some of the most powerful brokers in the world and did so discreetly, almost as if someone behind the scenes was pulling the strings to make sure things went smoothly.
It quickly came to light that there was someone "running" this business, Manziel's personal assistant Nate Fitch. Wright Thompson of ESPN cited a "half dozen sources and counting" who fingered Fitch as the mastermind behind the operation. He would seek out brokers, run the logistics of the signings and work as Manziel's right-hand man the entire way.
Thompson's piece also delves into the codependency of their relationship. Sources close to the situation noted that the Heisman winner went insular after his fame skyrocketed, bringing those who had been close to him for years even closer. Fitch began taking an increased prominence in his friend's life, reveling in the attention that came with the limelight.
Even to outsiders, this relationship proved disconcerting.
As Thompson writes, "When Sports Illustrated does 'The Rise and Fall of Johnny Manziel,' Johnny is not going to be on the cover," one autograph broker told ESPN. "Nate will be."
Mid-August: The Tide Shifts in Manziel's Favor
Just as it seemed the Johnny Football enterprise was crumbling and Texas A&M's football season was going down the drain with it, the trail went cold. The flurry of brokers coming out and detailing Manziel's "business" suddenly ceased, almost as if the entire broker business was placed under a gag order.
The action level had gone from Breaking Bad to Cold Case in a matter of mere days. The NCAA's investigation was ongoing, but based on the lack of intel leaked to the media, it didn't seem like things were going well. If there's anything we've learned from the MLB Biogenesis fiasco, it's that when a major sports entity has the smoking gun, "someone" will wind up spilling the beans.
Instead, it seemed the narrative switched back in the other direction. News broke about a specific Texas bylaw that claimed brokers could face criminal prosecution if they knowingly conspired with Manziel to break NCAA bylaw.
Folks even began making public decries of Manziel's innocence. Texas A&M chancellor John Sharp spoke to Steve Fullhart of KBTX on Aug. 22, making it clear he knew there was no wrongdoing on the part of his star quarterback.
"I know he's innocent," Sharp said. "I know that he didn't do what they accused him of doing."
The university later released an additional statement, noting it would no longer be making public statements about Manziel. George Schroeder of USA Today was the first to have the story, as the school made an executive decision to move on from the fiasco and focus on its first game against Rice.
Radio silence remained on the NCAA's side.
Late August: NCAA Meeting, Suspension and Resolution (?)
As the calendar continued barreling toward the season's opening Saturday without resolution, one thing became abundantly clear: The NCAA had no hardcore evidence Manziel accepted money for signing autographs.
There were pictures, speculation and a whole heaping pile of circumstantial evidence. Without subpoena power, the NCAA lacked the ability to corroborate any of its suspicions. They could not compel any unwilling broker, Texas A&M official, Nate Fitch or anyone who did not want to testify on Manziel's behalf or against him without consent.
The one person who was willing to talk? Johnny Manziel. And talk he did, as NCAA officials met with him in a six-hour session in which Manziel attempted to clear his name. ESPN's Travis Haney was the first to report details on the meeting, which surprisingly did not leak until very early Tuesday morning:
BREAKING: NCAA officials met Sunday with Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel, a source familiar with the investigation told me Monday.— Travis Haney (@TravHaneyESPN) August 27, 2013
Source said NCAA investigators questioned Manziel on Sunday for nearly 6 hours. It's unclear whether additional questioning is necessary.— Travis Haney (@TravHaneyESPN) August 27, 2013
CBS Sports' Chip Patterson followed up on Haney's report, citing sources close to the player who claimed he categorically denied taking any money. The NCAA's meeting with Manziel focused on his banking information, which would ostensibly show whether or not any large withdrawals or deposits were made from his account.
Apparently, the NCAA was satisfied with Manziel's answers—at least for now. Three days after meeting with the Heisman-winning quarterback, college sports' governing body and Texas A&M released joint statement that confirmed Manziel would be suspended for the first half of Saturday's game against Rice, per ESPN.
Nothing more. Nothing less. The two sides agreed that Manziel violated bylaw 188.8.131.52, which states a player cannot allow a third party to use his name or likeness to advertise or sell commercial products for a profit. The NCAA cleared Manziel of accepting money for autographs, but maintained that the case is still open pending more information coming forward:
If additional information comes to light, the NCAA will review and consider if further action is appropriate. NCAA rules are clear that student-athletes may not accept money for items they sign, and based on information provided by Manziel, that did not happen in this case.
So what happens next? For now, nothing.
Manziel will be allowed to play in the second half versus Rice, and all indications are he'll do so. Barring a massive blowout situation, Jonathan Manziel will walk back onto a football field Week 1. He won't be wearing a Canadian Football League jersey, either. He'll get to defend his Heisman Trophy, attempt to push Texas A&M into the national championship conversation and push fans beyond the point of polarization every step of the way.
But in the eyes of the NCAA, Johnny Football's nose is squeaky clean. The only question is whether it'll stay that way.
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