Commentary

Spotlight on Manziel unprecedented

No college star has ever been as famous -- or as scrutinized -- due to social media

Originally Published: July 14, 2013
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

By one measure -- sheer numbers -- Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel steps onto the podium Wednesday morning at SEC Media Days as the biggest celebrity college football has ever seen. Ever.

He has played one season, beaten one No. 1 Alabama, and won one Heisman Trophy. Yet you can make the case that no college player in the history of the game -- not Red Grange, not Archie Griffin, not Tim Tebow, not anyone -- has bathed in the heat of the American spotlight the way that Manziel has.

It has nothing to do with his 5,116 yards of total offense last season, or the 47 touchdowns for which he ran or threw. Not those numbers. It's the approximately 378,000 followers that Manziel has on Twitter. That is more than Texas A&M University, Texas A&M football, Aggie head coach Kevin Sumlin and the Southeastern Conference -- combined.

A marriage of personality and technology, of nickname and bandwidth, of style and characters -- 140 of them -- has made Manziel unlike any player who has come before.

The way that the redshirt sophomore known as Johnny Football created offense with his arm, his feet and his flair last season captivated any viewer with a pulse. More important, under the tutelage of Sumlin and former offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, now the head coach at Texas Tech, Manziel took a team expected to struggle in its initial season in the SEC and led the Aggies to an 11-2 record and a top-five finish.

Manziel has refused to blink in the glare of the spotlight. Blink? Shoot, Manziel uses the spotlight like a tanning lamp.

"Knowing Johnny," Kingsbury said, "he's just a college student, and anybody that was in that position at age 20 would be taking advantage of it to the extent he is. That's what I see. He's gonna have fun with it. That's his personality. That's who he is. He's not on the side of Tebow. I think people were accustomed to seeing that kind of behavior, and that's not who he is."

Rather than shrink from the public, Manziel has gone on living his very non-Tebow life with his social media at the ready. That's what college students do today. They document their lives without realizing the whole world can watch.

"They express their celebration," said Jason Cook, the Texas A&M senior associate athletic director for external affairs. "They express things that they are doing, events they are going to. They express their frustrations via social media. I don't mean that there has been a change in how athletes engage and express themselves on campus. It's just that now there's this megaphone and there's this visibility into a day in the life that we haven't had before."

And what a life Manziel is living. There he is posing with LeBron James. There he is playing golf with country singer Kyle Park. There's Manziel tweeting and having Arizona Cardinals superstar Larry Fitzgerald retweeting in agreement.

It's all new and it's exciting and to the generation in charge, it's a little frightening, too. When Manziel left his job as counselor at the Manning Passing Academy this past weekend, the Twittersphere reported he had been dismissed. Then came the tweets suggesting he had been partying too much. There were photos of him and Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron in a bar.

The camp put out a statement that Manziel left because of illness. Peyton Manning told ESPN's Chris Mortensen that he would love for Manziel to return as a counselor next summer. That was one event on one weekend. The hyper-vigilance of social media can be exhausting.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Margaret Norton/NBC/Getty ImagesIn December, Johnny Manziel was already sharing screen time with Megan Fox on "The Tonight Show."

"When Herschel Walker was here, tweeting was a sound a bird made," said Claude Felton, the Georgia senior associate athletic director. "The definition of media is a lot different than today. Just go back. There was no Internet. No cell phones. … There was not talk radio."

In the old days -- say, as late as five years ago -- college football programs had gatekeepers like Felton who could promote and protect their national figures. You can draw a timeline of college football heroes just by listing the media that covered them and the media that hadn't yet arrived.

In 1948, you couldn't walk past a newsstand anywhere in America without seeing Doak Walker on a magazine cover. But college football had yet to appear on national television.

In 1968, O.J. Simpson appeared on national TV four times. But there was no ESPN.

In 1984, the year America fell in love with Doug Flutie, ESPN began televising regular-season college football games. But there was no "College GameDay."

In 2007, Tebow and his 1,000-watt smile lifted the Heisman Trophy. But Twitter was just in its infancy.

Felton came to the Bulldog sports information office in 1979, the year before freshman tailback Herschel Walker lifted Georgia to the national championship. In 1980, Felton said, Walker and Georgia didn't appear on national television until the eighth game. ABC Sports picked most of its television schedule long before the season began. The cameras couldn't train onto a phenom the way they did on Manziel last season.

And now, everyone has a camera.

"If you're out on a Friday night," said Cook, the Aggie official, "there's 300 reporters surrounding you, watching every move that you make. They all have a camera and they all have a 'newspaper' at their fingertips. So there's a personal awareness and there's also a situational awareness. … When you talk about how things have changed, that's the big difference between then and now."

That's the world that officials such as Felton and Cook have to negotiate. As the chief media officers in their programs, they hold the responsibility for the interactions their student-athletes have with the public. Yet they are trying to steer a vehicle that they no longer control.

"I think our mindset is, 'Look, how do we provide additional context?'" Cook said. "Because you cannot know a person, what makes them tick, and the pressures they are under, in 140 characters. … I am still of a belief that Johnny Manziel is the same person who stood up in New York and gave one of the best Heisman acceptance speeches in history. That's Johnny Manziel. But people are trying to extract these moments throughout his life and trying to say that moment is who he is. Perception should be built on a whole collection of moments, not just 140 characters."

A year ago, Manziel had yet to win the job as starting quarterback. Sumlin appeared before the hundreds of media at SEC Media Days last July, answered 18 questions and never once mentioned Manziel's name. In a time when Twitter trends soar and plummet -- "Sharknado," anyone? -- it will be interesting to see whether Manziel's celebrity hinges upon his performance.

If he fails to lead the Aggies back to the top 10, will anyone care where he spends his Friday nights? That may be the true measure of college football celebrity. At least until the arrival of the next unknown superstar.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com