The trouble with Johnny

Johnny Manziel can't escape the pull of his celebrity, and it could derail his career.

Originally Published: July 30, 2013
By Wright Thompson | ESPN The Magazine

Editors' note: This story includes mature subject matter and language.


@JManziel2: Bullshit like tonight is a reason why I can't wait to leave college station...whenever it may be

FOUR DAYS AFTER the tweet, Johnny Manziel did what many boys do when they're in trouble. He went home. The farm roads and state highways between College Station and Tyler blurred under the wheels of his black Mercedes-Benz, the one he wanted so badly that his dad finally bought it for him. Paul Manziel didn't want his son to do something stupid to get it for himself. A jagged line marked the back left quarter panel; even before Johnny tweeted that he wanted to leave College Station, someone had keyed his car. When Johnny arrived at his grandmother's house in Tyler on this Wednesday, Paul leaned over and silently ran his finger along the length of the cut, seeing what someone had done. He felt helpless. Building tension from the past week, and from the seven months of scrutiny that preceded it, had left his son on edge and exhausted. Maybe here, outside the siege walls of College Station, Johnny could exhale. He needed space to retake the control he'd lost over both himself and his new persona. Johnny Football is a growling grown-ass beast of a human. Johnathan Manziel is a boy trying to become a man.

Johnny wanted to play golf with his dad, so they unloaded their bags in the sun-baked parking lot of Hollytree Country Club. Paul also had the usual half-dozen items for his son to sign, things given to him by family friends or mailed to the car dealership he runs. People in passing carts waved and smiled. Paul grew up on this course as a kid, the grandson of a Texas oil fortune, which still funds the family. Enough remains to make sure Johnny never wants for anything. "It's not Garth Brooks money," Paul says, laughing, "but it's a lot of money." Still, those piles of cash couldn't make Paul's father pay attention to him. This golf course is where Paul went for peace. It's where he played the club father-son tournament with someone else's father, vowing to be different when his time came. That chance finally arrived, in the form of a baby boy he named Johnathan Paul, and he built a house for the family at Hollytree. The Manziels lived on the 16th hole here before a new job took them to Kerrville, six hours southwest, where Johnny became a Texas high school football legend. This is the last place they were normal.

One of Johnny's former teachers whizzes by in a golf cart and screeches to a halt, giddy. "I have had more fun telling everybody I taught you!" she says.

[+] Enlargejm
Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun/LandovOffseason missteps have led the public to judge Manziel in a much harsher light.
Johnny smiles modestly.

"Good to see you," he says.

"Will you sign my hat?" she asks.

He laughs at her.

"Yeah, right …," he says, then realizes she is serious. For a moment, he almost seems disappointed. "You want me to?" he asks, and when she hands him her hat and a pink marker, he signs his name. She pulls away toward the course. Something stops her, and she turns back over her shoulder.

"Hey, Johnathan?" she says.

He looks up.

"You're still Johnathan," she reminds him.

"I know," he says.

The sun is brutal, and as the holes pass, Johnny grows more and more upset with his game. Nothing is going right. Putts come up a turn short, or lip out. His distance control is off. A sweat stain covers the back of his shirt, and he curses himself under his breath. He buries his head in his phone. Actually, it's his roommate's phone, since he broke his. He says he dropped it accidentally, although he's broken multiple phones in anger. To calm down, he leans back in the cart and drapes a green towel over his head, hidden and safe. On the fifth hole, he snaps. He flings a wedge through the air. The club helicopters, spinning so fast it hums, bouncing off the nearby cart path. "F---," he says under his breath.

Paul sees the club toss but doesn't say anything. Not yet, not until he calms his own anger and frustration. Johnny needs to grow up or risk losing his future, and every thrown club, or ill-advised tweet, reminds his father how far they have to go. Paul is scared.

"I don't enjoy playing golf with him because I don't want to see that temper," he'll say later. "I honestly do not. I cringe when he wants to play golf. I don't want to do it, but I know I have to do it. Because he still needs love. He still needs guidance. He still needs to see he's wrong -- and how to control his temper. And if I give up on him, who's gonna take over? The school sure the hell isn't gonna do it."


jmJackson LaizureJohnny Football is one of five quarterbacks to pass for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 in a season.
BACK IN COLLEGE STATION, Johnny's world had turned toxic and weird. The pressure had been building -- is still building -- and the latest in an endless loop of public ventings happened when he left his car parked the wrong way in front of his house. He and some teammates had gone down to the Corpus Christi Bay to chase redfish and speckled trout. Johnny loves his teammates, and as his dad found peace in the fairways of Hollytree, Johnny is most himself at practice and at games.

The boys relished their time on the water, brothers in arms, dreaming about the season to come. Back home, according to the Manziels, the cops saw Johnny's illegal parking job. Instead of writing him a ticket, the cops knocked on the front door after midnight and awoke his roommate. The police wanted to know whose car was parked the wrong way, offering the offender a chance to move it without getting a ticket. The intrusion set Johnny off. "They know where Johnny lives," Paul says. "They take him home after the games. They know whose car it is. They are harassing him."

So he'd sent the tweet early Sunday morning, then deleted it, then apologized, literally begging people to understand his life, which earned him more ridicule, and by Tuesday, the day before he went home to play golf with his dad, the student newspaper ran a column urging him to leave after the season: "Johnny, Be Gone." All day, he watched television as people ripped or defended him. They showed the montage of his jet-set offseason: courtside seats, beaches in Cabo, rounds at Pebble Beach. The montage led inexorably back to his arrest before last season, and he got to relive that too. Johnny and his best friend, Steven Brant, had left a College Station bar. Brant, known to everyone as Breezy, gets mouthy when he drinks, and on that night, he started yelling at a black guy nearby. The man said Breezy used a racial slur, according to a police report, and he then crossed the street to confront the teens. Johnny stepped in the middle to play peacemaker, but when it turned into a fight, he defended his friend. All three got arrested. (Johnny pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor.) In Johnny's mug shot, he wasn't wearing a shirt. The picture became part of the legend. All his exploits, on and off the field, have spawned a mania, one that no longer even needs his presence to exist. It's become self-sustaining, almost sentient. While Johnny created this new reality -- which offers many seductive pleasures he's grown to love -- the new reality is now in charge. Everything he does is influenced by it. Funny, to wake up one day and be a marionette in your own life.

Tuesday night in College Station, in the aftermath of the tweet, he was supposed to watch Game 6 of the NBA Finals at a local restaurant named Chimy's. The game started, and he stayed at home. His personal assistant, high school buddy Nate Fitch, known to all as Uncle Nate, called a visiting reporter to explain.

"Johnny is in a bad mood," Uncle Nate said.

Nate showed up a few minutes later.

"He's gotta get out of this fishbowl," he said. "If he's getting in trouble for sending a tweet … "

Nate dropped out of school this year to act as Johnny's assistant and manager, handling media requests and helping coordinate the bodyguards from Houston whom Johnny's parents would like them to hire whenever they go out, making sure there's someone around to defuse a confrontation before it begins. Leaving the house brings swarms of people and accompanying drama. "We have to have our own security paid for by us," Nate says, and by "us" he means Johnny's mom and dad.

While Nate explains the insanity of their lives, as if on cue another negative story breaks, this one about Johnny almost being suspended for the season last year after his arrest and coming within five days of transferring. Nate reads the news on his phone and looks concerned.

"How'd that get out?" he asks. "Less than 50 people know that. That's someone in the school talking."

He's suspicious about this story, which credits an unnamed source. Nate thinks Texas A&M is leaking on its star quarterback, and in the end it doesn't even really matter if that is true or not. There's been a growing rift between the school and its most important student. It's not just Nate's paranoia about the story, or Johnny's frustrations with the nonfootball, marketing expectation of the school, or his father's sense of injustice that everyone makes money off his son but his son. The rift is more profound. Many people close to Johnny Manziel no longer believe in the integrity of the institutions charged with protecting him.

Lost faith is one more casualty of the fishbowl.


DON'T BE SURPRISED. Things fall apart. It's physics, really. People on the outside see only the final collapse: the drunken photo, the fight outside a bar, the angry tweet. They never see the slow decay, because that happens in private. This erosion is now the most prominent thing in Johnny Manziel's life, because it digs into every part of him, erasing and molding, shaping who he will become. Will he grow to understand and manage it? Or will he crumble, becoming a trivia answer or a cautionary tale? This season will bring the answer. He's 20. He doesn't even fully exist yet, a work in progress. Two opposing forces compete for influence in that journey: on one side, the values handed down by his parents and the man he'd like to become; on the other, there's everything that's happened to him in the past year.

Last June after the fight, cops found two fake IDs in Johnny's wallet, and while there's been endless talk about the incident, nobody says much about the most remarkable thing: A year ago, Manziel was so anonymous that he could pretend to be someone else. As Johnny's fame grew, A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin stuck to his policy of banning freshmen from doing interviews, a move designed to protect Johnny but which accidentally turned him into an empty vessel for people to fill as they saw fit: a folk hero, a cartoon character, a savior. That's where the problem began. Texas A&M wouldn't let anyone know Johnathan Manziel, so they all fell in love with Johnny Football.

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Johnny Maziel Instagram - @jmanziel2Manziel, like most 20-year-olds, constantly posts pictures to Instagram. Unlike most 20-year-olds, hes won the Heisman.
His family did too. His parents wanted to get jffmom and jffdad on their license plates -- Johnny F -- ing Football, as the name was originally coined on the A&M message boards -- so caught up in the mania that it took their 17-year-old daughter, Meri, to point out the bad example that might set for the kids who looked up to her brother. The family still laughs about how his grandmother was so excited to see Johnny on the front page of the Auburn paper that she stole copies lying in front of the doors at their hotel. The joy didn't come for free; it came with people judging. Johnny didn't seem to understand why he couldn't have the first and be free of the second. His life changed so fast. After the first home game, Johnny ran to his house from the stadium. Nobody noticed. By the end of the season, the local police needed to drive him the few blocks in a patrol car.

His mother remembers the moment she first understood that the change was affecting her son. After the shocking Alabama win, the one that earned Johnny the Heisman, a crowd gathered near the Texas A&M bus, pushing forward, crushed together, trying to see the star emerging from the locker room. Michelle watched as state troopers battled their way through the crowd with him. She saw the look in his eyes, one she'd never seen on a football field: panic and fear.

"I need to get on the bus," he told the cops.

Crowds chased him across hotel lobbies. The gossip site TMZ posted a picture of him and a bottle of Dom Perignon. He tweeted a photo of casino-floor cash. All these things brought the usual questions of amateur athletes living large, no one mentioning the oil fortune. The NCAA and its rules hung over nearly every corner of the family's lives, creating inevitable tension for those in the crosshairs. Texas A&M even needed to approve Meri's attending a football game with her boyfriend, checking her love life for "illegal benefits."

Johnny spent a lot of time defending himself online. The Twitter negativity became a drug he both hated and couldn't kick, and he stayed on his phone, reading every response, firing back. His father defended him too, getting banned from the TexAgs message board and then, after borrowing a friend's login, getting his friend banned too. Modern calculus ran Johnny's life; a hundred people insulting him on Twitter hurt more than a hundred thousand cheering in a stadium helped.

Through it all, Johnny tried to remember when he was a kid and Tiger Woods promised to meet him at the Isleworth clubhouse to sign an autograph and never showed. So Johnny signed everything, no matter how much he grumbled and cursed with a pen in his hand. Whenever he'd see his parents, they'd always have a carload of things to autograph. They hated it, and he did too. But they seemed compelled by manners, and obligation, and one autograph didn't seem like that big a deal. But taken together, they just boxed him in more: Even his own family wanted things from him. Whom could he trust? Over Easter, he went home with his girlfriend, a model. Her family showed him an online ranking of quarterbacks' girlfriends, according to Michelle Manziel. Johnny's girl ranked high on the list, which made him wonder whether she was with him for the reflected glory. Eventually he ended the relationship.

In the spring, the school and his parents got him to a therapist.

The counselor told Johnny to build walls around himself, set boundaries. First, his parents' autographs should be limited to half an hour a week. The therapist told him to get off Twitter.

After two or so visits, because of a hectic schedule, Johnny stopped going.


NOW THE SEASON has almost arrived, the problems papered over for the good of everyone who counts on Johnny. The bars and restaurants in town are packed, and the owners thank his father for the huge spike in business. That's what he brought College Station. When he goes to practice, he passes the blue rented cranes and the Acklam Construction trailers, the lightning pop of acetylene torches. As the program embarks on its second season in the SEC, a cavernous new football atrium is rising day by day and will essentially serve one purpose: to display Johnny's Heisman for recruits. That's what he brought the school. Sumlin got a $1 million raise. That's what he brought his coach. In exchange, Johnny received a fishbowl he's not mature enough to escape, and, of course, the Heisman Trophy.

The family is angry about the trophy, which really is a symbol for every little indignity, real and imagined, fueling the rift. This January, Johnny's family wanted his copy of the Heisman, which the school told them hadn't arrived yet from New York, Paul says. So finally Paul contacted the Heisman Trust, which told them it had shipped the trophy directly to Texas A&M. Paul suspected the school misled him, using the second Heisman to double its fundraising and recruiting possibilities. Texas A&M, through a spokesman, appeared baffled at the accusation, and it's difficult to find the line between a lie and a simple miscommunication. (The Manziels received their Heisman in January.)

The Manziels don't understand why the school lets the NCAA probe their lives, starting with the assumption that they are cheating, as if an endless back and forth about a rich family spending money really addresses the most dangerous consequences of Johnny's fame. Paul Manziel thinks the school compliance department actually works for the NCAA, and in a meta way, he's right. If A&M doesn't fully cooperate with questions about, say, courtside tickets and fancy vacations, it leaves itself open to sanctions. The Manziels understand the risks and the stakes. Johnny is in the wilderness of his own bad decisions right now. From the Manziels' perspective, everyone, from Sumlin to the school to the NCAA, seems to care deeply, even profoundly, about helping him through, just a little bit less than they care about helping themselves.

"It's starting to get under our skin," Paul says. "They're so selfish."

The Manziels are tired of a coach getting a million dollars and their son getting an appointment with a therapist. They're tired, and they're scared, because they've seen the pressure build and build, and they don't know what might happen next. Or, more accurately, they know exactly what happens next, if Johnny doesn't grow up.


PAUL MANZIEL USES these rounds of golf as a way to measure the maturity of his son, just as Johnny uses them to measure himself against his dad. They've played thousands of times. Johnny has never won. On the Hollytree practice range, long before he starts flinging clubs, Johnny takes out his driver and talks to himself, whispering "hole 1," seeming to visualize his way around the course. When he uncorks a low curving hook, he grips the club and brings it down on his knee, pulling up short of breaking it in two.

"Literally, I'll snap it over my f---ing leg if I do that on the course," he says.

"You can't do that," Paul says.

"Yes, I can," Johnny says, and he sounds defiant, even petulant, someone still learning to manage the distance between his reality and his potential. He's a boy. As his dad says, "He ate Skittles, drank beer and won the Heisman." He is willing to risk his own limitless future to defend a friend. He orders Crown and Sprite, which ranks second to Jack and Coke in the pantheon of overgrown-boy drinks. His mom does his laundry. Confused, he called his sister and she told him, step by step, how to make mac and cheese. The night he won the Heisman, he and his best friend, Steven Brant, sat in the window of his New York hotel, drinking beer in their pajamas, looking out at the bright lights. He took Grandpa Manziel to see 2 Chainz. His bucket list is a glimpse into the kid who lives inside Johnny's mannish frame: going 100 mph in a boat, jumping out of an airplane, beating his dad in golf. Like most sons, Johnny needs to slay his father, so he's scowling on the practice tee, trying to stop sneaking a finger down the shaft on his grip, working to keep his wrist underneath.

"That's so awkward," Johnny says.

He recently went to a swing doctor in Houston, trying to fix a flaw that keeps him from controlling his distance. Leaving the teacher, he believed beating his father was getting closer. Now? "I think I forgot everything I learned in Houston," he says, turning to his dad for help.

"Show me," Johnny asks.

Paul gets him to hold the correct position of the club in the backswing, explaining what should happen next. Johnny is a physical genius, and the combination of feeling the correct motion and hearing it described is enough. Soon he hits a beautiful draw with a 5-iron, the ball soaring high into the blue sky.

"Like that?" he asks.

"That's perfect," Paul says.

"I just gotta think about it," Johnny says.

This pleases Paul, to see his son using his mind instead of lashing out at the course. Driving to the first hole, Paul hopes the day will bring calmness, maybe a lesson or two. The older Johnny gets, the less Paul sees him and the more important every moment becomes. After Johnny got arrested, Paul, never a heavy drinker, quit drinking altogether, to set an example. He feels the time slipping away.

The first tee is up the hill from the driving range.

"Let's go, tweet masters," Paul says to Johnny and his friend, cackling, the first in an endless stream of barbs. The hole turns right, a hard dogleg around a lake and a stand of trees. Johnny doesn't want to cut the corner, aiming to bang the ball deep into the center of the fairway.

"Good job," Paul says. "Understanding your limits is the best thing for you."

Paul knows his son better than anyone else, because he used to be his son. Driving around this golf course makes Paul remember his past. Local rumors linked the family fortune to the mafia, and this filled Paul with anger as he struggled to become a man. He blames his own absent father for not helping him reach his potential as a golfer, for his flaming out on the minitours, but somewhere inside he knows he shares the blame: He let his anger, and his immaturity, derail his dreams. He had the talent to be great, but he lacked something else. "I was a dumbass wanting to fight everybody," Paul says, "and thought I knew it all. I was playing golf and chasing women."

[+] Enlargedad
Courtesy Manziel FamilyJohnny and his dad, Paul, are similar, down to the poses they strike and the tempers they try to contain.
Johnny and Paul have the same birthday. A family photograph that often gets pulled out shows Johnny as a boy caddying for Paul, and they look the same in the picture, down to the shape of the frown and the specific curl of the pinkie finger. Not long ago, backstage at a country music concert, the two Manziels hung out with some of Johnny's friends. There was Uncle Nate, a high school teammate named Bryan and Johnny's buddy Colton from College Station. Everyone stood around, the band warming up. Without so much as a nod, the Crotch Shot Ninjas struck: Paul punched Nate in the nuts, and, simultaneously, Johnny kicked Bryan and hit Colton, both in the balls, both at the same time, and as the three dudes doubled over and the band howled in laughter, Johnny and Paul gave each other a fist bump. Mission accomplished. They're twins, and proof that karma exists, which pleases Paul's mother immensely. One recent afternoon, after a round, Paul went to visit her.

"Johnny bend any golf clubs?" Pat "Gammie" Manziel asked.

"He tried," he said.

She laughed and fell back into her chair in deep satisfaction. "Does it remind you of anybody?" she said. "Payback is hell. There's no getting around it."

Paul knows what will happen to Johnny's dreams if he doesn't listen. There's only so much fixing a parent can do. Sometimes, when Johnny half-asses a signature on a football and doesn't press down hard enough, his dad will quietly trace over his son's name, protecting him in every little way he can. "He'll grow up," Paul says. "He'll fight the same thing with his son. And his son will think he knows it all. It's a cycle. Right? I think that's the toughest relationship in the world, fathers and sons."

Johnny checks his anger for a few holes, but soon he's throwing a wedge and walking between holes while everyone else takes a cart, struggling to calm himself. He slams golf balls down on the ground. Paul battles the remnants of his own youthful anger too, most of it now directed at anything that stops him from helping his son. A lack of self-awareness in Paul -- the clear knowledge that he still struggles with some of the issues he wants his son to conquer -- casts another shadow on Johnny's challenge. In the cart, Paul checks his phone, hoping he's got a text message back from an athletic department official. He'd written: "Everything ok with Johnny? Said he had a meeting with you and Sumlin." Nobody got back to him, and now he fires off a sarcastic bow shot: "Never mind. Don't really care. Sorry to bother you."

"Asshole," Paul mutters under his breath as he presses send.


THE MORE FAMOUS Johnny gets, the more he becomes a mystery to his parents.

"I really don't know what makes him tick," Paul says.

This spring Johnny flew to Toronto for the weekend to hang out with Drake and his crew. His mom panicked when she heard, sure that the last thing her son needed was a rapper, who certainly would fill Johnny's head with terrible ideas. She said she felt sick to her stomach. Instead, Johnny came back visibly lighter, with new clues on how to handle his growing fame. She said a prayer afterward, thanking God for knowing what her son needed more than she or Paul did. She also mourned a little because her baby had more in common with international superstar musicians than with his mom and dad. Michelle's friends keep trying to tell her an uncomfortable truth: "Nothing will ever be the same."

They're concerned. Paul thinks Johnny drinks to deal with the stress. After his arrest, Johnny's parents and Sumlin mandated he visit an alcohol counselor; Johnny saw him six or seven weeks during the season. About the only place they still see the real him is on the football field. Mostly what they see is the emotional byproduct of whatever is chewing him up inside. "I don't know where the anger comes from," Paul says. "I don't think he knows. If it comes from his drinking, or if he's mad at himself for not being a better person when he fails, when he fails God and his mom and me. If it makes him angry that he's got demons in him. You can only speculate because you can't go in there."

Something's different. That much they know. A few years ago, Michelle sat on a beach with her children in California and they all agreed that tattoos didn't correspond with Texas values. She cried when she found out this offseason that Johnny had gotten inked. Had he changed? After a workout, he tried to show her his tattoo of a Bible quote from Proverbs, but she refused to look. At dinner one night this summer, she brought up Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber and how they've come undone in public. They're chasing something, but she can't for the life of her figure out what that might be, which is frightening. Is her son chasing it too?

Both his parents believe he won't return for another season in College Station, and until he leaves, they can give love and support and pray that Johnny Football doesn't completely devour Johnathan Manziel.

"Yeah," Paul says one evening, driving in his car, "it could come unraveled. And when it does, it's gonna be bad. Real bad."

He imagines a late-night call, and the cable news ticker, and the next morning's headlines.

"It's one night away from the phone ringing," he says, "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.'"


JOHNNY'S MOOD LIFTS when his friend Kyle Park joins the group at the turn. Kyle is a country music singer, a Roman candle of a personality, and he brought along his drummer. They've got a gig tonight in Tyler, riding the tour bus up from Austin. Johnny decides to play music on his phone in the golf cart, humming to the Randy Rogers Band song:

I stand accused of living way too fast
Out here on this highway one thing stays the same
It's gonna find me …

Johnny sings the last line of the chorus, "Trouble knows my name." He seems at home with someone else who understands both the allure of a stage and the heat of its lights. That doesn't help propel him past his father, though, and after Paul's usual victory, the golfers grab a circular table in the men's grill. A television behind him plays sports news. His name never comes up, a rare blessing. And yet even here, safe in a place he knows, surrounded by people who love him, he cannot escape the people outside these walls, watching.

It starts when they make plans to eat and see Kyle's show.

"Oh, s -- ," Johnny blurts. "I didn't bring clothes!"

His dad rolls his eyes. Johnny came to Tyler and forgot to pack.

"You do that every time," Paul says.

"I know," Johnny says. "I just thought about playing golf. Let's go to the mall. It'll be fun."

One of the guys at the table wonders what kind of crowd will swarm him if they go to a local mall. Can he imagine the scene? The people asking him about the tweet, or, even worse, reminding him with their adoration how many people he might one day let down. Johnny's voice changes. "I'm over it," he says. "Somebody comes up to me today, I'll tell 'em to f -- off."

The waiter arrives midrant and asks if Johnny would like another beer.

"Yes, please," Johnny says quickly, a hard edge to his words.


AN HOUR OR two later, Johnny joins his family and a few friends at a local steakhouse, like they've done countless times before. This time, they ask for a private room. Many things pulled Johnny Manziel back to Tyler today. He came home for reasons he probably doesn't understand, and couldn't articulate if he did, but if there's one central idea behind his visit, it's this: He came home to go back in time, to be normal with his family, even if normal can be had only behind the closed doors of the Cigar Room. Drinks are ordered, and some appetizers. Everything is loose until a former NFL player in the bar hears that Johnny Football is on the premises.

"Do you want to meet him?" his dad asks.

"Not really," Johnny says.

Across the table, his aunt says something under her breath.

"Shut the hell up," Johnny snaps.

The thought of one more stranger leaves him hollow. Once you've felt under siege, the feeling never goes away, needing only a little spark to flame again.

"All due respect, I don't want to talk to anybody," he says. "I want to sit with my family and have a good dinner."

His voice sounds defeated.

"I'm tired of people," he tells his aunt, "in the worst way. I love you, and I'm sorry for saying that. But I am so tired of people."

Johnny disappears. His body is in the chair, but he's gone. The surest tell of his anxiety level is when he takes his hat on and off, which he does now, retreating into himself. He sighs, rubs his forehead. He looks exhausted, distracted. Nobody says anything; they just stare at menus, sip drinks. Someone's silverware clinks against a plate. Johnny is surrounded by friends and family, and yet he seems completely alone. The room is so quiet that when the waitress asks if people are ready to order, her voice sounds jarring.

Slowly, Johnny climbs out of his private hole. A strange thing happens. He's almost certainly unaware of what he's doing, or why, but he starts to smile again by turning back into a child. He tickles his grandmother, who doubles over in laughter, trying not to pee in her pants.

"Oh god, don't!" she says, in hysterics.

"Paul!" she shouts. Then she catches herself. "I mean Johnny!"

The stress disappears from his face. He sticks one of her green beans in his nose, then mixes it in with her plate. Gammie points at his shirt, and when he looks down, she rakes her finger into his face, the oldest playground trick in the book, sweet revenge. Johnny tickles her again, pressing his forehead against hers. In the laughter, he is briefly the person he used to be, before the family moved to Kerrville and the first tremors of Johnny Football began.


FOUR DAYS AFTER the tweet, near the end of a roller-coaster day, Johnny Manziel slips into his grandmother's living room and joins his dad. They sit on opposite sides of the Heisman Trophy, each close enough to touch the bronze football player on top.

"I'm never around it," Johnny says. "You're around it every day."

It's hard to predict what this trophy will mean to Johnny when he grows up. If he becomes a huge NFL star, he might give it to his dad as a small thank-you for never giving up on him. He might build a shrine for it in a strip-mall Tyler insurance office, writing policies and growing fat. Will he hold court with stories about the fleeting moment when everyone knew his name? If that late-night phone call ever comes, the trophy will be in the first paragraph of the next morning's news story: PLANO, TEXAS (AP) -- Johnathan Paul Manziel, who captured the nation's attention en route to winning the 2012 Heisman Trophy, was arrested in suburban Dallas on Tuesday. The future of the trophy, like Manziel, remains in limbo.

"I'm gonna take it back with me," Johnny says.

"Negative," Paul says.

"That's what you think," Johnny says.

"That's what you think," Paul answers.

The trophy changed his future, elevating him to a kind of folk hero but also assuring that the fishbowl no longer needed him to exist. He has a volatile, evolving relationship with this change, baffled and angered by it, unable to resist its call. That night at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, 44 stories above the street, did he understand? He and Brant -- who'd gotten him into the fight that almost derailed his football career before it began -- tried to process the big hunk of bronze in the room. Breezy drank Heineken. Johnny drank Stella. They wore matching pajama bottoms, talking about the arrest and the improbable months that followed. The New York skyline flooded the hotel room with false daylight, the modern blue of the Barclays building, the Worldwide Plaza with the glowing gold pyramid on top. The coming season will let him know if the lights of New York were the beginning of a journey or the end.

Back in Gammie's parlor, Johnny stares at the Heisman, rubbing the bronze head. Usually he's nonchalant about the miracle of the past year, but for a few moments he seems genuinely in awe of himself. The gold plaque on the base reads JOHNNY MANZIEL.

"That's not even his name," Paul says, a father clinging to something being pulled away.

Johnny Football sits next to his trophy.

"My name's not Johnathan," he replies.

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Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.

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