Every year SEC football gets bigger.
On the eve of 2013 SEC media days Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is the second-biggest star in league history. Manziel has crossed over from a mere football player to something more, a luminescent icon bestriding our pop culture universe.
Four years ago Tim Tebow arrived in Birmingham as the most famous SEC player of all time. It was like the Beatles arriving for a concert as he moved from one part of the hotel to another. It’s rare you see someone so famous that the atmosphere around them is electric, there’s a collective intake of breath, you halfway expect to see teenage girls — and overweight Alabama fans — faint. Two years later the same thing happened when Tebow appeared at the Super Bowl after leading the Denver Broncos to the playoffs. Grown men in NFL hoodies stood, jaws agape, craning on their high-topped tiptoes for a mere glimpse of Tebow.
But Tebow was a rockstar with none of a rockstar’s habits.
He was a football playing monk, an ascetic whose rejection of the excesses he could have embraced helped to define him.
Even as he beat the crap out of your teams on the field, Tebow’s popularity grew across the SEC.
By his senior year, just about everyone in the SEC, regardless of who they rooted for, loved Tim Tebow.
Tebow hate really didn’t flourish until he arrived in the NFL. During college Tebow basked in the warm embrace of deep-fried Southern hospitality.
By the time he arrived in Birmingham as a defending national champion and Heisman trophy winning quarterback, Tebow’s penumbra of greatness was so substantial that most national media didn’t even notice the rampant criminality of his Gator teammates during the era.
“Tebow’s a saint. If you’re a man, you wish you were Tebow. If you’re a father, you wish Tebow would marry your daughter. If you’re a woman, you wish Tebow would impregnate you instead of your husband. Everything that Tebow touches turns to gold. Even his teammates’ mugshots. Because here’s the deal, 99 percent of all national media and sports fans equate Florida football with Tebow. Period. It doesn’t matter what anyone else does, Tebow is perfection on and off the field. So the program is perfect as well. Sure it’s a lazy and harebrained way to judge a team, by projecting Tebow’s moral code onto the rest of the team, but clearly it’s happened. Tebow is a stand-in for the entire Gator team.
You have to wonder whether Tebow ever looks around the locker room, shakes his head, and thinks, “Man, an awful lot of these guys are going straight to hell.”
That year I asked Tebow whether he was saving himself for marriage.
Tebow’s answer — that he was — confirmed his otherwordly status, he was not like you or me. It was and still is the most famous answer ever given at SEC media days.
What question would I have to ask Manziel to elicit that kind of reaction?
Have you been in a fivesome? (Threesome and foursome probably aren’t even a challenge for Johnny Football, who may have lost his virginity at 11).
My point is simple — Johnny Manziel is the total off the field opposite of Tim Tebow. And unlike Tim Tebow, whose otherworldly rejection of off the field excess, made him every parent’s dream — Johnny Manziel is much more like you and me, he’s enigmatic, mercurial, a wunderkind with a taste for the high life.
He’s Tim Tebow with the poon-chasing gene.
Manziel’s a rockstar who happens to play college football. He’s taking advantage of all the bounteous fruits of his gridiron labors, but in so doing, he also provokes a cavalcade of haters quick to criticize his every move. Deep down all hate is rooted in jealousy.
And most of Johnny Manziel’s fiercest critics wish they could be Johnny Manziel.
Not all of them, but most.
That’s why Manziel’s walk a day in my shoes comment was so funny — 99.9% of sports fans would give up months of their actual lives to be Johnny for a Saturday on the football field followed by a night on the town.
Manziel’s rise to prominence in a post-Tebow era is also emblematic of a rapid change in our sports media culture.
It sounds crazy, but the amount of media attention that exists now is orders of magnitude greater than just four years ago.
When I asked Tebow whether he was saving himself for marriage, Twitter was in its infancy, social media was more theory than reality. Every single person with a cell phone wasn’t yet a potential newsmaker armed with a more rapid news distribution system than the most advanced reporter in 2008.
Since then sports media has gone on steroids, gotten bigger, faster, but also wilder, more reckless, rumors pinwheel across social media more rapidly than ever before, truth and fiction duel in real time. Every picture that Johnny Manziel poses for at a bar or on the beach is immediately able to be distributed to the entire world and become a story.
Tebow didn’t have that issue.
Joe Namath and Bo Jackson and Steve Spurrier and Herschel Walker and countless other megawatt SEC football stars of the past didn’t have that issue either.
Some argue that Manziel needs to just keep a low profile, but in this day and age, just about any move he makes is public.
If you’d won the Heisman trophy at 19 years old, would you have been more like Tebow or Manziel? What if you’d had 400,000 Twitter followers that you could send a message to at every hour of every day? How would your actions have looked when you were 19 and just a regular college kid if they were public at all times?
How many of you already have private Facebook or Twitter settings for this very reason?
The result is that Manziel is under a microscope the likes of which we’ve never seen before in college athletics.
Manziel isn’t more famous than Tebow, the most famous college athlete of all time, but he’s close, and just four years after Tebow’s career ended at Florida he’s in a new era. Manziel’s more covered, more hated, more analyzed than any college athlete ever before.
So good luck at SEC media days, Johnny Football, it’s just the latest turn in new celebrity world order.
While lots of people might want to walk in Manziel’s shoes, no one in college football history has done so before.
That’s because Johnny Football is the most scrutinized player in the history of intercollegiate athletics.