While Johnny “Football” Manziel continues to accumulate headlines, I spent some time recently with a confused young man with a famous name just trying to make it in this world. This is a story about finding yourself when everyone wants you to be someone else.
Somewhere down in the hills of Texas there’s a dusty road sign at the edge of the city limits proclaiming to all who come and any who listen that this town, and only this town, is the Home of Johnny Football.
Hundreds of hard miles away in Livingston, TN, a blossoming bedroom community custom built for the Memphis nouveau riche, you will find no such sign, even though it too, is the home of Johnny Football.
They say the key to life is to making the most out of the hand you’re dealt. That it’s the individual who holds the keys to his or her own virtue. Still, we cannot control everything, such as where and to whom we are born, and what we are named. When Todd and Pamela Football gave birth to their second child seventeen years ago, forgive them if they couldn’t foresee what would be in store for their son, Johnny Fitzhugh Football.
This Johnny Football doesn’t even play football.
“I like Minecraft. Oh, and CoD Black Ops.” The greasy-faced but unassumingly handsome high school senior tells me over lunch at the Livingston Zaxby’s.
You can imagine what his life’s been like these past few months, what with his namesake dominating the headlines for all the right and wrong reasons.
“Growing up people would always ask if I played football,” he added with a mouth full of fries. “It definitely got old but you kind of get used to it, you know. But now…” His voice suddenly trails off and the care-free teenager smile all but evaporates into a cloud of gloom.
I ask if he’s given any thought to going by John or Jonathan or even changing his name entirely.
“I’ve thought about it, yeah. I like the name MacGyver. And Ace. But then I’d have to explain it to everyone and dad says Footballs aren’t quitters, so…I did play once. Football. My freshman year of high school. A lot of my friends were playing and I thought wearing my jersey to school on game days would get the attention of Cynthia McDermott but I was so skinny and small they nicknamed me ‘Pee-Wee Football’ so I quit.” His focus is now firmly on his phone. “Want to hear my band?” He asks, holding his phone across the table. “That’s me on the drums. We’ve only been playing a few weeks but I think we’ve got some real potential.”
Not bad. I ask him for the name of the band.
“Well, we’re still working on that…the name isn’t that important anyway.”
@CaptAceMacGyver: no, I did not get sent home from Manning Camp. I’ve never been to that camp, I went to Camp Kiddawacha in 8th grade and earned a canoe badge.
Todd Football feels for his son. A successful software engineer and self-described “cool nerd dad” he understands the baggage that comes with the name. “My old man played some semi-pro baseball before shipping off to Korea and coming home with a Purple Heart. He was a nails for breakfast, chores for lunch kind of man. I remember when I told him I wanted to quit baseball, he didn’t even look up from his evening paper when he said, son, the Footballs are not quitters. And that was that.”
The Footballs are a simple, God-fearin, ‘meat n’ three’ family fueled by an earnest love and respect for one another. The type of family that rewards good report cards with personal pan pizza, volunteers at the church and takes their shoes off in the doorway but doesn’t fuss at guests who fail to play by the house rules.
Here, in the well appointed and spotless Football living room decked out with happy family photos from beach vacations past and present, Todd keeps an ear to CNBC and his spectacled eyes on his ipad. He looks a bit like Waldo without the stripes and a little salt sprinkled into his peppered hair. He lets out a deep sigh.
“That Manziel fellas in trouble again,” he says with certain disdain. “I hate to invest so much emotion into a boy I don’t even know but the more his name pops up on the internet the more it’ll affect our Johnny.”
His brow furrows as he reads on, slowly shaking his head in quiet disapproval.
“I used to work with a Ted Bundy, you know. Not the Ted Bundy of course, but ol’ Teddy Bundy from Texarkana. Didn’t seem to bother him too much, shoot, he almost enjoyed the scrutiny. Whenever he’d introduce himself he’d wait a second for the reaction then he’d say, ‘and I’m here to kill ya!’” Todd laughs, making a stabbing motion with his hand. “Ol’ Ted was a trip, no doubt about it.”
A room away, Pam runs the vacuum over the spotless carpet with the aplomb of a TV-Land housewife.
“But our Johnny’s different,” he solemnly adds as the laughter exits the room. “When this other boy won the Heisman I think our son enjoyed playing it up around school and stuff. He went as the Heisman Trophy for Halloween and all that. But I can see that it’s really starting to get to him now. You can’t help but feel a little responsible, as a parent. I suppose we could’ve named him James or Paul or something, but he has every right to the name and he’s our Johnny.”
The phone rings and Pam stops the vacuum and answers.
“Yes. No. No, look that Johnny doesn’t live here, ok? Please stop calling.”
“Who was it this time, hun?” Todd asks.
“Another reporter, I think.”
“Animals. Ruthless animals they are. Don’t they know his last name isn’t even Football?”
Down in the Football basement, Johnny is banging away on an X-box controller and trading commands and trash-talk among online friends and foes. This is where he vacations. This is where he’s simply known as CaptAceMacGyver, Nazi zombie slayer.
“Coach Dawson is the worst,” he tells me. “Everytime I see him in the halls he yells out something like, “THERE HE IS FOLKS, JOHNNY F’in FOOTBALL! HEY HEISMAN, YOU GET ANY SLEEP LAST NIGHT?! Or, HEY, YOU GOT ANY BEER? One of the colleges I applied to sent me back a letter saying they didn’t think it was funny wasting their time with a fake application. Sometimes I wonder if I’m even a real person anymore.”
@CaptAceMacGyver: Hey @JManziel2 STOP DRINKING AND GETTING INTO TROUBLE IM TRYING TO LIVE A LIFE HERE. TIA, DBAG.
Two days after he tweeted this to dozens of followers, Johnny Football found himself where many teenagers so often do, grounded.
“My mom asked me what a d-bag was. Like I even knew. My dad told her it was short for a douche or something so I had to listen as my mom explained to me the function of an actual douche bag. It was a nightmare and she took my phone away for a few days.”
A month after his controversial tweet, Johnny Football walked the stage at Livingston High to recieve his diploma. Save for some scattered boos when his name was read, no doubt from clever Tennessee fans, he appeared noticably happy and relieved to be finished with high school obligations. He’s still unsure where and when he’ll attend college and what exactly the future holds, but on this particularly beautiful late spring day, among his friends and family, Johnny Football was simply happy being himself.
We all carry pressure. Whether it’s living up to your own or someone else’s expectations, or just trying to make a living for yourself and your family and battling life’s brutal elements, pressure invariably walks with us every step of the way like a heavy pair of shoes. Some of us struggle to free ourselves from its clutches while others find a way to harness it as fuel, and exploit it for success.
I received a envelope in the mail last week, and inside was a recent clipping from the Livingston Messenger:
“Tonight at Funtown Bowling Lanes, don’t miss the debut of Johnny Football & the Heismans. $5 cover.”