By Kevin Thomas
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In the leadup to SEC Media Days, we have seen various members of the sports media fall all over themselves to proclaim “Johnny Football” the greatest celebrity in college football history.
Let the hyperbole begin anew.
In the leadup to SEC Media Days, we have seen various members of the sports media fall all over themselves to proclaim “Johnny Football” the greatest celebrity in college football history. Others have claimed his appearance at SEC Media Days as the biggest happening in the event's history. The sad state of instantaneous sensationalism around every sports story these days reaches an epic crescendo each year inside the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Alabama.
Johnny Manziel’s story is no doubt a tremendous one. A kid from relative obscurity rises to lead a new SEC program into the national spotlight and wins the Heisman Trophy as a freshman. But that’s where the story takes a sharp dive off the “Biggest Celebrity Cliff”. Manziel’s celebrity off the field is more about who he gets to Instagram with and some off-putting tweets. Let's juxtapose Johnny Manziel against some of the all-time celebrities in the SEC.
When you look at a recent Southeastern Conference celebrity you don’t need to look hard to run into Tim Tebow. The on-the-field work is unquestioned with two national titles and a Heisman Trophy. Off the field, Tebow captivated America with his clean living and outspoken testimony. America either loved or despised Tim Tebow; there isn’t much middle ground when it comes to the left handed quarterback. Does anyone despise Johnny Manziel for being ”Johnny Football”? Does Johnny Manziel elicit an immediate response from Grandma’s sitting on the West Coast, or a sidewalk football fan in Aurora, Colorado? When Johnny Manziel took the stage at SEC Media Days, he was asked about the Manning Camp, Twitter, and expectations. No one asked if he had had sex with a girl yet. No questions about mission trips abroad.
Now let's go a little further back into the pre-Twitter days and look at maybe the greatest on-the-field player ever in Herschel Walker. Walker’s celebrity was known well before the days of Scout, Rivals and instantaneous forty times and visit reports. He was a young man from Wrightsville, Georgia, about 30 miles from nowhere in every direction, who came in as a freshman and captivated the nation with his hard-charging running styles. Walker came in with the legend of endless situps and pushups and God-given natural ability. Then, he ran over Bill Bates and led Georgia to a national title. Mind Walker had all this and yet not one Twitter follower. Heck, he didn't even have a Facebook page. He didn’t even have the benefit of a national media giving him a nice nickname and following his every move. Herschel was the biggest celebrity in the Southeast and only had the scratchy tones of Larry Munson to do his major bidding. I often wonder if Walker had come along 30 years later if he would still be known as Herschel or would someone coin a clever nickname to get the marketing campaign going full steam.
Finally, amidst all the hyperbole oozing from the walls of the Wynfrey Hotel over “Johnny Football”, one has to ask is he even the biggest celebrity here? For my money, that title would fall square on the shoulders of Nick Saban. The winner of three national titles at Alabama, Saban’s impending presence here is as anticipated as the president showing up. Alabama fans are camping out in the lobby in hopes of getting a good sightline to view their leader. Much like Tebow, Saban is a true "love-hate" guy with no in between. When Saban talks, people listen and often are moved to take action. When Manziel talks, people wonder where he potentially went wrong.
In today’s instantaneous culture we live in, the here and now and celebrity status can be a fleeting thing. Does Manziel's celebrity fizzle, or live on with the likes of Tebow, Walker, and Saban. Is Manziel known simply for a year of football and a few tweets or is there more to the celebrity status? Biggest celebrity in SEC football history? Insert your hyperbole here…..