Whenever I wonder just how true my upcoming novel “The Penalty for Holding” is about the NFL, I encounter a story that reestablishes my equilibrium.
Such a story is contained in John Branch’s “In Manziel, a Draft Machine’s Human Cost.” It’s a by-now-familiar tale – the rise and fall of a big-time college football star. Johnny Manziel, aka “Johnny Football” – who won the Heisman Trophy as the best college player when he was a freshman quarterback at Texas A&M – was the main event in the 2014 NFL Draft, the 2016 version of which gets underway Thursday, April 28.
He wasn’t the first chosen, however – far from it. The Cleveland Browns selected him in the 22nd round, but not before fans enjoyed watching him sweat it out – which is the point of the draft in the age of the Twitterati, according to Branch’s column. The rest has been a gridiron version of the film “Downhill Racer” – two games won in two years in the NFL, partying, addiction, resistance to rehab, a grand jury investigation into the alleged abuse of a girlfriend that has now reportedly resulted in an indictment, release from the Browns and rejection by agents, sponsors and the world that once lauded him.
Maybe that 22nd-round selection should’ve told us something. Maybe the idiosyncrasies that made Manziel “a master of improvisation in an increasingly robotic position” (Branch’s words) are precisely what doomed him to failure in a league that doesn’t prize improvisation – especially at the QB position, where the classic pocket passer is still prized, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton notwithstanding.
I often think that qualities are neither good nor bad but context makes them so. And that temperament is as important as talent. From the time I was a child, I thought should good fortune fall on me, I would pick up that ball and never stop running with it. So I have a hard time with people like Manziel. And I’m not the only one. Deadspin took aim at Branch’s sympathetic piece. But then Deadspin makes its living off the kind of snarky schadenfreude that Branch rightly criticizes.
The truth is that none of us know how we would’ve acted in Manziel’s position. I hope we would’ve done better. And certainly, there are many players who survive – and thrive – in their sports with their minds and lives intact. But there is also meat- market quality to the NFL, the Draft and the response to the Draft – all of which Branch describes and which brings us back to my novel. Its thoughtful hero, Quinn Novak – a far cry from Manziel – is nonetheless also stripped and laid bare, mentally and emotionally as well as physically. He’s adored, rejected, abused even, but through it all he strives to act honorably, often at great cost.
He’s a troubled soul trying to navigate a violent world: That’s how I described my hero recently.
Little did I realize when I began to imagine him how true to life that would be.