In one of Elton John's greatest songs, "Candle in the Wind," he sings about the famous model actress Marilyn Monroe, who became an ultra-legend yet died at the young age of 36. The most famous line of that song is "your candle burned out long before your legend ever did."
I can't help but think about Johnny "Football" Manziel in this same context. He became a legend last season by winning as a freshman college football's Heisman Trophy given to the best player. Since then it's been well-documented that life has unraveled in some ways. Fame has hit him hard. It seems he's just too young to have had so much fame thrust upon him so suddenly and unexpectedly.
Now he's the biggest story in college sports because he's been accused of signing over 4,000 autographs and taken payments to do so, which violates NCAA rules. It remains to be seen whether he will be allowed to play this season, whether he really did break the rules-which he denies-and how much deeper his life could penetrate into the abyss. The question-and it's troubling to ponder for such a young person--is whether his candle will burn out before his legend does?
Like Marilyn Monroe, Johnny Football is an undisputed legend already and always will be. Decades from now there will be stories about Johnny Football's 2012 football season. Like Marilyn, he can't escape it no matter how hard he tries. Like Marilyn, fame has Johnny in its grip. Like Marilyn, this is not fleeting fame. It is scary, uncontrollable, life-long fame.
When last season started, Johnny wasn't a particularly well-known player on the national college football stage. After the first few games he was able to leave after games and walk back to his dorm room without being harassed or bothered.
Then he shocked the world by leading the Aggies to an amazing victory over Alabama, the country's number one team. It was then the country caught wind of this quick and versatile quarterback named Johnny Football. It was a cool story and an even cooler name. People started talking about Johnny Football and it made them feel good because his story felt good.
Starting then, however, he couldn't walk back to his dorm without being mobbed by fans wanting a piece of the Johnny Football phenomenon.
To illustrate just how odd his life has become, reportedly at a recent team autograph signing event, a 12-year-old girl was so excited when she got to the table to meet him that she cried and told him she loved him.
There is no way he could have expected his life to change to abruptly. As a high school kid, he was regarded as a good Division I college football prospect. But he wasn't way up on the list. Overall, he was ranked as the 190th best player in the nation. With that respectable but not elite ranking, no one could have envisioned him winning the Heisman, especially his freshman year. Predicting that would have been far-fetched for the high school player ranked 9th in that recruiting class-especially not as a freshman.
As people have been criticizing what he's done since winning the prestigious award, such as being caught drinking alcohol, I have reflected on where I was as a person at 20 years old as a college student. Let me tell you, I wasn't in a better place than Johnny and probably worse. I was searching for answers as to what I wanted to be, hoping to be popular with other students on campus, making bad choices, scared I wasn't smart enough to get the grades to graduate. Johnny has a lot more on his mind than I had, but you can imagine how lost and insecure he might feel about himself, who he wants to be, where his life is headed.
And now he has a huge pile of other responsibilities and issues with which to contend beyond the prevalent and serious ones typical 20 year old college students content with. He has to worry about being mobbed when he goes outside. He has to have security guards with him. He can't trust people like he used to because he knows they may just be trying to make money off his fame. He is being forced to figure out who is, Johnny Football, Johnny Manziel, both, or neither. An identity crisis is probably vexing him.
All this Johnny Football faces. His mind must be flooded beyond the ability to express. And he faces so much more that those of us who have never been famous can't even begin to understand. At the age of 20 life is scary for any person. Compared with the more free-wheeling high school days, college life becomes more complicated, serious and sometimes dark. It's fun, but it's temporary and fleeting. You have to start thinking about what you want to do with the rest of your life. Who loves tackling that weighty question? Johnny probably wants to be a pro football player and makes lots of money. This would be natural and appropriate given his talent. But maybe he doesn't like football all that much. Maybe he wants to stop. Maybe he doesn't like getting hit by gigantic linebackers. Maybe he would give back the Heisman and give Alabama that victory in order to have his normal life back, so he could walk back to his dorm after games without worrying about who might approach him and bother him. Maybe he wants some peace. Maybe he just wants to be a normal college kid. Too bad we're not letting him do that.
Johnny Football is forever a legend. Let's hope his candle doesn't burn out before his legend does.