Like all good Johnny Manziel stories, this one starts in Texas. But unlike all the rest, this one starts in a Texas Walmart. Four Sundays ago, I was in the Walmart Supercenter in Lufkin, Texas. I was in the middle of a road trip, and a diet of rest-stop fast food had my stomach sounding like Mike Trivisonno. I was hoping the Walmart sold fruit, because I wasn't sure where else to find anything that wasn't industrially distributed meat. For a few minutes, I wandered aisles aimlessly, tripping slightly on the physical enormity of the place. I could nearly see the curvature of the earth in the vast ceiling. Eventually I found the fruit corral.
Greedily clutching my bananas and apples, I found myself in line behind two guys buying several bags of chicken wings from the deli (it was 9 a.m.), a bunch of T-shirts, and troubling amounts of Gatorade. They were paying for their haul with a combination of a taped-together $20 bill and two credit cards. So I had a minute to ponder the Lufkin Walmart's checkout area.
The first thing I noticed on the racks of register-side goodies was a proud orange Browns helmet blazing on a display box of NFL trading cards. Photoshopped into the face-hole of that helmet were the endearingly beady eyes of Cleveland's current backup QB, Johnny Manziel.
Now, a store in east Texas proudly displaying Manzieliana is not surprising. I was two hours from Tyler, the man's birthplace, and a different two hours from College Station, where he won the Heisman Trophy as Texas A&M's star freshman quarterback. But the Manziel phenomenon wasn't limited to Lufkin. As I unintentionally reenacted Johnny Football's journey from Texas to the shores of Lake Erie, I saw him everywhere. He peeked out from magazine racks at gas stations and convenience stores across Arkansas. His face flashed on TV screens in diners and truck stops in Tennessee. That puckish grin insinuated itself in even the briefest glances at social media in Kentucky. Back in the Great State of Ohio, Manziel stayed right by my side. He was and remains inescapable, even in the non-physical realms.
The Browns' rookie second-stringer has been drafted into the role of human clickbait. If you've tuned into ESPN, Cleveland.com or TMZ — or merely walked past a powered-on radio, computer or television set — you've likely heard more about Manziel than about Super Bowl champion Russell Wilson or Peyton Manning, coming off a record-obliterating season, or any other single NFL player.
As training camp gave way to the exhibition season, microscopic dissections of all things Manziel gobbled up every spare column-inch and molecule of airtime. Starting QB Brian Hoyer told a journalist (from ESPN, natch) that he had to stop consuming sports news to avoid the hype, if that's even possible. Manziel is and will be everywhere, except starting under center for an NFL team. How did the Browns wind up with a mega-celebrity as their backup quarterback?
Quick, name your all-time favorite Browns second-string quarterback. Mine is Mike Pagel. The three syllables of his full name made a little percussive rhythm that I liked to repeat in my head as a kid. And his #10 jersey and white pants were always so clean. Because he never played, unlike the succession of post-1999 backups pressed into action. Let me also honorary-mention Todd Philcox, because he was balding, and god loves a balding quarterback.
The short version of how we got here: We're obsessed with Johnny Manziel because ESPN is obsessed with him, at least if you buy into the narrative of ESPN creating the demand in the market rather than answering to it. There's no doubt the cable sports juggernaut has a serious fascination with Manziel. We've seen the network start grease-fire hype before, with another SEC quarterback. But Tim Tebow was just John the Baptist to Manziel's Clickbait Jesus. Tebow briefly displayed an uncanny ability to be on the team that won the game, despite playing terribly. But behind Tebowmania was an exceptionally nice, exceptionally religious, exceptionally boring guy who wasn't very good at playing quarterback. Manzielmania (Manzielosis? Manzielfest Destiny?) is something else: This is what happens when a gifted athlete also happens to be a natural-born 21st century secular celebrity.
After JFF leapt from the regional, tribal world of college ball to the all-devouring coast-to-coast obsession that is the NFL, ESPN ratcheted up its attentions. The Worldwide Leader dropped Manziel into Tebow's old parking place and hired a crew of 50 to wash and wax its shiny new toy 24/7. All summer, the competition for the starting QB gig of a small-market team coming off (another) 4–12 season was above-the-fold hot type. When Hoyer got the official nod on August 20, ESPN broke out the Breaking News klaxon. Ordering the depth chart for the equally 4–12 Jaguars, Raiders, or Buccaneers didn't get the same treatment.