Two young girls and their parents were held back by a drooping yellow rope at Redskins training camp in Richmond.
After a rapid triple air-horn blast signaled the end of practice, the little girls contributed their high-pitched wailing to thousands of other shouts.
“RG3! RG3! RG3!”
Their chanting took a turn when Robert Griffin III moved toward another group and wide receiver Nick Williams began walking in their direction.
“No. 13! No. 13!”
They had no idea who Williams was. Which, in all, encapsulates the pressure, demand and expectation heaped on Griffin. It’s him and everybody else.
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The backup quarterback for the Redskins’ opponent on Monday night, the Cleveland Browns, is under the same soul-withering spotlight. Even normal functions for Johnny Manziel are deemed television-scroll-worthy, a reality reflective of the currently overzealous sports market.
“The chaos, the talk, the hype, the overreaction, the over-analysis has been from the day I won the Heisman to that spring, to that fall, to the draft, to now,” Manziel said at a recent news conference. “If you look at it, [scrutiny’s] been a constant in my life. It’s been the one thing that’s been the most constant in my life.”
Manziel also amplifies the noise in an era when most famous athletes try to counter it with mundane quotes and cloaked personal lives. The haphazardness of his on-field decision-making is only rivaled by his erratic off-field actions.
His nightlife is a mix of Rat Pack and gangster rapper. Photos of Nighttime Johnny — using stacks of cash as an ill-functioning telephone, gambling, appearing to have eyelids that dropped anchor — have made NFL executives and others wonder if he can curtail his Namathesque approach to being a pro football player. Some wonder if he needs to.
As Manziel works that out, the scrutiny will increase. The first round of the NFL draft was spent wondering where he would be selected. Once he was picked 22nd overall by the near-dormant Browns — they have been to the playoffs once since 1994, and lost that game — the question was if Manziel would start over serviceable Brian Hoyer. He will not Monday.
Manziel’s circumstance is familiar in D.C.: former Heisman Trophy winning quarterback from the Lone Star State tabbed to rescue franchise. Every move is severely weighed and dissected.
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“I was having this, not a conversation about Johnny, but a conversation about fame with one of my teammates, Gabe Miller,” Griffin said. “We’re walking out on the field in Richmond and he was asking me, ‘You know, they’re chanting, “RG3! RG3!” Do you ever get tired of that or do you love that?’
“I said, ‘You never want to get to the point where you love fame or you hate fame. But, you have to understand it.’ I understand what Johnny’s going through. I understand what I’ve had to go through thus far in my career. And, why it’s happened that way: You win the Heisman and things get a little crazy. You go to turn around a franchise and things get a little crazy.”
When managed properly, there is leverage to be had for the athlete tumbling about in the hype machine. During camp, Griffin visited the media work room to show off the signatures on his cleats from two cancer survivors who were at practice. The next day, he spent time with an 18-year-old whose “wish” to meet Griffin was granted through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Both endeavors received coverage.
Meanwhile, Manziel’s 7-for-11 debut passing performance Aug. 9 was pulled apart by the TV shouters and the informed. He was often criticized for not dumping a pass to his fullback in his first preseason game. He chose to run instead, barely making it and giving fuel to the questions about how his playing style will meld with the speed and ferocity of the NFL.
The NFL Network took the next day to count the cash — perhaps with Manziel’s signature move of rubbing the tips of his middle and index fingers together with his thumbs — from Manziel’s first NFL appearance. According to the Sports Business Journal, the preseason game was the highest-rated in the channel’s 11-year history.
“I don’t look at it as I was drafted to come in Day One and save the franchise,” Manziel said. “[The Browns] had a plan for me and they want me to be successful. … For me, there’s no pressure, no timetable.”
Griffin said he doesn’t know Manziel well. They have crossed paths during promotional Heisman Trophy appearances, but had little interaction otherwise. Griffin is 24 years old and entering his third year in the league. Manziel is 21 and just finished his third week of training camp. Three years in, Griffin realizes how impossible satisfying everyone is.
“You can’t fight that battle,” Griffin said. “There’s always going to be something that you say or something that you do that somebody’s not going to like. It’s not to be liked, but to be yourself and if that’s who Johnny is, then that’s who Johnny is. If he accepts that … the media probably won’t accept that, they’ll probably continue to cover it and do whatever they want to do with it. From my perspective, for what I’ve had to go through, it’s hard to fight some of the stuff that’s been said. But, you have to just continue to be yourself.
“The people that really do know you will fight those battles for you and have to stand up for you. Johnny’s got his way of going about things, I’ve got mine, and everybody else does as well. It’s just a matter of who gets more coverage. We just tend to get more coverage and I choose to use it for good. I hope that he does, too.”
That would be Griffin’s prevailing message to Manziel were he asked how to manage fame. There is never a day when you are an average person. Therefore, as a walking news bulletin, it’s important for multiple reasons to push the spotlight toward good.
“All the going out and stuff like that? To each his own,” Griffin said. “But, you should try to use that fame, use that hype to do good things for people. Because not everybody has that opportunity. If you’re going to constantly get coverage, why not have it be, ‘Hey, Robert did this for such-and-such. Hey, Johnny did this for such-and-such.’ As opposed to negative things. That’s what you want it to be.”
Any top-10 pick will feel pressure. Maybe not to the extent of Griffin or Manziel because of the position difference, yet it still exists. Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall was picked eighth overall in 2004. Twitter did not exist then. The lack of social media reduced noise around them, but also reduced their reach. The loquacious Hall thinks he would have benefited from the front-to-back coverage that exists now.
“There’s no telling [what would have happened],” Hall said. “I would probably be President right now. Definitely would have more than 30,000 followers on Twitter. That’s for sure. But it is what it is, man. It’s the evolution of the game.”
Back at camp, Griffin eventually had to walk into the Richmond training facility, shirking some fans. Even then, adult men still screamed toward him saying it was someone’s birthday or that they knew Griffin would sign because he’s a good guy. They gave him an express guilt trip in hopes of a moment of attention.
For Manziel, the attention seems less about people in pursuit of their hero and more perpetual gawking. What will Johnny Football do? That’s a question he’ll have to answer himself. Everyone will be watching.
• Todd Dybas can be reached at email@example.com.
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