Behold, Johnny Football!
Unless you’ve made an effort to avoid the onslaught of coverage (and if you have, tell me your secret!), you know Johnny Manziel has turned the mainstream football media into his one-man showcase, a place where he can prove to the entire world that he deserves to be a high pick at May’s NFL Draft.
Don’t believe the hype? Well, who else could command his own “private” pro day at Texas A&M that draws wall-to-wall coverage from ESPN, dozens of NFL coaches and scouts and – hey, isn’t that President George H.W. Bush in that golf cart?
That’s professional sports these days. But it’s hard not to be a little bowled over by the amount of hype, build-up and coverage a 21-year-old college sophomore is getting. And even scarier that the hype really was just as big when Manziel won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman in 2012.
So is Johnny Football going to be a megastar in the NFL? I haven’t the slightest idea. But I watch all this right now and can’t help but think of some of the young star athletes who got similar attention and ended up on the scrapheap of unmet expectations.
The NFL may be the biggest minefield: Tim Tebow, JaMarcus Russell, Vince Young, Matt Leinart and Ryan Leaf all come quickest to mind.
But the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and, yes, Major League Soccer all have their not-so-shining examples, too.
This is the culture of fandom we have created in this country. Professional sports are one of the quickest tickets to fortune and fame, quite often via the rags-to-riches route. Those that make it are elevated to god-like status. Their jerseys sell like hot cakes. They’re hawking burgers in TV ads. Our kids practice their moves in the backyard.
Which is great – kids need role models to look up to. That, combined with careful coaching, is ideally what keeps the sports we love healthy and sustainable.
But let’s go around the room and see who else gets a little worried when an unproven young athlete goes through the hype machine before ever setting foot on a pitch, field, court or rink as a professional.
That’s why I worry about Johnny Football. It’s why I worry about one-and-done college basketball stars like Duke’s Jabari Parker, whose NBA success is no guarantee.
Major League Soccer is a little different. It’s very rare that a college athlete is so head-and-shoulders dominant above the field that MLS scouts see him as an immediate difference-maker. Hell, few rookies in MLS even start immediately and it’s a common theme in this league that the lower draft picks are often the ones who become huge stars. (Think Michael Bradley, Graham Zusi and Chris Wondolowski.)
Not to mention that many of the guys who are currently MLS’ biggest domestic stand-outs are products of US Soccer’s residency program, or groomed by academies of clubs abroad.
But MLS is by no means immune to overhyping young players and saddling them with what are often unreasonable expectations.
That’s why I get a little nervous when we rush 19-year-old Diego Fagundez into the elite of MLS.
Or when we’re so blown away by Wil Trapp’s upside that we forget he’s only been old enough to buy us a beer for two months.
Or when we pencil in DeAndre Yedlin into the starting right back spot for the US national team at the 2018 World Cup. Or start talking about guys like Russell Teibert and Jonathan Osorio (both 21) as central to the core of kids who'll turn around the Canadian national team.
Or saddle Jack McInerney with a ridiculous nickname like “The American Chicharito” (nostra culpa, March to the Match).
We were just here in this same spot three years ago with Juan Agudelo, and I was nervous then, too.
It’s a pattern that follows along with the Johnny Manziels of pro sports. And it should make all of us a little nervous. Looking for a future star to help your team is a good thing – it’s at the very core of the optimist fan’s fiber. And letting your imagination run wild isn’t a horrible thing either.
Anointing a kid the next megastar to be? That should make any North American soccer fan nervous.
I’ll put it another way: If I were to coin another nickname – “Freddy Fútbol” – you’d know exactly what I meant, wouldn’t you?
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.