Hey, Johnny Football, try a mile in Steve Gleason’s shoes

June 19, 2013 

Johnny Manziel, who has three years of college eligibility remaining, and Steve Gleason, who might have three years of life remaining, have nothing in common aside from a love of football and an eagerness – reiterated last weekend – to share their private thoughts with a public audience.

Manziel’s missive came first, on Saturday night, when the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner from Texas A&M sent out an odd Twitter message: “(Stuff) like tonight is a reason why I can’t wait to leave College Station.”

The tweet was deleted, followed by a sort of clarification buttered with self-pity.

“Don’t ever forget that I love A&M with all my heart,” Manziel tweeted. “But please please walk a mile in my shoes.”

When Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, his acceptance speech, full of grace and humility, suggested he had a grip on fame that was rare for a 20-year-old college student. Since then, Manziel has pursued a lifestyle, well, rare for a 20-year-old college student.

He has sat alongside Jay Leno on the set of “The Tonight Show,” and played golf with recording stars at prestigious country clubs, and enjoyed a courtside view of an NBA game in Miami.

A few hours after he led the Aggies to a thumping of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, Manziel was seen holding a bottle of Dom Perignon in a Dallas lounge. A technical violation of a Texas state law prohibiting underage patrons in nightclubs, perhaps, but not a federal offense. When some of us were 20-year-old students, we might’ve been

photographed doing the same thing, albeit with a 50-cent can of Pabst Blue Ribbon rather than a $200 bottle of Dom.

This was before Yahoo Sports reported Manziel posting a snapshot of himself holding a handful of cash, with the caption: “Casino ballin.’ ”

Responding to those who sensed Manziel had crossed the vague line of probity expected of Heisman Trophy winners, he tweeted: “Nothing about being 18+ in a casino and winning money...KEEP HATING!”

I don’t hate Johnny Manziel. (I’ve got the Heisman ballot to prove it.) In fact, on some level – OK, on just about every level – I envy him. He’s a 20-year-old quarterback with a lot of livin’ to do, and he’s grabbing the gusto while he can.

But something’s not right.

Here’s a kid with the opportunity to become the most accomplished college-football player in history. Ohio State running back Archie Griffin, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1974 and 1975, is the only two-time recipient of the award; Manziel could win it three times and still bolt to the pros before his final season of eligibility.

So what’s with the bellyaching tweet about his wish to leave College Station, Texas, for a destination “wherever it might be”? What’s with the cryptic insistence that his Twitter followers “please please walk a mile in my shoes”?

While Manziel is pondering the conflicted state of his tortured life — a big man on campus in a small Texas town — he might want to consult Steve Gleason for some wisdom.

The former Washington State standout, who parlayed his fearlessly competitive instincts into a backup safety and special-teams gig with the Saints that lasted eight seasons, is dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — for which there was no cure in 1941, when Gehrig became its most prominent victim, and no cure 72 years later.

Peter King, who writes the Monday Morning Quarterback column for sportsillustrated.com, invited Gleason to substitute for him the other day.

Despite losing the use of his fingers – despite losing everything but his beautiful, exceedingly exercised mind — Gleason crafted 4,500 of the most inspiring words you’ll ever read.

“I type with my eyes,” he explained in the piece. “Crazy, right? Actually, not as crazy as you might think. Cellphones, tablets, TVs and computers are all beginning to incorporate ‘eye-tracking’ technology. Someday soon we will all navigate computers with our eyes. When that day comes, remember: You saw it here first. Keeping this perspective helps me think of myself less as disabled and more as a trendsetter.”

When doctors told Gleason of his fate, he recalled his reaction in four words: Denial. Frustration. Anger. Despair.

“But at some point,” he wrote, “I understood that acceptance of this diagnosis was not admitting defeat. That was critical for me personally. I think our lives are enriched when our death is a conscious thought. I am not saying we should obsess over this, but it can be useful because it makes you focus on the things and people you truly love.”

Steve Gleason is 36, resigned to the reality he likely won’t make it to 40. Facing a death sentence, he has no time to judge the Atlanta sports-radio dunderheads – since fired – who mocked his condition on Monday.

“We all have made mistakes in this life,” Gleason reasoned. “How we learn from our mistakes is a measure of who we are.”

Johnny Manziel is 20, and has reason to suspect he’s immortal. He’s got a nickname for all time — “Johnny Football” — and the kind of brash edge that turned QBs such as Bobby Layne and Jim McMahon into NFL legends.

But Johnny, when you tweet, don’t play the whole-world-is-against-me card. “Please please walk in my shoes”?

Steve Gleason would love to take you up on that offer.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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