A&M’s Manziel: Polarizing punk or McMahon incarnate?

September 4, 2013 

What are we to do about this polarizing quarterback who seems to revel in his reputation as a punk?

This quarterback who defies rules, aggravates coaches, taunts opponents, antagonizes fans and generally comports himself as a self-appointed cad born to irritate everybody who respects the glorious game of football: He’s got talent and an undeniable appetite to excel under the spotlight. Isn’t that enough? Why must he ensure that controversy follow him like a permanent shadow?

I’m referring, of course, to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, but also recalling Jim McMahon, who was insisting that his critics take a hike – the family-friendly version of his typical epithets – a decade before Manziel was born.

Manziel, the defending Heisman Trophy winner, resumed his football career Saturday in the same spirit of reckless abandon that marked his stormy offseason.

After sitting out the first half for what his school described as an “inadvertent” violation involving signed autographs, Manziel threw three touchdown passes in the Aggies’ 52-31 victory over Rice.

Manziel’s performance off the bench should’ve been the headline story from Saturday, but it was Manziel’s antics that stole the show.

One time, he appeared to mimic signing an autograph as he picked himself up from the ground, exchanging words with the Rice tackler. On another occasion, he rubbed his thumb and forefingers together, sign-language code for money.

Finally, after throwing for

his third TD, Manziel pointed to the scoreboard, a taunting gesture that got him a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct and a seat back on the bench.

The parallels between Manziel and McMahon can be traced to that last act Saturday. McMahon is believed to be the first football player to point to the scoreboard.

According to sports columnist Brad Rock of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Utah fans were chiding McMahon, the BYU quarterback, during a 1980 game in Provo. McMahon, who had just completed one of his eight touchdown throws in a 56-6 romp, engaged the hecklers with a finger (presumably the index finger, but with McMahon, you never knew) in the direction of the scoreboard.

This was, what, 33 years ago? I’ll be honest with you: I found McMahon’s cocky “scoreboard” rebuke as a refreshing throwback to Joe Namath, somebody I’d seen once in a New York Jets uniform and dozens of times on TV. And while I’ve got no memories of Bobby Layne, another quarterback whose sole adherence to the party line was the promise of a party, I envisioned Layne – described by 1950s sportswriters as “colorful” – doing the same thing.

But nobody was as colorful as Jim McMahon. A first-round draft choice of the Bears in 1982, McMahon showed up for his introductory press conference clutching a beer.

Owner George Halas was aghast, as was coach Mike Ditka. Thus began a strained but fascinating coach-quarterback relationship that combined soap opera and slapstick and some of the most inspired football ever produced by a cornerstone NFL franchise.

McMahon’s edge corresponded with the moment: The bigger the stakes, the more brash he became. When a helicopter showed up for a glimpse at a closed Bears’ practice before Super Bowl XX in New Orleans, McMahon offered a full-moon pose for the chopper’s camera.

The NFL prohibited headbands with logos of brands unaffiliated with the league, McMahon wore them anyway. When commissioner Pete Rozelle threatened to suspend him, he wore a headband labeled “Rozelle.”

McMahon played with a crazy passion on the field, and played just as hard off it. By 1986, the season after the Bears shuffled to their lone Super Bowl victory, Green Bay defensive end Charles Martin had seen, and heard, enough. He encountered McMahon with a vicious body-slam, well after the quarterback had released a pass.

McMahon was brittle by pro-football standards, and his right throwing shoulder never really recovered from Martin’s malicious hit.

A cheap shot delivered by an exasperated opponent? That’s something Manziel might want to think about next time he’s tempted to taunt a defender.

As for the rest of us, we might want to think of how McMahon has become such an endearing piece of NFL lore. The “punky QB” is struggling now – diagnosed with early-stage dementia last year, he was a high-profile plaintiff in the recently settled lawsuit former players filed against the league – but he knows his legacy is intact.

McMahon did it his way, and along the way, he gained the respect of fans who saw him as a delightfully reliable pebble in Pete Rozelle’s shoe.

I wish Johnny Football would cool it. (Really, dude, just turn things down a notch.)

But I can’t be a hypocrite. I can’t admit an admiration for McMahon’s rebelliousness while calling out Manziel for his, uh, rebelliousness.

Two quarterbacks, 33 years apart, pointed to the scoreboard — the first and last and only truth we’ve got left as sports fans.

Punks? Brats? Call them what you want.

But if you remember Jimmy Mac as a charming icon of what football was like in the 1980s, you must regard Johnny Football as his 2013 protégé.

They’re from the same mold; iconoclasts whose idea of Judgment Day can be condensed into a single word.

Scoreboard.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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