The Brief Wondrous Hip Hop Life of Johnny Manziel
The downward spiral of Drake's favorite QB
Did anyone other than Johnny Manziel hit the Johnny Manziel hype pipe harder than Drake? Of course there were college football fanatics, sports media types, and other athletes all drinking the Manziel sweet tea; but Drake, in all of his Drakiness, went above and beyond the others. On April Fools’ Day 2014—a full month before the NFL draft—Drake released “Draft Day,” a one-off joint effectively cosigning the young quarterback’s eventual rise to stardom. At the time, the decision seemed smart—drop a song about a cult figure before he takes his first step toward professional greatness—but these days, the song is merely a reminder of Johnny Football’s unfulfilled destiny.
All of the hype started in 2012, after Johnny Manziel joined Texas A&M’s football squad, conducting the offense with prolific charisma and proficient play that earned him a Heisman award—a rare feat for a freshman. A brimming celebrity rolodex followed once he graduated to the Cleveland Browns two years later. Back then, it seemed like every mouth-breathing one-percenter drunkenly appeared on Manziel’s Instagram at one party or another, usually during playing season in a city not named College Station or Cleveland. Snaps of Manziel rubbing shoulders with Drake, Tyrese Gibson, a bedazzled iPod-wielding Floyd Mayweather, or Justin Bieber showed up all the time, normalizing the idea that Manziel’s folkish, small-town start had given way to a persona that transcended American football. “Johnny Football” came to symbolize a vision—a brand—of brash, rich, whiteness that endeared the part of the cerebral cortex associated with flashy things.
It stands to reason, then, that rap artists, actors, and former U.S. presidents—namely, George H.W. Bush—would find Manziel so appealing. Each, so invested in appearance and appearances, on maintaining coolness while cities and nations, real or imagined, seem to crumble around them, found their match in a quarterback who Hall of Famer Steve Young has said, “thrives in chaos.” However, it became all too clear, all too quickly that Manziel was more a catalyst for chaos than someone who appropriately responds in the midst of it.
Perhaps that’s why he was so attracted to rappers like Drake and Future—guys whose lifestyle necessitated frequent club scenes—and, it seemed, that the feeling was mutual. Manziel and Drake’s friendship started innocuously. Manziel had always been a fan and got an OVO tattoo before he’d ever met the rapper. But in April 2014, Drake did the honors of memorializing Manziel’s proudest—and most regret-bitten—moment of his career with “Draft Day.” Aubrey sampling Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing),” shouting out Canadian athletes and scheming on smashing Katniss Everdeen aren’t really all that surprising; but the luxury real estate he gifts Johnny Football in the chorus spoke to their budding friendship and the latter’s prominence in celebrity circles. He showed Manziel even more love that June at the ESPYs when he joked that Johnny asked him if he wanted to do some mushrooms that night.
Because of Manziel’s growing star (and the fact that rappers all copy each other), Manziel’s name began popping up in hip hop songs. There was a measure of respect from artists like Ace Hood, who identified with Manziel’s plight on a freestyle over Drake’s “Believe Me,” fashioning himself as someone who could “tell the critics go to hell” because he was “worth rooting for like Johnny Manziel.” With the jump-off verse on Joe Budden’s “Vietnam,” Brooklyn rapper Ransom places Manziel next to a list of heroes—”I die hard like Bruce Willis and Samuel / Sipping Champale / and party harder than Manziel”—with allusions to the Prophet Muhammad completing some admittedly outlandish analogies.
Aside from Drake, Johnny Manziel befriended other rap heavyweights much to the chagrin of Browns coaches and fans. In 2015, during his second professional season, Manziel was caught on IG slurring through Future’s “March Madness” during the Cleveland Browns bye week, angering many of his coaches in the process. But it didn’t matter much to him because less than a year later, in September 2016, Manziel was caught—this time on Snapchat—making rounds at Miami clubs with Future while he should’ve been preparing for the start of the season.
Sadly, it seems that rap artists were singing in-tune with the rest of America’s enabling choir. Though all the signs were there (Manziel was arrested just days before his freshman training camp as a result of a racist altercation in College Station, he had a deep history of substance abuse and grew up in a small town that adored him too much to tell him “no”), none of them predicted Manziel’s bright star would pan out to a mediocre blip in the NFL’s history books. Manziel was a below-average quarterback in the NFL, going for seven touchdowns and just as many interceptions in eight starts, winning only two of those games. Soon after, the Cleveland coaching staff—which, according to Sports Illustrated, didn’t really want Manziel in the first place—benched him, Manziel simply stopped caring about the game. Drug and substance abuse programs did nothing for an athlete that had been coddled his entire life. Once he’d been charged for assault against his ex-girlfriend Colleen Crowley for rupturing her eardrum during a violent attack in January 2016, Manziel was dropped by two agents (that’s pretty unprecedented), lost his endorsements, and has been deemed untouchable by the league. Prior to the assault charge, a few football teams including the Dallas Cowboys showed interest in the flailing QB, but discussions fizzled out promptly afterward. Most recently, Manziel mentioned being in conversation with a few teams prior to this season but has little to show for it. Johnny Manziel is damaged goods and it’s likely we’ve seen the last of him on a football field.
Ain’t nothing really brand new about rap artists going hard for hype trains. What happens outside of hip-hop’s immediate grasp is all contextual material for what happens inside. Manziel’s brief run atop the world and his quick flameout is, indeed, a story of a culture that embraces the adrenaline of chaos and forgets about those players once the storm bellows.