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Ben Smith

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Manziel a modern-day Broadway Joe

– So it’s a Wednesday afternoon in July, and Joe Namath is on my mind.

It’s not his month or his season or even his time in history, God knows, but there is a relevance to him these days that seems as now as selfies and ambush cellphone videos. There is an immediacy to him that resonates as thoroughly here in 2014 as it did back in 1965, when he was a rookie quarterback with an absurd wad of money and all of New York at his feet.

He was, after all, Joe Willie White Shoes, the first pro quarterback to actually live in the world in the sense that his life away from the field was as loud as his life on it. He drank, he caroused, he threw bombs to Don Maynard. He hung out with starlets, and, come Sunday afternoon, hung touchdowns on various Chiefs and Raiders and Broncos.

He was, in other words, Johnny Manziel before there was a Johnny Manziel.

Only time will tell if Manziel remotely comes close to what Namath was as a football player, but as a seeker of the good times the comparison is already eerie. The difference is the din around Manziel is louder because 2014 technology has turned up the volume on everything, the insatiable maw of 24/7/365 media – official and otherwise – providing an echo chamber that never shuts down and never lets up.

Dick Young or some other get-off-my-lawn columnist could blast Namath for his eagerness to view the dawn through the bottom of a shot glass, but he only did it in the morning papers. There were no gotcha photos of Joe Willie in the bathroom at Toots Shor’s. There was no Mike One and Mike Two chastising him every morning for, well, being a 21-year-old kid hanging out with his buds when he should have been ...

What, exactly? Holed up with his playbook like some Trappist monk?

The skinny here is, like Namath, Manziel is doing nothing wrong or illegal or remotely scandalous, but the 2014 social media culture is making it seem that way. It is, after all, a basic tenet of the 24/7/365 culture that even the mundane must be made to seem Really Important, because there simply isn’t enough stuff that actually is Really Important to fill all that airspace and provide fodder for all those Twitter feeds and blogs.

Perspective, in other words, is the first casualty of the culture. And so Manziel posing for a photo in Vegas with Justin Bieber during his off time becomes OMG, JOHNNY MANZIEL IS POSING FOR A PHOTO IN VEGAS WITH JUSTIN BIEBER!!! And that of course is followed by one of the Mikes shouting (because these guys always shout) that this is the NFL, a serious business, and Manziel JUST ISN’T TAKING THIS SERIOUSLY ENOUGH.

Yeesh. Turn it down, will ya, guys?

Because I’m thinking of Joe Willie again on this July afternoon, and I’m wondering what the Mikes and Twitter and the blogosphere would have done with him. And I’m reading that Manziel was all business in the OTAs and mini camps, same as Joe Willie was all business on the field. And I’m thinking about what that led to for Joe Willie, in spite of all the late-nights-turned-early-mornings.

Last I looked, it led him to Canton, Ohio, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Nobody’s predicting that for Manziel. He’s not even the starter right now in Cleveland. But if he wins the job and then goes on to lead the Browns out of the wilderness, will anyone care how many photos of Johnny Football and the Biebs are floating around out there?

And if anyone does care – a Mike or a Mike or a Colin Cowherd or some other yapping poodle – how long before the rest of us stop caring about them?

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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