Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 3, 2019

Two Stories Of Great Skill, Or Greater Hubris?

The stories were just two of the scores that filled sports pages and websites in the past week, and because they centered on athletes who are far from the current limelight both could easily have been missed by casual fans. On the surface the two reports seem utterly unrelated. Yet running through what amounted to a pair of updates in the ongoing sagas of Johnny Manziel and Olivia Moultrie were a couple of common threads, for both are cautionary tales about the limits of ability and the narrow line between confidence and hubris that so often defines an athlete’s career.

Manziel is obviously the more familiar of those two names. Like a Fourth of July fireworks display, Johnny Manziel burst onto the public consciousness in 2012 as the quarterback for Texas A&M. A redshirt freshman, he won the open signal-caller’s job over two other candidates, and quickly made head coach Kevin Sumlin look smart for choosing him. In the Aggies fourth game of the season Manziel broke Archie Manning’s four-decade old record by piling up 557 yards of total offense, passing for 453 and rushing for an additional 104 against Arkansas. The Razorbacks led 10-7 after one quarter but were shut out the rest of the way as Manziel’s offense tallied a total of 58 points. The record stood for all of two weeks, until he totaled 576 yards of offense against Louisiana Tech, becoming the first player in Southeastern Conference history to record two 500-yard games in a single season.

The highlight reel just kept rolling for Manziel, who later won two huge games on the road. First he led A&M to a 63-21 rout at Auburn, and then he silenced the capacity crowd at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa by shocking number one Alabama 29-24. After a 10-2 regular season Texas A&M and Manziel began the new year with a 41-13 thrashing of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.

By then he had become the first freshman and just the fifth collegiate player ever to pass for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 in a season. His totals far outstripped those mileposts, with 3,706 passing and 1,410 rushing yards that produced 26 touchdowns through the air and 21 more on the ground. He had also become the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy in early December, just two days after his twentieth birthday.

Manziel played a second college season, producing numbers nearly as good while trademarking his “Johnny Football” nickname and becoming known for rubbing his thumb and two fingers together in the commonly recognized symbol for “money” after every touchdown. Despite being undersized for a professional quarterback, Manziel declared for the NFL Draft after his sophomore season.

But size wasn’t his only problem. Manziel’s showmanship rubbed lots of talent evaluators the wrong way. Retired coach Barry Switzer spoke for many when he called Manziel “an arrogant little prick,” and he was made to wait until late in the first round before being drafted by the Cleveland Browns.

Football fans don’t need to be reminded of the story from there. Fined $12,000 by the league for an obscene gesture in a preseason game, Manziel warmed the bench as a backup until Week 15. When he finally got a start, his passer rating in that first game was a laughable 27.3. His play remained both infrequent and indifferent through two campaigns with the Browns, until he was demoted to third string after embarrassing video of Manziel partying in Texas during the team’s bye week surfaced, and by the last game of the 2015 season he was reportedly in Las Vegas rather than with the team in Cleveland. A few months later Manziel was released.

With that history, as much as one might have hoped otherwise, this week’s Manziel news was not surprising. He had managed to latch on to a job in the Canadian Football League, initially with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who signed Manziel last May. After seeing no action during the early part of the season, he was traded to Montreal in July. With the Alouettes Manziel appeared in eight games, compiling a passer rating of just 80.6 while throwing 7 interceptions against just 5 touchdowns.

Still he was expected to compete for the starting job this season. Until Montreal abruptly announced that Manziel had been released, and that the CFL was prohibiting any other team from signing him, because he had violated the terms of his contract.

If Manziel’s introduction to sports fans was like pyrotechnics, Olivia Moultrie’s was more like a sparkler. A little girl who once wanted to be a dentist discovered soccer when she was in the third grade, and quickly demonstrated a preternatural skill for the game. By the fifth grade she was being home schooled, the better to focus on developing her talent. Her family installed an artificial turf field in their California back yard. She played on boys’ teams with older players and traveled to Europe to train with junior teams there.

Then two years ago, at the age of eleven, Moultrie announced to her social media followers that she had accepted a scholarship to the University of North Carolina. She was the youngest girls’ soccer player to ever receive an academic scholarship, which of course would not take effect for several more years. There were some commentators who worried about the optics of a college program recruiting a tween, but since the offer was non-binding, and Moultrie’s talent truly exceptional, most managed to judge the announcement as endearing.

That reaction was harder to find this week, when the youngest girl to publicly accept a college scholarship became the youngest girl to forego her collegiate career. Moultrie announced that she had picked the Wasserman Media Group as her agent and had signed an endorsement deal with Nike. At the age of thirteen Olivia Moultrie has turned pro.

Beyond an assurance that it’s worth more than the scholarship (generally about $300,000), specific terms of the Nike deal were not disclosed by Moultrie’s new agents. Yet beyond whatever amount Nike has improved the Moultrie family’s finances, it’s not clear what the decision to become a professional really means. FIFA rules prevent European clubs from signing foreign prospects until they turn eighteen. The same age limit applies to the top U.S. women’s league, the NWSL.

Just two current members of the U.S. national women’s team skipped college to join the pro ranks, but Mallory Pugh was nineteen when she joined the NWSL’s Washington Spirit rather than attend UCLA, and Lindsay Horan was eighteen when she went to France to play for Paris St. Germain rather than go to UNC.

It is also impossible to know how a thirteen-year-old will develop physically. For all her phenomenal ability today, an eighteen or twenty-year-old Moultrie may not be the same generational talent. Perhaps that is an argument for cashing in now.

One cannot help but wish both Manziel and Moultrie well, but one cannot escape a sense of foreboding. Manziel had great talent, but greater hubris, and now is likely reduced to a bit part in the new Alliance of American Football, if even that. Olivia Moultrie’s skill in her sport is arguably greater than Manziel’s in his, but perhaps the arrogance of her handlers is as well. And in her case, it is a childhood that is lost.

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