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Talking to ESPN's Wright Thompson

I spoke with ESPN Senior Writer Wright Thompson at 1:00 CT, minutes after his article about Manziel was published.


GBH: Anyone who's read your work knows that so much of your writing focuses on the importance of place. How important was it for you to experience College Station first-hand to get the Manziel story for ESPN?

WT: Well, I mean I think there are two things going on. I think that the essential truth in this story lies in municipal fiction. Through no one's fault, really, but Johnny Manziel's College Station is very different than everyone else's College Station. This is true for all college athletes and coaches. I don't think fans realize that coaches and families aren't from a town. They're from the program. They don't love the same things about the place that you love about it. I mean, I live in Oxford, Mississippi. I saw Houston Nutt once in public, and I've seen Hugh Freeze zero. And I'm around town all the time. I live right off the square, I walk everywhere...they don't live in these towns in the same way you and I do, and they don't carry the same nostalgia for the same things you and I do, so I think that's important. But I think in Johnny's case...I'm not trying to say "poor Johnny," I think Johnny's life is pretty awesome. But media is changing so much and celebrity is changing so much that college sports are becoming an even bigger business than they've ever been in their history and in many ways he's sort of like the guy who discovered a new country and he's the first person in it. And I think that there will be other people after him in other programs with similar levels of fame and attention and that people will learn from Johnny about how to handle this brave new world. But I think everyone's just figuring it out: from Johnny, to his family, to the NCAA, to Kevin Sumlin, to Texas A&M.

I just honestly think that if you gave everyone truth serum, everyone would say "we have no idea how to handle this."

GBH: Social media has built up this aura of Johnny Football. After spending time with him in person, how much of it is a persona?

WT: I think it's a total persona. I've said this three or four times today, but he's a good guy. It's like...he does dumb stuff sometimes (we all do) but we should start with the fact that you would like to hang out with him. I mean, he's funny. I caught him right in the immediate aftermath of a Tweet, and I think if you got him on here he'd say it was a pretty dark week and I'm guessing he didn't really want me around, but he did it and he was a pro and he was a funny, normal guy who was obviously struggling.

GBH: You spent some time with his family. What's it like for them to see him go from a nobody to one of the most famous people in America in under a year?

WT: There is no playbook. Nobody tells you how to do that. All you want as a parent (and this is me talking now) is to be able to help your child navigate every problem that arises in their life. In some ways that's a genetically-encoded, handed-down-from-God mission, and when this happens you suddenly become helpless. I don't think they would articulate it like that, but what he's going through...they've never been through. You can't really relate to what it's like. I mean, what relevant advice can a non-famous person give a famous person?

GBH: How should a school handle this kind of instant fame for one of its student athletes? There's no real defined role of how they should handle all this instant attention [with regards to] management, mentoring, the press etc. Do you have any thoughts about what the school is doing right or wrong?

WT: I don't have a good sense of what they're allowed to do with the NCAA, but they should hire him a personal assistant/agent/manager. Somebody whose job it is to manage everything. To manage the siege, who's done it before, a professional publicist or combination media manager/brand manager, agent, assistant, mentor, somebody that knows what to do.

Kevin Sumlin's policy about not letting freshmen talk is absolutely the correct policy. That's so smart because they get a chance to find their feet. They understand the power and danger and benefit of the's absolute genius, but the absolute wrong thing to do when you're losing control and a celebrity persona is taking over. Because people have to turn him into a [sight] and so there should've been somebody to say "we don't need to do this." ...It seems like what's happening is happening so fast that there is no real precedent for it except maybe Tim Tebow, but I would argue that even Tim Tebow didn't live in the social media world that Johnny lives in. And...I went to college with a lot of people. I knew a lot of Johnny Manziels and I didn't know any Tim Tebows. I don't think you can judge Texas A&M, because...who knows? I think everyone's honestly trying to do the best that they can.

GBH: Johnny's got three more years of eligibility. Did you get any sort of impression from spending time with him or his family as to whether or not he'd make use of all of it?

WT: I just can't imagine a single scenario where that happens. I would bet a lot of money that this is it. They just need to start the damn season. One thing his parents have said is that they just want him to play baseball. They said he gets free time and just starts cattin' around--I should've put that in the story. I totally forgot about that until you just said that. But that's a really good point: once he has the structure of this thing a lot of things can go back to normal.

I mean, what relevant advice can a non-famous person give a famous person?

There is no right answer. Honestly, I think there's clearly tension between Camp Manziel and Texas A&M. But I don't think it's based on personalities or that anyone doesn't like each other; I just think that everyone is in a very weird, awkward, sort of unfamiliar world feeling around in the dark. And I think there's a lot at stake for everyone, and that on its own produces tension. Everyone has a lot at stake, and the common denominator in all of it is Johnny.

Honestly, if everyone sits around and asks themselves "would I want to be Johnny?" everyone's initial answer is "Yes." But I'm not sure that answer stays "yes" after a while.

GBH: What were some of your favorite bars/restaurants in B/CS when you were here?

WT: I had a great steak and a bunch of really good whiskey at Republic.


WT: Whoever's at the Frat party tweeting pictures is just a jackass.

GBH: Hey, that's Burnt Orange Nation, our #1 blog this week.

WT: I just don't understand. I mean, who would do that? Of course, said the guy who splayed someone's private details all over for like a million people to view on ESPN.

GBH: Yeah, but they know to expect you. You have a notebook. You came in through the front door.

And Wright was even gracious enough to ask me a question: what's up with Waffle House? I told him they were just giving us the runaround on social media and brushing us off. If anyone can get something done in this regard, it's him. I offered to trade him a College Station Chipotle for an Oxford Waffle House since Chipotle is just a really shitty fast-food rip-off of Freebird's, so we'll see how that goes.