This is a story that probably isn't true, but at some point, as they say in old Westerns and streetwise crime novels, truth gives way to legend, and I'm guessing few ex-college football players are more cognizant of the sheer blowback of legend than Brian Bosworth. This is a story that dates back to the mid-1980s, when the Oklahoma linebacker, who would soon morph into the action-film caricature known as The Boz, was working a summer job on the assembly line at a General Motors factory in Oklahoma City. And every so often, feeling bored and insignificant and marginalized by the machines stamping out luxury vehicles, The Boz told Sports Illustrated, he and his co-workers would hang a bolt off a piece of thread inside the chassis of an automobile so that it would prove both annoying and impossible to find.
The Boz roused an industry with that tale, until people realized he'd apparently made the whole thing up in order to feed The Boz. But this was the rationale behind the entire persona: Bosworth was consciously screwing with our sense of propriety and challenging cultural norms about athletes while simultaneously constructing a public image for himself. He was an obnoxious oaf with a ridiculous haircut, but he was an obnoxious oaf with a ridiculous haircut (at least in part) because he was rattling our collective bolts.
There haven't been many great renegades in college football since The Boz. It is a reactionary sport with a hidebound ethos; by its nature, not to mention the nature of the century-old system that governs it, the machinery of college football exists to grind out the individual. The Boz, who was not as dumb as he looked, managed to confound the machine in fascinating ways until the NCAA caught up to him. It was a tricky little balancing act, and it ended with The Boz flaming out at Bo Jackson's feet and becoming a C-list Hollywood punchline. "I got so famous, so quick, I didn't know how to handle it," Bosworth said, years later. "I had created a monster."
Which brings me, for what already feels like the 38th time in this week-old season, to Johnny Manziel.
I don't know if Manziel is now purposefully embracing the role of the heel, like Bosworth once did. I don't know if Manziel's open taunting of the Rice football team upon his return from a 30-minute NCAA suspension on Saturday -- and, I mean, taunting Rice is kind of like heckling an elementary-school backgammon team -- was a one-time glitch that will be tamped down by authoritarian forces, or if Manziel is now fully embracing his burgeoning public persona as a folk antihero and/or an entitled jerk. I don't know if Manziel is making some kind of conscious cultural statement about the burden of expectations for college athletes and the ravages of a proprietary system and the contours of modern fame, or if he's just a high-intensity dude who likes to party.
And honestly, I don't know if it even matters anymore, because at this point Johnny Manziel has already rattled the machine. And it may be too late for him to do anything but embrace the character he's become.
"I feel like now that everybody hates him," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said the other day, "he's quickly becoming my favorite player in college football."
It's impossible to predict where Manziel will wind up in 10 years. At this point, virtually any scenario seems plausible. Maybe he'll be in the midst of a career as a Hall of Fame quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys; maybe he'll be starring in "The Expendables 8;" maybe he'll be on television, working as a studio analyst alongside a cryogenic Regis Philbin, and maybe he'll be on local commercial breaks in central Texas, offering you THE BEST POSSIBLE DEAL on a Chevy Malibu at Manziel's Magic Auto Mall in Marble Falls. Maybe Johnny Manziel will grow up and settle down and become far less interesting, maybe he'll be one of the five most famous athletes in America, and maybe he'll be a reality-television desperado. It's a tricky thing, to cast yourself as the heel. Manziel's created this public persona, and eventually -- one way or the other -- he'll have to come to terms with it. He's on the cusp of shaping his own legend, and even if it turns into a monster, I'm sort of with Joe Flacco on this one, because it's fascinating as hell to watch it slouch from its cage.