Two NFL rookies dominated sports news last week. On Sunday, New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson's pass and helped deliver the Super Bowl to his team. On Monday, Cleveland Brown Johnny Manziel announced that he had entered rehab. Nothing exemplifies the prizes and pitfalls of sports more than the juxtaposition of the journeys of these two players. It's a story of the 1 percent and the 99 percent; the haves and have-nots in the sports world and beyond; the potential payoffs of hard work and determination and professional football's cruel judgment on those who slack off and lose focus.
Malcolm "Scrap" Butler arrived at New England as an undrafted free agent from Division II West Alabama and Hinds Community College in Mississippi. Johnny "Football" Manziel rocketed into Cleveland as a Heisman-winning, first-round pick from blue chip, Division I Texas A&M. Butler grew up in a rough neighborhood of Vicksburg, Miss., the son of a single mother with five children in a two bedroom home. Johnny Manziel resided comfortably near the 1 percent before his football career, the scion of a Texas oil money clan. Butler worked nearly full-time at Popeyes during his community college years. After gritting his way onto New England's roster last summer, he was awarded the league minimum salary of $420, 000. After Manziel played his way down to the number two quarterback position in Cleveland during training camp, he still enjoyed an $8.25 million, 4-year contract with a $4.3 million signing bonus.
Both ran into trouble prior to or early in their freshman years. There were arrests and infractions. In Butler's case, he was kicked off his team and started his stint at Popeyes. In Manziel's, he pulled himself together that first year enough to survive with his behavior and enough to win the Heisman Trophy with his performance.
But those troubled freshman years were a pivotal time for both in terms of their future destinies. Butler worked hard at his job, focused his sights on football and made it back on the team. After winning the Heisman, Manziel entered a non-stop partying and "what me" phase which ended last week. While Butler was passing fried chicken out of a Popeyes window, Manziel was in New York for the Heisman or at the coolest after parties at the ESPYs in Los Angeles. By the time he arrived in Cleveland, he was trailed by an NCAA investigation with a half-game suspension, controversial photos and rumors about his inability to handle alcohol.
Butler's behavior change may have been due to his listening to the adults in his life and Manziel's challenges to his tuning out of his elders. Butler's mother is reportedly a hard worker who held down multiple jobs to support her children. His former coaches also never gave up on him. His former high school coach would drive through Butler's Popeyes window and offer counseling to the young man as he grabbed his order. His West Alabama coaches worked hard to get the Division II All-American in front of NFL recruiters. Eventually he came to the attention of Josh Boyer, the Patriots cornerback coach. Manziel's father and Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin seemed to have made efforts to reach him, though Sumlin admits that more could have been done. Ah, the stakes are high in the best Division I programs. However, he was forced to go to an alcohol counselor after one arrest. In addition, his father spoke to ESPN magazine about his concerns over his son's drinking and temper. One can only assume, particularly as the extended Manziel family reportedly has a history with authorities and illegal substances, that discussions took place in private.
Then they played (or didn't) their first years in the pros. While Butler was only on the field for 190 defensive snaps prior to his last one, you hear the same types of comments from his teammates,coaches and former workers. Humble. Focused. Talented. A hard worker. Meanwhile Manziel started two games, both of which the Browns lost. He was injured in the second game, which led to his most notorious incident of the season. The next Saturday, he never showed up for his physical therapy allegedly due to a party the night before. He promised to do better. Then he was seen after the season in Miami, in Aspen. You hear the same types comments from his teammates, albeit anonymously, as well. Not humble. Not focused. Not a hard worker. As for talent, who can tell?
Each could learn from the other. Butler is now facing the blinding lights of fame -- the Disney Parade, the inevitable trip to the ESPYs next summer, the expectations of the fans and the media as well as his own. "Look at Johnny Manziel," you want to whisper. Avoid the temptations. Finish school, which you have mentioned as a dream. Keep calling your college coach each week. Don't lose your work ethic.
Manziel meanwhile might be facing a battle with a serious disease at a very young age. To his credit, he reportedly made the decision to enter rehab himself. "Look at Malcolm Butler," you want to scream. You too can beat the odds. Talent plus determination can get you far. Take this opportunity seriously. Stay focused. Listen to the right people. Dump the wrong ones. Quit football, if you must. Save your life.
What must have been going through the mind of Malcolm Butler on Wednesday, the young man from a hardscrabble area of the very poor state of Mississippi, as his duck boat rolled through the snowy, wealthy neighborhoods of one of the richest states in the country. At one very moving point, he saluted the Boston fans for cheering him. And what must have been going through the mind of Johnny Manziel on the same day, the rich kid from Texas, as he looked around at his fellow patients in a rehab outside of Cleveland. They're both in very different places geographically and emotionally from a year ago.
Will Hall, Butler's former coach at West Alabama said in an interview, "Malcolm wasn't dealt the best of hands, but man, he's played it as well as anyone walking this earth has played it." But as both men can tell you, hands can change quickly. Where they are now, is not necessarily where they will be in a year, never mind five. Let's hope that both young men play their future cards well.