BEREA, Ohio – Jason Campbell doesn’t know Johnny Manziel, and Campbell was careful to say that he doesn’t know a thing about the persona of Johnny Football or the situation regarding Manziel’s NCAA eligibility potentially being lost.
But even eight years and four stops into his NFL career, Campbell remembers his time as quarterback at Auburn, as a public leader of a successful college football team and a student-athlete who had to play by NCAA rules when it came to benefiting from his football fame.
Manziel opened camp with his Texas A&M teammates this week as the reigning Heisman Trophy winner but did so under the cloud of an NCAA investigation into whether his amateur status may have been compromised this summer. The NCAA takes a hard-line stance when it comes to universities making millions off of their athletes — and those athletes not getting anything past their scholarship benefits without risking their chance to continue to play.
“It’s tough because when you’re in that position, you’re doing a lot for the university,” Campbell said after a Cleveland Browns training camp practice this week. “You know you’re doing a lot for the university, and if you’re doing well, everyone wants a piece of you. You’re a kid, and one day you have people coming at you left and right looking for and asking for everything.
“It’s made really clear that student-athletes aren’t allowed to take anything or do anything. Hopefully in the near future things may change. Not everyone makes it to the pros and has a chance to capitalize, financially, off of their talents. Basically, you’re helping the school make a lot of money. Some way, some how, there has to be a way for guys to make a little bit of money.”
Campbell speaks from his experience at Auburn, where he played quarterback for four years, started for two and helped guide the 2004 Tigers to an unbeaten season before being picked in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft. Given the SEC’s dominance of college football of late, it seems hard to believe that Auburn ran the table and won the SEC that season and didn’t play for the BCS title, but that’s what happened.
Still, Campbell said he got to see the SEC “as the NFL’s minor leagues, which it is, but there’s nothing minor league about it.
“The spotlight is always on at Auburn, at Alabama, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina. When you play in those big games, people roll in on Tuesday in their RVs. The whole campus is taken over by people there for the game, people who know your name. On Saturday there are 90,000 people there to see you.”
Campbell sees Manziel’s now-public issues as probably a case of just too much, too fast.
“I know the SEC, and I know people saw Texas A&M a year ago at this time as a team that was going to get beat up and pushed around,” Campbell said. “And here comes a guy called Johnny Football proving everybody wrong. It’s a crazy story, right? The guy was phenomenal — not just good, but from nobody knowing him outside of Texas to superstar in a couple weeks. He became the first freshman to win the Heisman.
“When they beat Alabama, that really put him on the map. Now he’s coming back and everyone is looking at him like, ‘What do you have for us now?’
“I’d tell him to find a mentor. Find someone who can grab him, put an arm around him, try to guide him the right way. And the right way is to the football field. He just needs to play, man. He needs the practice field and his teammates. In this business, unfortunately, lots of guys get built up to get torn down.”
Manziel, 20, has been in the news since the spring after showing up in the first row at Miami Heat NBA playoff games, throwing out first pitches at Major League Baseball games, traveling to hang out with rapper Drake and leaving the Manning Passing Academy in July a day early, bringing rumors that he’d missed a morning camp session while nursing a hangover.
His every tweet and every move has been scrutinized, and it was revealed in a national magazine article last week that Manziel’s longtime friend had dropped out of school to serve as Manziel’s personal assistant. Earlier this week came multiple reports alleging that Manziel accepted cash for signing autographs and that Texas A&M had retained the services of the same law firm that represented Auburn during the Cam Newton eligibility investigation.
If the NCAA investigation finds that Manziel has violated NCAA Bylaw 188.8.131.52 — accepting money for promoting or advertising the commercial sale of a product or service — he could be ruled ineligible.
“I hope he’s not in trouble because, selfishly, the football fan in me would hate to not see him on the field this year,” Campbell said. “That’s when I’d really worry about him, too. Like I said, he needs that field, that structure, those guys around him chasing a football goal.
“This stuff usually happens when guys freelance, feel like they have to or they can go out and do things by themselves. When that happens, that gives everybody an opportunity to come at you. If you go out with your teammates, you’re keeping a wall up. You’re keeping everybody there. It’s a team.”
Campbell said he once had Auburn fans he’d never seen before waiting outside his apartment for autographs after a game and remembers “outside people” attempting to be in his life as early as ninth grade, when his recruitment started to take off. Campbell had an older brother play at Mississippi State, so he understood the passion for and business of big-time football better than most.
But as a kid from tiny Taylorsville, Miss., he said nothing really prepared him for the spotlight he encountered as his career progressed.
“Anytime you’re a quarterback in the SEC, there’s some element that, yes, you’ve made it,” Campbell said. “And people are labeling you as a star, asking you for things, telling you how great you are and how great your future is going to be. And you’re a kid who has a morning workout, a test at noon you’ve been studying for and practice in the afternoon.
“I remember that year (2004) we went undefeated, there were people” — he said by people he meant agents, boosters, just general fans and people who had outside motives — “always coming at us. We got together as a team and made a pact that we wouldn’t do anything that would hurt anyone or hurt the program. It had been a long time since we’d been in that position. Our coaches harped on it all the time. It wasn’t just the star players. Guys had access to other guys, too. You know the rules and how one slip can cost everybody.”
Knowing the rules doesn’t mean agreeing with them, and Campbell said it took “a certain maturity” for his Auburn teams to avoid temptation and extra benefits that may have been waiting. Asked if he could have made a few hundred bucks off of his autograph in, say, 2004, he nodded.
“Yes,” he said. “Maybe more. But I didn’t.
“That stuff and taking something from an agent or taking a loan, at the time it sounds like a lot of money somebody may be trying to give to you, but it’s really not compared to what you can make if you do it right and see it through.”
It’s a lot for a kid to handle. And if that kid has so much to handle that he needs a personal assistant?
“That sounds like trouble,” Campbell said. “When I was 20 I was trying to be somebody in college, be in college and have fun and win football games. I didn’t think about having any tag-a-longs.”
Campbell said he’s appreciative of his entire Auburn experience and said the opportunity to get a free education “that’s probably worth $100-200,000, depending on where it is and how it goes. Playing in the SEC, being a part of all that, it’s an incredible experience.
“I just don’t like the fact that me, Ronnie Brown, (Cadillac) Williams, we’ll always be remembered at Auburn. Guys that played linebacker and safety on that team had just as much to do with how much money the university made off that season as we did, and they never got to go on and make an NFL signing bonus. I wish there was some way the university could have taken care of them a little better.
“At Texas A&M, I’m guessing it’s just like Auburn, there’s not a lot there but football. Auburn has barbecue and football. We’d go to basketball games at Auburn and when we’d come in, it was like everybody stopped watching the game. They’d start watching (the football players), and they’d leave their seats to come find us to try to get autographs and pictures.
“I rode around campus (in 2004) and saw my picture up on campus, on a billboard, (I’d) go in a store and see myself on a poster telling people how to get their tickets. I couldn’t take a sandwich from that store, though. I could go to another store down the road and see my jersey hanging there, but I couldn’t profit from it. The school sure profited from it.
“The school makes millions off those jerseys and the kid makes zero. There’s just something wrong with that system.”