Nobody asked Johnny Manziel about Nerlens Noel, and that’s an important part of this story. Because of Twitter, we can see the thoughts of someone like Manziel in a way that is unmolested by the whole game of asking questions and planting ideas.
So Manziel, like the rest of us, saw that Kentucky’s best basketball player, Nerlens Noel, blew out his knee and is out for the season. Noel is still expected to declare for June’s NBA Draft, but he will not be healthy enough to play when next season starts and probably won’t have all of his athletic ability back until about this time next year. The injury also comes just as this young Kentucky team was showing signs of putting it all together, so you can imagine all the things Noel must be feeling.
So can Manziel.
“Definitely keeping (Noel) in my prayers,” he wrote on Twitter. “Scary injury tonight hate to see that happen to such a talented kid.”
It’s just simple empathy, from one great athlete to another. But it is scary, and it has to be especially scary for Manziel, who plays quarterback the way a Labrador fetches a tennis ball – all abandon and self-disregard.
This is Manziel’s most endearing characteristic. To watch him play is to remember what it feels like to be an 18-year-old kid, back before you wrecked your car doing donuts on a country road, before you broke your coccyx jumping from stairwell to couch, before the world proved to you, over and over, that you are not, in fact, invincible.
Robert Griffin III has always played much the same way Manziel does. Like Manziel, Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy because of the way he plays, became famous because of it. And because of it, Griffin III has twice blown out his knee. He now faces a choice that will define the remainder of his career: Continue to play the way you played to get you where you are or, now that you’re there, do you protect what you’ve achieved?
Manziel has not had to confront such a decision yet. He has only played one season of college football and, if anything, that season proved he was more invincible than previously thought. He toyed with some of the best defenses in college football. He let the best and strongest and fastest defensive linemen in the country get just close enough to smell him, and then he’d duck and spin and get away. He always got away. What a feeling it must be, at age 20, to know you can do that.
Noel had a similar effect on basketball. He isn’t the best player in the country, but he can toy with his opponents. He blocked 12 shots against Ole Miss. He just waits for you to come in there and right when you think you’ve got him, he springs off the floor and sends the offering out of bounds. He rises above your head and snatches away a rebound you knew you had. He catches it under the basket, and has dunked, landed and started jogging back on defense by the time you’ve gathered your feet to challenge the dunk.
And then one day he chases down a block and: Pop. Season over.
Not because he did something dumb, not because he had it coming. Because sometimes in sports these things just happen.