Reader Gary Billings sent me an interesting concept the other day. Is Johnny Manziel the modern-day Joe Don Looney?
You remember Looney, or at least have read about his exploits. The OU star from half a century ago, who burst upon the Sooner scene in 1962, seemed to have unlimited potential, then his career disintegrated through a series of transgressions.
There are plenty of differences, of course, between Manziel and Looney, starting with the Heisman Trophy. But there are plenty of similarities, too. Texans who came from affluent families, seemingly lacking all discipline, but who came from nowhere to be sensations, only to find the spotlight a little difficult to handle. Looney didn’t and Manziel hasn’t shown that they believe rules apply to them.
Perhaps the most striking similarity is how Looney came to be kicked off the Sooner squad by Bud Wilkinson in 1963. Looney punched an OU graduate assistant coach. Manziel, remember, famously shoved a Texas A&M graduate assistant during spring practice.
Another similarity: Neither coach appeared to know what kind of talent he had on his hands. A&M coach Kevin Sumlin didn’t even name Manziel his starting quarterback until a couple of weeks before the 2012 season opener. Looney wasn’t a starter as the 1962 season opened, but Wilkinson inserted him late in the season opener against Syracuse, and Looney reeled off a legendary 60-yard touchdown run to give the Sooners a 7-3 victory.
Looney had a more checkered background before taking college football by storm. He made short stops at Texas and TCU, before starring at Lawton’s Cameron Junior College in 1961 and moving on to OU.
Looney was quite the character, too. He was not a Brian Bosworth, a great player who adopted a quacky persona to get more press. Looney was legitimately an oddball. “Bosworth’s persona was manufactured,” said Looney biographer J. Brent Clark. “Looney’s was genuine. ”
In the foreward of Clark’s Third Down & Forever, Barry Switzer wrote that “Joe Don was just born a little too soon.” Or maybe he was born in the right time. Certainly Manziel hasn’t been helped by the social-media phenomenon of the 21st century. Looney ended up playing a little pro football, getting involved with drugs, going to Vietnam and devoting himself to Eastern mysticism. Then he died in a motorcycle crash in desolate west Texas in 1988 at age 45.
Manziel seems more addicted to the spotlight and to confrontation than did Looney, but Manziel also seems more dedicated to football, which should benefit him in the long run. Manziel seems to make news every 15 minutes about something either silly or scandalous, but give him this. I think football is important to him. I’m not sure it was to Joe Don Looney, which means that’s the biggest difference between the two.