But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. (Luke 15:20)

Well, it’s almost that time of year. College football is right around the corner. Two words have dominated the headlines in anticipating the big year: Johnny Manziel (or Johnny Football.) Manziel, the first freshman to win the Heisman, has had an adventurous off-season. His every move has been documented and immediately evaluated, whether it be sharing the stage with Megan Fox on Leno or posting pictures with LeBron James before a Miami Heat game (or other pictures, most of which are on the risque side of things). Manziel unapologetically revels in the fame, relying on the whole “I’m just living my life like any normal 20-year-old” that seems to be nothing more than an excuse for debauchery, but who’s judging? Perhaps, he is, in fact, doing what every other 20-year-old is doing. C’mon, what 20-year-old (or 30, or 40 for that matter) wouldn’t flaunt a photo with LeBron on Twitter?! Johnny Football is not every other 20-something, though. He’s a Heisman winner, and the starting quarterback at Texas A&M University.

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno - Season 21

Reactions to Manziel’s off-field antics are a mixed bag. They range from the rigorous “He’s a Heisman winner–he needs to take responsibility for his actions, if he’s wanting to become a leader, he better shape up” to the more lenient (gracious?) “Give him a break. He’s just a kid.” Case in point: as if his lifestyle wasn’t enough to make fans–and NFL scouts–wary of the kid, Manziel was asked to leave the Manning quarterback camp by one of the Quarterback Gods himself, Archie Manning, for being late to practice just a couple of weeks ago. After being dismissed from the camp, raucous conjecture erupted. Why would he be dismissed by one of the Mannings? There were stories floating around implying Manziel’s tardiness was due to drinking too much the night before–then subsequent rumors about being hungover.

Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron was Manziel’s roommate at the Manning camp. The fact that McCarron embodies the stereotypical quarterback image to a T (no partying, respectful, good ol’ boy type, like Peyton Manning) certainly doesn’t help Manzeil’s case. When asked about Manziel’s suspect behavior, McCarron refused to speak about the issue, insisting he “wasn’t raised to speak about another man’s business”, McCarron told reporters. McCarron seems to understand that, being a quarterback for a major university, there’s an inescapable microscope observing your every move. Pretty Tebow-esque if you ask me:

I can’t go out and act a fool in public, can’t go out and drink excessively and end up being wild… I’m not saying that I want to in any type of way. I want to be the type of kid and guy that younger kids can look up to — even if it’s only a couple.

It’s kind of like the the parable of the Prodigal Son all over again, in college football! Manziel may not be showing much remorse for his behavior–which makes him doubly the prodigal–and McCarron may not be pouting about the limelight Johnny Football is basking in, but we nevertheless have a modern day parable on our hands. Here’s an interesting take on the subject from Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins–she nails it:

aj_mccarron_02Manziel may or may not have been overserved, which may or may not have prevented him from getting out of bed and missing a session at the Manning family’s summer football camp last week. Apparently he lay there in a heap under the gaze of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, his roommate, whose dimpled Shirley Temple demeanor is the model Manziel’s critics want — as if quarterbacking and on-field generalship are in direct proportion to Prince Charmingness. And as if being overserved and oversleeping defines Manziel once and for all as an entitled slacker. Well, so what if he is?

Identity is a vital element to the life of an athlete, which Jenkins hones in on. Whether it’s high school, college or pro, your ability to meet expectations and demands and molds–both statistically and personally–determines who one is. The identity of a quarterback is particularly delicate and nuanced: the Thou Must’s and Thou Shalt Not’s are innumerable. In his piece addressing the celebrity-like status Manziel is basking in (and the pervasiveness of social media), espn.com’s Ivan Maisel quotes Jason Cook, the Texas A&M senior associate athletic director for external affairs–which is well worth attention:

I think our mindset is, ‘Look, how do we provide additional context?'” Cook said. “Because you cannot know a person, what makes them tick, and the pressures they are under, in 140 characters. … I am still of a belief that Johnny Manziel is the same person who stood up in New York and gave one of the best Heisman acceptance speeches in history. That’s Johnny Manziel. But people are trying to extract these moments throughout his life and trying to say that moment is who he is. Perception should be built on a whole collection of moments, not just 140 characters.”

Whether or not Cook’s words are simply a form of self-justification for the Texas A&M football program is beside the point. I think there is some genuine sympathy there. Statements like Cook’s are potent because, in the sports world, where mercy isn’t handed out very often, even just a flicker of grace is refreshing.

So, who do you identify or sympathize with? The licentious hotshot, Johnny Football, or Quarterback God-to-be AJ McCarron? What will this season hold for these guys? Will Johnny Football “man up” and take some responsibility for his actions? Will AJ McCarron fall short of the glory of Quarterbackdum (more like the glory of Saban!)? Whatever happens, what good news it is that in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the father initiates both sons: the prodigal and his older, self-righteous son.