REVIEW: ‘Untold: Johnny Football’

September 9, 2023

Bad boys used to matter in American entertainment. Eminem, who now has lawyers send Vivek Ramaswamy moralistic cease and desist letters, was once a bad boy. Rap was the last bad boy scene; speaking indecorously of the fair sex was like saying hello. Actors would also say crazy things or get into fights. This was true of sports, too. Allen Iverson was the bad boy of the NBA in the ’90s; now we admire Steph Curry.

Still, we do like a scandal, even though we’re more moralistic these days about it, so here’s one that matters to me. Untold, the Netflix sports documentaries series, has new stories this year, one on YouTube celebrity-turned-boxer Jake Paul, another on Florida Gators coach Urban Meyer, and a third on drugs scandals in sports. Quite a variety of things calculated to get attention. But the one I want you to watch is on Johnny "Football" Manziel, the Heisman-trophy winning, multiple college-football record-setting QB drafted as the 22nd overall pick in 2014 by the Cleveland Browns.

Almost nobody has heard about Manziel in almost a decade, but back then he was national news. What happened? He flamed out of the NFL inside of two seasons; nobody would sign him after he spectacularly failed with the Browns. He dropped into Canadian football after that, only to be banned. It was a very quick self-destruction for Manziel and seems permanent. Reversals of fortune, almost as much as absence of redemption, are of great importance to us.

Manziel learned football in Kerrville, Texas—a state that is all about football. Tivy High School makes it happen, by regular, unremitting military training. You could think of it as an attempt to tame the savage cowboys. It doesn’t always work. You must remember that high school and even college football have next to no defense, so Johnny was almost a thing of magic, a young man who ran, jumped, escaped tackles, threw, could do anything but fly. He put up great numbers and made the game incredibly exciting. What is freedom but achieving the impossible?

At Texas A&M, Manziel quickly became a celebrity. He was the first freshman to win the Heisman trophy. Johnny was mad, and he made Texas mad. Texas is football-mad, which made Johnny even more mad. Everyone wants to touch the miracle. It’s remarkable how, the moment you get to the top of the world, there’s always a crowd. Booze was everywhere and so were young women. There is something innocent in the young man enjoying this success, which feels like a divine gift. There’s also something innocent in the people idolizing Johnny Football. Manziel hung out with celebrities and made the news around the country; he made vast sums of money selling autographs. He was briefly admitted among the golden gods of America, and life seemed very much a paradise. He learned gradually to lie to everyone so he could do what he wanted while looking respectable enough to continue his career.

The consequences, of course, are catastrophic. Bad boys are so attractive precisely because they’re reckless, and we secretly hope to see what happens when they break through the limits of ordinary life. Johnny was first beautiful, then terrible, but for one and the same reason, because he lived out the American rebellion against reality. For one moment, Johnny wanted to turn pro and worked hard at it, seeming to obey the rules, but failed. This is what you’re supposed to be in America, a professional, reliable, in control of your fears and desires. Professionals, however, are not men. They’re not their own masters, but instead liable for quite a bit and defined by their obedience. But bad boys are also not men, since they have childish urges. Johnny liked beauty, but not decency—there is something humiliating in the obedience required by modern life. His father blames college for not making a man of him. You can blame social media.

The Johnny Football show is impressive because there’s no one who can control this out-of-control young man. He attempted suicide after turning to drugs and scandal, but failed at that as well. It’s shocking. He somehow survived. He turned 30 making this documentary. Talking to a camera, you can watch him say about himself the sorts of things people used to say. He seems an adult, because he talks like we expect him to talk. That’s the most shocking thing of all—now he seems normal.

The beauty of young men means nothing in America today. It was never so previously—we always saw something wonderful in the growing strength and confidence of a new generation. The young man was perhaps our exemplar of freedom. So many technologies required young men to pilot them, too, all the way to the moon. Maybe football is the last avenue to see such beauty and danger, success and suffering. I finally understand why men like college football and why they were enthusiastic about Johnny Manziel, so I suppose I am myself middle-aged now. We’re all hoping America can create and foster such young men as will make up for our own failing strength.

Untold: Johnny Football is streaming on Netflix.

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation and a film critic for Law & Liberty, the Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty, and the Free Press.