Peek inside Johnny Football circus reveals Manziel's value at A&M and NCAA's poor handling of it all
HOUSTON – Before winning the 2012 Heisman Trophy, Johnny Manziel began giving out Nate Fitch's phone number, passing it out to every acquaintance, old and new, who sought a piece of his budding celebrity.
Fitch was Manziel's friend and confidant dating back to Peterson Middle School in Kerrville, Texas. He could be trusted. He was living in College Station too. He was with Johnny daily.
Manziel knew the crush of everyone coming at him was not just because of the Texas A&M games he helped win, and how he helped win them, but also due to his social media-fueled off-field brand as a party-seeking rebel.
Everyone, it seemed, wanted something … his signature, 1,000 signatures, his presence at their club, or their kid's birthday party, or their Sunday dinner, or the chance to pitch him future business, or his appearance on their television show, or a shot at representing him in the NFL one day or whatever else they could dream up. They just wanted Johnny Football.
"He went from being a great college football player to becoming Elvis Presley," Fitch told Yahoo Sports.
And they were willing to pay, sometimes quite handsomely because Manziel was a celebrity in an era when reality television has shown how lucrative an industry that can be; people make millions overnight being themselves, famous merely for being famous.
So the solution was to just call Uncle Nate, as Fitch became known, a nickname given to him once at a college party turning into a job description of sorts for an unlikely one-man amateur sports agent/publicist/security detail/drinking buddy/gatekeeper/driver/protector. Manziel, due to the financial comfort of his family, didn't want for anything. That didn't mean the offers didn't arrive, unsolicited.
"People ask me, 'What did you do?'" Fitch said. "I was a barrier. That's it. I'm his best friend first but I was a barrier."
As his phone blew up, the "Barrier" decided to download some light reading from the Internet.
"The NCAA bylaws," Fitch said. "If I'm the man who is supposed to take care of him, I needed to know what he can and can't do."
What Uncle Nate read, however, particularly in the sections about amateurism and impermissible benefits, weren't just a series of detailed rules that he instinctively saw as self-serving and unfair. It was, he believed, wholly impractical, almost comically outdated for a modern star. Due to the game's increased popularity, the connectivity of today's wired world and the free-for-all of social media, Manziel bore no resemblance to past stars, even ones from just 10 years prior, let alone 50. Back then schools could cocoon their players and the monetization of celebrity wasn't such big business, built on the most basic tenet of capitalism – supply (the star) and demand (the public).
Fitch, now nearly a year removed from the circus as he's down in Texas and Manziel is in Cleveland preparing this week for his first NFL start against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, sat down with Yahoo Sports to detail, for the first time, life inside the Johnny Football circus.
Part of the process was putting a cumulative number on all the offers they could've taken but, he says, they refused.
Whether or not you believe it was all on the NCAA up and up, Uncle Nate offers a unique and perhaps never before seen glimpse into today's reality for a college mega-star.
This isn't about a school paying a player (Fitch isn't even sure that should occur). This isn't a professorial estimate of what Manziel was tangentially worth to Texas A&M (how accurate are those?). This isn't even the old-school stereotypical stuff of recruiting inducements or a rich booster offering a $100 handshake (Fitch said that didn't happen).
This is what Johnny Manziel was worth, had he cashed in on his own name.
"I would say it is very accurate to estimate Johnny's value after the Heisman Trophy at $2.3 million," Fitch said.
And that's with the NCAA rules creating a black market that kept away major corporations such as Nike, Snickers and McDonalds. They would have loved to get Manziel as a college player, but instead had to wait until he declared for the NFL draft. It also meant Manziel, white hot with the potential to earn millions, was stuck without a real agent who could've gotten more.
"If he was allowed to have representation that was professional and trained, and knew exactly what they were doing – not just guessing, like a lot of my work was guesswork and trial and error – it would exponentially increase [Johnny's value]," Fitch acknowledged.
Still, Uncle Nate could feel the money everywhere. So if the NCAA's shackles had been lifted, what was Johnny Manziel worth, in ancillary income, as a redshirt sophomore at A&M?
"I think it would look similar to his value now, but in my opinion, I think he was worth more right after the Heisman Trophy," Fitch said. "… I think it's fair to say $8 [million] to $10 million dollars."
Sports marketing experts don't believe that estimation is wrong.
"Based on what professional athletes get for endorsements and appearances, I think Johnny Manziel could have unlocked in excess of $10 million of value in the market," said Ryan Totka, president of Athlete Promotions, a celebrity-booking agency, who estimates Manziel's appearance fee alone could've reached $100,000 after winning the Heisman (Fitch says he was asking for $80,000 the day in 2014 he turned pro).
"When you look at potential shoe endorsements alone – if Nike or Reebok or Under Armour knew they could secure a player as prominent as Manziel while he was still in college – they'd jump at that opportunity," Totka continued. "Those can be multi-million dollar deals by themselves."
Fitch's basic argument is that despite being a freshly minted star, or perhaps because of it, Manziel was more popular while in college than most players in the NFL. He points to the onslaught of uninvited interest.
"Eight to 10 people approached us a day, every day," Fitch said of the 13-month period from Manziel winning the Heisman Trophy and his decision to leave A&M early for the NFL draft. "That's eight to 10 separate people with either a proposition or a means to be comfortable to make a proposition. That's what we were dealing with."
They included a memorabilia dealer (one among many) chasing them down outside a Texas airport, offering $10,000, on the spot, if Manziel agreed to a two-hour autograph session. There was a lawyer who said they had free use of his Cessna Citation private jet (worth $35,000-$50,000 per flight) to take them anywhere they wanted … Las Vegas, Miami, L.A., wherever.
There were the two major celebrities they met who wanted Johnny and his crew to come, complimentary, on the massive yacht they'd rented to cruise and party around the Galapagos Islands … "just because they wanted to hang around Johnny," Fitch said.
There was the nice A&M fan who wrote via email she'd pay $5,000, emptying out her savings account, if Manziel attended her birthday party at a Houston nightclub. There were the people at the hottest Vegas nightclubs who would gladly give Johnny and his crew seats at the most coveted table, which they'd paid $10,000 to $15,000 for the night. There were the status-obsessed older fans who wanted Johnny to come to their house for a nice dinner so they could brag to their friends.
"They'd always ask, 'What would it take to get Johnny to come over?'" Fitch said.
He doesn't count all the Twitter requests he ignored from people who wanted to "have a meeting" or the job offers he received from lawyers or agents.
"At times," Fitch said, "it was surreal."
Which is why this isn't so much a Johnny Manziel story, as a modern college superstar story, because while the NCAA wrestles with bylaws written generations ago, the wheels of capitalism have spun so quickly that athletic director conversations are now comically quaint.
As they fiddled, the world changed.
"Obviously it's different when you are a Heisman Trophy winner and you're friends with Drake and you're on 'Letterman,'" Fitch said. "But this is not just Johnny. This happens to all college athletes who have made a name. They are all offered stuff. They are all capable of making big money."
Sure, but big money as in millions of dollars?
"I think that number [$2.3 million] is extremely reasonable," said Andy Schwarz, an economist for the California-based OKSR and an expert who testified in the landmark O'Bannon v. NCAA lawsuit. "People look at this stuff as penny ante, but it's extremely profitable penny ante.
"Johnny Manziel, at the height of his popularity, in that moment," Schwarz continued, "was more than a player, he was an icon."
On June 29, 2012, after a night of drinking, Manziel found himself trying to break up a fight involving a friend out behind the bars of College Station. Manziel wound up cuffed by the cops, who asked for ID. He produced the one he'd used all night.
It claimed he was from Louisiana and born on Dec. 6, 1990, or two years before he actually was.
At the time, before he became the A&M starting quarterback, before he beat Alabama at Alabama, before the Heisman, before social media (including the shirtless mug shot the night produced) bolstered a brand that synched with his on-field exploits, he was so unknown, even in College Station, that Johnny Football, pride of the Texas Hill Country, legend of the Texas A&M Aggies, as Texas as the Brazos River, could use a fake ID that claimed he was from somewhere other than Texas.
Just seven months later, in Louisiana for real this time (New Orleans), Manziel walked up to the VIP entrance of an ESPN party at the Super Bowl and hardly broke stride before the bouncer let him in … no ID needed this time.
With Fitch at his side, he immediately ran into Jamie Foxx. Then hung out with Brooklyn Decker and Andy Roddick. Soon he met Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel, with Timberlake quizzing Johnny about a trick throw video featuring Manziel that the singer/actor had seen on YouTube.
That quickly, Johnny Manziel was famous among the famous.
"I don't know if you've ever stepped in a Ferrari," Fitch said, "but you buckle up and just hold on."
Everyone understands the ride they went on, parties, casinos, nightclubs, the courtside seats, celebrities, all broadcast out to the world via social media photos. Per team rules, Manziel did no media interviews the season he won the Heisman but it hardly mattered. He got his personality, his brand, out there perfectly.
There was Johnny on Saturday afternoon darting through defenses. There was Johnny on Saturday night, via an Internet picture, the QB at a Halloween party wearing a Scooby-Doo outfit and a knowing grin as he danced with a blonde who apparently was going as a lingerie model.
"Who doesn't like Scooby Doo?" Fitch said with a laugh.
The image building wasn't planned, which is perhaps why it worked so well. Fitch said they just decided that they were going to live their lives like normal college kids and that meant pictures at parties, updates on vacations or whatever else came to mind.
"[Everyone kept saying] 'Tell him to stop posting, tell him to stop tweeting, don't go to the bars,'" Fitch recalled. "Screw that. Screw it. How about we are college kids and we want to have fun? There's nothing wrong with that."
Manziel was suspended for the first half of A&M's 2013 opener against Rice for what the NCAA deemed a failure to assure that signed memorabilia of his wasn't used for commercial sale. Fitch was blamed for setting up a signing but the NCAA never proved anyone was paid. While there was much tumult and worry in the establishment media about potential violations, what Fitch was really up to and how it would ruin Johnny, the Aggies or both, in the end not much ever happened. The operation was far smoother than most assumed.
Fitch now jokes about how everyone wanted to label him in "Entourage" terms.
"I don't watch 'Entourage,'" he said with a laugh. "But I became familiar with the characters because I was always being referred to as E or Turtle."
Fitch said they didn't need anything and thus had nothing to hide. So they didn't hide. If that brought heat, well, so what?
When the two of them almost simultaneously hit a couple of slot machine jackpots worth maybe a couple grand at the WinStar Casino in Oklahoma, they took a picture of them holding the cash and posted it.
"The bottom fell out of the universe [after that one]," Fitch mocked. "We are in a casino [where the age minimum] is 18. We wanted to flash the cash so, guess what, it's on Instagram. Deal with it."
Perhaps only former Florida star Tim Tebow, via Bible verses on his eye black (a practice the NCAA has since banned) and faith-based postgame interviews, was better at conveying who he was off the field to the public.
"Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel were, in my mind, the most popular college athletes of all time," Totka, of Athlete Promotion said. "Right when he graduated from Florida, Tim Tebow was getting between $75,000 and $100,000 per appearance. He was immediately getting top dollar.
"When you compare it to Magic Johnson, Joe Montana, guys who've done it all in the pros in terms of winning championships, MVPs, etc., and a college kid is coming out of school getting the same money?" Totka said. "They're a rare breed, but they do exist."
Fitch agrees, but he says while he can draw attention to the reality of a college star with extreme stories, it doesn't mean the NCAA isn't unfairly holding down the earning potential of so many others. He occupied a front-row seat to NCAA hypocrisy.
In college communities, he notes, the star player is often the biggest celebrity in town (other than, sometimes, the head coach). That commands real value even if a national Nike or McDonald's campaign isn't an option.
Maybe it's doing a memorabilia signing deal for a couple grand. Maybe it's an appearance at a grocery store seeking foot traffic. Maybe it's a statewide television commercial for a coalition of area Ford dealers. Maybe it is something small.
All of it is real money that has nothing to do with a school paying the player directly.
"There are a certain amount of people who want the entire team's signature or a fan who wants the signature of any player, so I would say any starting player, everybody who plays, they all could make something," Fitch said.
It's bad enough to stop a Manziel from getting $10 million but it may be more reprehensible to stop a player whose earning power is limited to the present from making a few thousand.
"The NCAA always says 99 percent of them don't make the pros," Schwarz, the economist, said. "So their sports earning peak is their four years as a college athlete."
"[It's] just like reality TV," Totka said. "Regular people just get kind of lucky that they're on a show, they're all over the TV for a while, but they're not rich, so they have to capitalize on their five minutes of fame while it exists. With many of them, people stop caring after a while and they don't have anything left to capitalize on."
Fitch, now 22, doesn't currently work with Manziel. He's still in College Station, focusing on working as a buyer for his family's jewelry business, studying for his real estate license, hanging out with his girlfriend and trying to hunt and fish as much as possible.
He said he was motivated to come forward, in part, to use his unique perspective to argue for every college athlete stuck in a system where the NCAA demands control over and then tries to demonize anyone who dares to step out of line.
"Who defines big money to a college kid?" Fitch said. "Who defines that? Is $100 big money? So if a backup can go get $100 to sign 100 footballs and he comes from a disadvantaged background is that not big money? How about $25 to fill his gas tank? Who does it hurt?
"Every dollar is a big dollar to a college kid."
The NCAA opposes athletes profiting off their name, likeness or reputation while playing college sports. The conflict was a centerpiece of last summer's successful lawsuit against the NCAA from former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon (the Association is appealing the decision). The NCAA understandably prefers the current system where all revenue must come through its coffers, shutting out the players (although not coaches who can command hefty speaking fees and endorsement deals).
"They don't want boosters to be able to cut out the middle man for access to the players," Schwarz said.
There are, though, some cracks apparent. Just this week Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick argued that based solely on a sense of fairness, colleges should allow compensation for an athlete's likeness. That isn't exactly the open market Fitch is arguing for, but it is a step in the right direction.
Mostly, Fitch wants it known that he isn't the only gatekeeper out there to a star athlete and Manziel wasn't the only one hit with waves of offers big and small, innocent and complex.
These aren't the old days. The players are more famous than ever. Social media makes them easier to reach and approach outside the confines of the athletic department.
And the big, big business of celebrity makes their fame a major commodity.
To pretend otherwise, to deny them the representation they deserve, to prevent them from earning money, to put kids who are now in an overwhelming spotlight to operate under rules that are far more restrictive than the criminal code, isn't just ridiculous. It actually forces college sports' best players to leave sooner than necessary to cash in and thus, Fitch argues, hurts both the NCAA business and its stated mission of educating athletes.
"[If] you can make money and you can stay here for four years and get your education and you can have a much smoother transition to the NFL or NBA, that actually fulfills the education part because it's no longer a system that pushes them out," Fitch argued.
"If you say [allowing this] ruins it, I say it helps fulfill the student part of student-athlete. More will graduate. More will stay."
Manziel played just two seasons for Texas A&M. If he were banking $8 million to $10 million per year on outside income, would he have stayed for one or two more, led A&M to more glory while becoming better prepared for the NFL?
"My opinion is absolutely," Fitch said. "I think Johnny would have stayed. And with Mike [Evans, A&M star receiver who also left early] and Johnny this year at Texas A&M? National championship."
That'd mean more money for the players … and the school.
"This is America," Uncle Nate said. "What's wrong with making money?"