The Ballad of Johnny Football

On getting what you give
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With apologies to Beethoven, in January 1999 -- known by many as the The Winter of Love -- the best song ever created sang its way into the hearts of America’s youth. The song I refer to is, of course, “You Get What You Give” by The New Radicals.  And, much to Jason White’s chagrin, on Saturday, days after his 20th birthday, Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy.

These are possibly unrelated, but those who consider a freshman too precocious to win college football’s biggest award would be wise to remember a now all-too-forgotten singer called -- this is a guess, the real name has been lost to history -- Johnny New Radical.

Because for an awkward generation a decade away from occupying anything, “You Get What You Give” was the Heisman Trophy, the Bednarik Award, and a catchy emotional pep talk calling for redistribution of the nation’s wealth, all blended together into one energy drink of keeping it real.

As the Internet gave rise to a weird generational sense of communal individuality, Johnny New Radical gave the young people an anthem about being yourself, while sticking it to the man; in this case our parents -- but also mall security and the ‘Bad Rich’ -- who were all conspiring together with secret meetings, at a very exclusive cigar bar, after we went to bed.

The song begins with a rallying cry for the youth to wake up, then goes on to diagnose our greatest disease (dreaming) a decade before it began to eat us alive. He then predicts the issues of today (Health insurance, lying; Big banks, buying; Etc. Etc., multiplying.), and calls out the fakery of regular Hanson, Beck Hanson, Courtney Love and Marylin Manson, before rhyming “go to your mansions” with “kick your ass in.”  Finally, despite all that peppy doom and gloom, he pleads with us not to give up. This was a sweet, bucket-hatted Tyler Durden, who had somehow endeared his way into Top 40 Radio, except more dangerous because Project Mayhem only occasionally destroyed BMWs. Johnny New Radical smashed a Mercedes-Benz every night. Then he laughed about it until he cried.

Surely the follow-up single would unite the cosmos and end human inequity once and for all; the real life fruition of the rock and roll prophecy foretold by the Wyld Stallyns.

That second hit never hit. Wikipedia claims a New Radicals song called, “Someday We’ll Know” reached No. 45 in New Zealand in 1999, but those guys are notorious liars. The truth is, New Radicals didn’t even get a Bogus Journey. A song that rebelled against all things rico and suave got a room next door to Gerardo in One Hit Wonder Purgatory, which is the worst kind of purgatory, because they always leave the door open just enough for Hope to pop her head in.

The worst part in all this was that, way back in 1999, the ability to easily carry around MP3s was expensive witchcraft. This meant that you had to wait for two songs to be released before investing hard-earned money on an album, a function of basic adolescent economics. But “You Get What You Give” was so good that the second single could have been Johnny New Radical playing a didgeridoo in a beehive factory, a duet with Carl Lewis or a series of Limp Bizkit covers. I would have bought the album either way. The first song was that good. But I made the New Radicals earn my $15.99 with a follow up. They responded by breaking up.

New Radical himself blamed the band’s dissolution on “the fatigue of traveling and getting three hours’ sleep” and called the lifestyle “boring,” Pitchfork, suggested that “staring at years of one-hit expectations, [Johnny New Radical]’s feet got icy.” Whether it was the pressure of following up or a result of genuine disillusionment, doesn’t matter. The New Radicals forever belong to 1999. In his new career, New Radical, now going by Gregg Alexander for some reason, won a Grammy writing songs for Michelle Branch. This is great for Michelle Branch, not so much for all the broke teenagers who bought stock in his band and bucket hats. But one final time, Johnny New Radical delivered a life lesson to America’s youth about fool proof investments: a moment in the sun doesn’t always equal eternal transcendence. And that sure was nice.

***

Now, Texas A&M won’t break up, despite the fact that Johnny Manziel’s 13th Grade season was so good that we call him Johnny Football. But it’s still a lot of pressure.  Society hasn’t awarded a nickname this obvious since Tom Selleck crushed dingers, and found love, in Nippon Professional Baseball. Is it cheesy? Sure. But why fight something that feels so natural? The nickname is Manziel’s bucket hat.

There were other Heisman options: some valid, some ridiculous. (Again, Jason White: You crazy, but I totally respect it, bro). It’s the Heisman Trophy, you’ll never please everyone, the player pool is too big, and, if we’re being real, they should have thrown it all away and declared a non-year because the Smartest Man Alive forgot to turn in his ballot.

The story of the 2012 college football season won’t be completely written until the first week of 2013, so it could still be about Notre Dame and Manti Te’o representing truth, justice and Playing Like A Champion Today. And Chumbawamba could have been a better one-hit wonder. Perhaps this is the Disco Lemonade talking, but did not a great philosopher once suggest that, ‘Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end’?

This could be the beginning of Te’o’s story and it could be the end of Manziel’s. It might be neither, no one knows. This is college football, and 90’s pop, not science.

Manziel doesn’t seem like a 2012 version of Lou Bega. We’ll almost certainly have a little more Johnny Football in our lives, and that’s great. He is a turbo-mode Madden ‘04 Michael Vick and you’d ban the use of him in your dorm room. His takedown of the SEC, in Texas A&M’s first season among the Southern Gentlemen Who Rule College Football, is as subversive and status quo busting as Johnny New Radical Pied Pipering all those kids through the mall, freeing the puppies from the pet store, and capturing a mall cop with a net.

But whether he goes the way of New Radicals or Beethoven -- who actually had more hits than the ominous tune the dog barked at in the movie -- they’ll talk Johnny Football 2K12 at the Downtown Athletic Club for years to come.

Just like how in 2006, a dog year after New Radicals ruled the radio, TIME Magazine asked non-Heisman Voter The Edge if there are any songs he wished he wrote. He chose “Wonderwall” and “You Get What You Give.”

Strangely, we don’t know who The Edge, or even Bono, picked to win the Heisman, but we do know that 474 voters thought it was a good decision to reward Manziel for today and worry about tomorrow tomorrow.

To wait for Johnny Football to release his second single seems foolish. Not everyone gets a sequel. If two hits were easy, Archie Griffin (who has two Heismans) and The Presidents of the United States of America (who have two hit singles) wouldn’t be special.

No matter what happens, Johnny Manziel will forever be the first freshman to win the Heisman.  And eventually we can tell our grandkids about the penultimate year of the BCS era: a simpler time, when Notre Dame played Alabama for the title and we called a 19-year-old kid Johnny Football without smirking. Then I’ll tell them about the winter of ‘99, the last snowfall before Woodstock ‘99 and the Willenium, when Johnny New Radical was judge, jury, and executioner, but God still found time to fly in for the trial.


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