I collected rocks when I was a kid. I had a pretty good collection of agates and quartzes and even some rare crystals. One of my favorite places to look was in the decorative rock bed by the entry to my elementary school. As I was kicking through it one day, though, a teacher saw me and asked me to stop. “Why?” I asked. “It’s just one little rock.” In the moment I’m sure she was just considering school property, but her response taught me a bigger lesson: “Imagine if everyone at this school took one rock home each day. How long would it be before all you saw was ugly dirt?”
This encounter came to mind recently as I kept up with the story of Johnny Manziel, the celebrated and scintillating Heisman Trophy-winning sophomore quarterback for Texas A&M University. He is praised for his mad dashes through defenses and his clutch play. He is also getting himself into a heap of trouble. During his brief time in college, Manziel has been arrested for a bar fight, embroiled himself in Twitter controversies, brought criticism on himself for excessive partying, and been a heavy drinker. The latest chapter in this saga involves an NCAA investigation into allegations he sold thousands of dollars’ worth of autographs, a clear rules violation. Wright Thompson, the excellent writer for ESPN, recently wrote a feature story on Manziel that, sadly, did more to reveal the self-centered petulance of the young man and his family than anything. The heat is on “Johnny Football” now as people on social media point their angry gazes at him.
It is these responses through Twitter, Facebook, and the rest of the internet that remind me of the story of rocks. It is so easy to toss a little bit of judgment out there, to criticize in 140 characters or less and think, “It’s just one tweet.” But what happens when thousands upon thousands of people offer “just one”? That’s one big pile of stones crushing one young man.
Manziel is 20 years old and has made some distinctly foolish decisions. He is responsible for those, but when I was that age it would have been generous to call me an idiot, and I had family with strong values and a support system of good friends. I made decisions to rival Manziel’s in terms of sheer foolishness, but I cannot imagine what it feels like to bear the collective burden of judgment he endures.
What will Johnny Manziel be like at 30, the age I am now? Will he mature and learn from his mistakes, or will he become embittered with arrested development because of the trauma of society’s nastiness? Will we let him move on, or will we forever label him a fool? While we cannot yet answer these questions, we do know this: Until we put down our little stones, we are only contributing to his misery and possibly to a broken future.