The freckle-faced kid with the irrepressible smile would innocently walk up to him, a picture or two or four in hand. Or a cute coed with the twinkle in her eye and, oh yeah, a mini-helmet or six or 12, would shyly approach him as well.
And Ricky Williams would see only the best of intentions.
So he’d sign away.
Until he learned the ins and outs of the business.
Much like the way Johnny Manziel has figured out in the eight bombastic months since he became the newest member of the Heisman Trophy Club, Williams discovered — if in much less painstaking and a far less public manner — that everybody wanted a piece of him. If even just an autograph or 2,000.
Williams never found himself as vulnerable as his Texas A&M counterpart, but then he won the Heisman Trophy as a senior in 1998 and then left Texas immediately to prepare for the NFL draft. Manziel won his as a 19-year-old redshirt freshman. With three years of eligibility left.
To protect Manziel from unwanted intrusions, a source familiar with Texas A&M’s inner workings said the school drafted an autograph policy about 1 1/2 pages long after checking with officials at Florida, Texas and elsewhere to learn how to handle the avalanche of attention.
It’s clear that Manziel brought much of this drama on himself and now is caught up in an NCAA investigation trying to determine whether he accepted thousands of dollars to sign items for as many as six brokers. Did the school do enough to protect him or did he even want protection?
The school even spent half a million dollars for national newspaper ads, billboards and commercials after Manziel won the Heisman, but Jason Cook, A&M’s senior associate athletic director, said no state funds or tuition money was used. The source told the American-Statesman that it was $900,000.
Cook said A&M athletics and university officials met with Manziel and his family in February to assist them in dealing with the many requests for appearances and autographs and to help with compliance, scheduling, media relations, academics and trademarks. Cook does not recall a specific written “policy.”
However, at the same time the school was working to safeguard Manziel, A&M athletic director Eric Hyman had Manziel sign more than 100 items for Aggies regents and boosters, the source told the American-Statesman.
“Eric’s biggest concern was that Eric would get all the autographs he’d need from Johnny,” the source said. “I know it was over 100. He wanted to curry favor with regents and donors.”
Cook, speaking for Hyman, said Manziel signed about 60 items and agreed he would fulfill autograph requests from donors, school officials and elected officials twice, once in the spring and once in the fall.
“It’s not that Eric did anything terribly wrong, but it’s just ironic when so many people at the university were using Johnny to curry favor and make money for the school,” the source said. “I don’t know if the athletic department is cutting him loose, but I can see it with a lot of fans turning on him after he brought so much to this school. Those are things that can work in your head if everybody’s wanting a piece of you and you’re not getting anything in return.”
But autograph brokers have always been a problem, moreso now in this social media age when access is easier.
“They can be very, very persistent and a real nuisance ,” said John Bianco, Texas’ associate athletics director for media relations. “They’ll be at every awards event and BCS bowl games, anywhere high-profile players and coaches are. It’s crazy. Some of them will fly around the country, and you’ll see the same guys at a bunch of different events. They’re at the airports when you land and there when you return.
“Some of them have their kids, a nephew or an attractive woman that they’ll send to ask for the autograph. Shoot, they’ll even pay someone to go ask. You can tell because they’ll be off to the side somewhere taking a picture so they can get an autograph authenticated.”
With the help of UT’s sports information staff, Williams got a crash course in Everybody’s Got an Angle 101. Texas was smart to look after its marquee players.
On trips to award events, Bianco rarely left Williams’ side. Texas also takes a UT and an Austin policeman and a former Texas Ranger on road trips for security.
For bowl games, Bianco frequently had to change Williams’ rooms, making him hard for them to find. A simple trip to the lobby was a big no-no. “I told Vince Young not to go down there alone,” Bianco said. “Once he did, he got mobbed and called me, going ‘Help.’”
When Texas played at bowl games, Bianco dreamed up names so he could check Williams into hotels under assumed identities.
Errick Lynne. Ricky’s real first two names.
Patrick Henry. After Williams’ San Diego high school.
Walker Doak. Inverted name of the running back great and namesake of the award Williams won.
Coolio Runner. After a rapper named Coolio and a 1990s movie about Jamaica’s first Olympic bobsled team called “Cool Runnings.”
“The real shame in it is that these guys can ruin the true fan experience,” Texas coach Mack Brown said. “They’ll dress up like a fan, get pushy and even bump the young kids out of the way to try to get something to sell. It’s sad because our kids really enjoying signing things and taking pictures for our fans and especially kids. It’s sad because you see more and more schools talking about not allowing their student-athletes to sign anything anymore.”
The autograph brokers always take the offensive. And they didn’t like taking no for an answer, either.
“They followed us out to dinner in New York City when it was like 8 degrees out,” Bianco said of an incident when Colt McCoy was a Heisman finalist. “They harassed us the whole way there, then sat outside until we finished. When we told them Colt couldn’t sign, they’d insult you and just get really nasty. I mean they were getting after us the whole walk to and from the hotel.”
Williams signed Sports Illustrated covers that he graced only for his teammates, so he knew when fake signatures showed up. He eventually got as mischievous as the autograph brokers.
“I played with them,” he recalled. “I’d ask trivia questions about myself to see if they were really fans. It was pretty obvious when they couldn’t answer my questions.”
Williams knows the value of an autograph, especially that of a Heisman winner. He now signs at autograph sessions about five times a year and receives $20 an autograph. He can sign about 500 items.
“I’ll sign for about two hours and walk away with $10,000,” he said. “But they give me a W-9 to fill out, too.”
So he’s a bit reluctant to bite the hands that feed him.
“If I were a college coach,” he said, “I might think something ought to be done. But I benefit from it. So I can’t complain about it.”
BOHLS, GOLDEN CHAT
Join columnists Kirk Bohls and Cedric Golden at 11 a.m. Wednesday for their weekly live chat, at statesman.com.