HAMILTON—Johnny Manziel was walking off the field and he was told: the media asked for you today. He wasn’t mad; he was surprised. “Really?” he asked. “The day before a game?” In the NFL, they don’t do that. In the CFL, they do. Johnny came back out, wearing a black hoodie in the heat. He looked comfortable.
“Nope, not nerves,” said Manziel, the day before his first ever CFL pre-season game with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats against the Toronto Argonauts Friday night. “There’s no pressure on myself right now. I don’t have to come up here and prove anything in the first pre-season game. I just have to come out and play ball.”
He keep saying the right things, doing the right things. If Tim Tebow is the angel of cast-out celebrity SEC Heisman-winning quarterbacks, Johnny Football is the devil. The 25-year-old Manziel was once an instant icon at Texas A&M. He won the Heisman as a freshman. He wasn’t allowed to speak to the media, and was a perfectly blank slate.
And then he was a TMZ regular before he left college, and bombed out of Cleveland two years after being taken in the first round. His father said he was a “druggie,” and that “hopefully he doesn’t die before he comes to his senses,” and would be better off in jail. During an argument in 2016, Manziel allegedly hit his girlfriend so hard her eardrum ruptured. A plea deal resulted in the charges getting dismissed.
Manziel would later say he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and that depression led to alcohol. He said, “You are left staring at the ceiling by yourself, and in that depression and back in that hole, that dark hole of sitting in a room by yourself, super depressed, thinking about all the mistakes you made in your life. What did that get me? Where did that get me except out of the NFL? Where did that get me? Disgraced?”
He said that on Good Morning America. College football really is a religion in America, and Manziel was a defrocked high priest. He had not played football since 2015.
And now he’s in the CFL, which can still be the little league of last chances. The Tiger-Cats have invested just $10,000 guaranteed; he begins pre-season No. 2 on the depth chart behind diminutive but cannon-armed starter Jeremiah Masoli, and coach June Jones says there is no chance that changes before the season begins.
“One at a time,” says Manziel, tattoos peeking out on each of his hands, and another couple tucked behind each ear. “Right now I’m just taking it slow, being patient. I feel like I’m in a good situation, I can say that wholeheartedly … and in time things will work themselves out.”
So far, so good. He hasn’t shown any ego. He signs autographs for fans. He is putting in work, asking questions, which he didn’t do in Cleveland. Some observers say there are flashes of a man who is aware he needs to exhibit good behaviour to get where he wants to go. So far teammates say he’s just another guy, trying to make a place for himself.
“It’s not been as much of a distraction as you might think,” says receiver Luke Tasker. “He just approaches it right, because he’s asking the right questions. He’s learning the offence well, so he’s just got the right attitude about it. But it’s hard. When I was growing up in the States I was just across the border in Buffalo, and I knew about the Grey Cup and I knew about Doug Flutie. But other than that, my knowledge of the CFL was very limited until I came up here, and that’s the way it goes.”
“Put it this way: You can just see that he has a really high football IQ. He’s just got a true quarterback mind.”
“You know what? He’s come in here and just worked for everything,” says centre Mike Filer.
So far, so good. But very few quarterbacks figure out the reconfigured dimensions of CFL football within a year — even Flutie’s first year was pedestrian — but more, the CFL is a league that beats the ego out of you, in a good way. As Filer says, “We’re very involved in our community. We live in it. We’re here. And I think that’s the best part of the CFL, is guys buy into that mentality. We’re nothing without our fans.” Manziel once said his biggest problem was entitlement. That can’t be the problem here. The guys who truly succeed here get past denial, anger, bargaining and depression. They find acceptance.
So he’s been great so far, but it’s just a start. When he was throwing at College Station last year, Manziel chatted for a while with TSN’s Dave Naylor and Matt Dunigan, and as he ran to the field Dunigan shouted after him, “Have a good practice!”
Manziel stopped, turned and said, “You know, yesterday was a pretty good day, and today’s been pretty good as well.” Johnny Manziel hit bottom, or he wouldn’t be here. He might never conquer the CFL, and even if he does he may never make the big league again. And now, under the gritty semi-obscurity of Hamilton’s little lights, he’s like every addict, every failure, every has-been trying to come back, anywhere. He has to do it, and not screw up, and survive himself one day at a time.