HAMILTON — It is the biggest splash to hit Hamilton in recent memory, but the Johnny Football Show is still very much in rehearsals.
On the third day of Tiger-Cats training camp, and four days after the team announced that it had finally landed Johnny Manziel, the would-be NFL star who long ago instead became embattled former quarterback Johnny Manziel, the man himself continued his baby-steps return to football. He took part in some seven-on-seven drills. He made some throws. He continued to study a playbook that even his coach says is “like learning Chinese.” Plus, big field, three downs, 12 players per side, the rouge: there is much to figure out.
“We’re piecing it together,” Manziel said after practice at McMaster University. “We’ll keep doing more and more stuff every single day.”
About the only thing that is already in mid-season form is his media game. Manziel has been doing radio interviews in bunches since he signed on Saturday, and though the clutch of reporters and cameras in Hamilton on Tuesday was small, it was still much larger than would normally be around the team in mid-May. ESPN is expected to have a crew arrive on Wednesday. USA Today will have someone here before the first pre-season game. And then, if Manziel actually plays, look out.
It could be a complete disaster and an embarrassment for the CFL. It could be a resounding success that wins the league valuable exposure in the wider football world. It could be both a success and an embarrassment, if Manziel performs well and then leaves at the first opportunity.
Whatever happens, it won’t go down in the background of a routine season on the south shore of Lake Ontario. Manziel’s arrival has already ensured that.
Even the most casual of football fans is at least vaguely aware of Manziel’s resume. A high-school star in Texas, he became the starter at Texas A&M as a freshman in 2012 — after, in a bit of foreshadowing, he narrowly avoided discipline for a drunken fight near campus — and went on to set a pile of records and win the Heisman Trophy. That season included a win over No. 1-ranked Alabama on the road and back-to-back games in which Manziel amassed more than 500 yards of total offence. His numbers in those 13 games were outrageous: more than 5,000 combined passing and rushing yards, and 47 combined touchdowns against nine interceptions. He was also improvisational and great fun to watch. At 20 years old, Manziel was already a legend.
He was also, as is now evident, a bit of a mess. He would remain one more year at school before declaring for the NFL Draft, and was taken in the first round by the Cleveland Browns in 2014. He would show sparks of his football gifts over two seasons, but had a seemingly well-earned reputation for partying and alcohol over practice and playbooks, and was released before the 2016 season. Charges stemming from a domestic-assault incident that year against a former girlfriend — later dropped in plea arrangement — followed, and he was dropped by multiple agents and sponsors, with even his father telling a reporter that he feared his son would be dead if he didn’t get the proper help. Manziel, in announcing a planned comeback on Good Morning America this past February, said he had been on medication for bipolar disorder.
Since his arrival in Hamilton, Manziel has said that he is not proud of his history — “I’ll never be able to outrun my past,” he said on Sunday — but that it has forced him to grow out of his rich-kid, star-athlete immaturity.
“I had no choice but to try to fight my way out of it a little bit, and I’m thankful for the people I have around in my life these days that truly care what I’m doing and what I’m trying to get back to doing,” he said.
What he’s trying to do in the short term is win a job, which, despite his talent, is no sure thing. The incumbent Tiger-Cats starter, Jeremiah Masoli, flourished under new head coach June Jones last season, averaging 348 yards passing over Hamilton’s final five games of a lost season. But Jones, who has already suggested Manziel could be an all-time CFL great, did not bring him here so he could hone his clipboard-holding skills. Manziel, though he has said he just wants to see how this comeback goes before thinking about his long-term plans, let slip on Tuesday that he has one path in mind, in response to a question he was asked about Doug Flutie.
“I don’t think the CFL is exactly everyone’s end game, for some people it definitely is, but guys are striving to get to the NFL and Doug did that,” Manziel said. “Guys like Warren Moon did that, they played up here at a very high level and then went to the NFL and had success. We had good talks about it,” he said, referring to Flutie.
Did he think, with his running ability, he could have a Flutie-type impact up here?
“Right now I’m struggling to see how many guys are on the field and what the defence is doing,” he said. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
He finished his media scrum and walked off. A Ticats official reminded him of a radio interview he was supposed to do later that evening.
That part, at least, is familiar.
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