HAMILTON — Johnny Manziel smooths his hair back as he walks into a press conference room wearing white Nike sneakers and a grey t-shirt, a Hamilton Tiger-Cats towel hanging out of the pocket of his black jeans.
The first word out of the mouth of one of the best college players in football history, to sum up his debut in a foreign land with foreign rules in a foreign league he couldn’t have dreamt he’d ever play in is: “Fun.”
Manziel, the Heisman Trophy winner turned back-up quarterback in Hamilton, played a little more than a quarter on Friday in pre-season play, but the 25-year-old Texan swears he has a good feeling about his future in Canada.
“I feel like this is a good fit for me,” Manziel says, to a crowd of far-too-many reporters assembled for a pre-season game. “I want to play in whatever capacity to help this team win, and I mean that honestly.”
Yes, Manziel continues to say all the right things as he makes his comeback to professional football. And though he didn’t flash the signature money sign on the field Friday night, that cocky celebration he made famous while starring at Texas A&M, Manziel did flap his gums a little, as he’s known to do, in response to some trash talk delivered after he was sacked for the first time on Canadian soil.
“Listen, I’m not here to be pushed over. You can come at me, because my name’s in the papers, because my name’s on TV,” he says, straight-faced.
“You can come at me. I’m not backing down. I’m here for a reason. I’m here to play ball, I’m not going to be treated like s***, so… It is what it is. It’s football. People talk a little bit out there, it is what it is, but just know I’m not backing down from anybody.”
Welcome to the CFL in the Johnny Football era. Manziel’s debut saw him complete 9 of 12 passes for 80 yards in a 36-18 loss to the Argos, and head coach June Jones says he expects Manziel is “going to get better and better every time he plays,” but it was the off-the-field goings on that really signalled his arrival.
It was quite the scene, Friday night at Tim Hortons Field. Here was Johnny Football, running onto the field past a blow-up Tiger and an inflatable Tiger-Cats player, making his return to football after a more than two-year hiatus in front of a half-there crowd, though certainly a bigger pre-season crowd than Hamilton would’ve drawn without him. Manziel spun a football on his hand on the sidelines while the Canadian anthem was sung, a giant Canada flag unfurled on the field in front of him, about to play against mostly second-string Argonauts, with nearly every camera in the building fixed on him.
“I really wasn’t that nervous going into it,” he says. “I was just going out and letting the ball rip.”
That he did, though not until nearly the half-way mark of this game. After more than two years on the shelf, having taken zero pro snaps, the QB who won a Heisman Trophy as a redshirt made his CFL debut late in the second quarter—he is the backup, after all.
Manziel began his first series by completing a pass for nine yards, and ended it by taking a sack. And that’s when the trash talk began.
It was Jonathan Dowling who delivered that sack, though the Argos defensive back swears he didn’t say anything to Manziel after. “They told me I should have thrown out the money sign,” he says, grinning, “but I just celebrated with my teammates.”
And though Dowling passed it off as “a good team moment,” to be the first CFL player to ever sack Manziel, he flashed his teeth and added, “felt good—really good.”
The plays leading up to that one, three straight completions, were among the flashes in this CFL debut in which Manziel looked like the star he once was. His best play came when he scrambled and ran to his right and dished off a 21-yard pass to Damarr Aultman, who’d managed to get open. Manziel was rolling on that drive, in the third quarter, clapping between plays, until he took a costly 21-yard grounding penalty that ended it.
But there was more than enough evidence to indicate Johnny Football is going to be just fine in the CFL, especially once he masters all the rules.
“I’m still learning a lot of things up here—I’m jogging into the locker room at half time with zeros on the clock, we’ve got another play,” Manziel says, grinning. “There’s going to be some of those growing pains … we’re taking it in stride.”
Tons of growing pains, really. It had been 887 days since Manziel last took a professional snap on a football field, with the Cleveland Browns, the NFL team that drafted him 22nd overall back in 2014.
Of course, getting back to the NFL is the end goal for Manziel, but for now, he’s here, with a star next to his name on the Tiger-Cats roster to indicate he’s an international player. No kidding. No player is better known in this league than Manziel, who earned that distinction before he even took a snap on Friday.
This is what Manziel is dubbing his “Comeback SZN.” And having struggled off the field with highly-publicized substance-abuse problems, and been charged with domestic abuse, Manziel is now trying to rehabilitate his image off the field as well, it seems. He has said he hasn’t had a drink since early this year, around the time he also says he began taking medication to treat bipolar disorder.
The way Argos defensive back Johnny Sears Jr. sees it, Manziel is good for the CFL.
“Brings more eyes to it, that’s what we want, you know?” Sears Jr. says. “He’s still gotta prove himself that he belongs, he come to a new league.”
He brings fanfare, though on Friday the crowd wasn’t quite the sellout advertised, with plenty of empty seats. It was clear many came to see Manziel, though, because the stands cleared significantly after he took his final snap.
Manziel began this game on the sidelines, watching starter Jeremiah Masoli, chatting with coaches and teammates, and gesturing and pointing to the field, seemingly soaking up all the information he could.
No. 2 came in with 3:36 left in the second quarter, in relief of Masoli, who tossed up a pair of interceptions in a turnover- and fumble-filled game.
Jones immediately noticed what he calls a “game presence,” when Manziel came in. “He was not rattled, he was not flustered,” the coach says. “He’s just got a demeanor about him.”
On his first-ever CFL play, Manziel looked right and—boom, complete pass, for a gain of nine, his first of three straight completed passes.
Later on that same drive, when the Ticats went for it, on third and two, Manziel was under pressure, and this time the Argos got to him and hauled him down. Then words were exchanged.
“That’s the CFL—that comes with it, and then him being him, it brings it,” Sears Jr. says, of the chatter. “He’s a talker himself, that’s what we do over here. we just having fun with it.”
Manziel says he is, too, having fun in this league so far, having arrived just two weeks ago.
And, if you ask Johnny Football, it only gets better from here.
“I’ll get to the point where the clock hits zero and it doesn’t feel foreign to me to run another play,” Manziel says. “I see a flag, I know what it is. We miss a field goal and we get an opportunity to take it from the 35 with out a kickoff.
“There’s some things like that, that I’m still feeling out – it’s a different game. But for the first time out there, I’m healthy, I got some experience, I got some reps. I think that was a very positive experience for me.”
Only time will tell whether the CFL and the Tiger-Cats will have the same to say of Manziel.