HAMILTON — Those who have been around awhile will remember a remarkable afternoon on the verdant campus of the University of Guelph when the apparently impossible happened.
Rolling in for a hastily-assembled press conference at the training camp site of the Toronto Argonauts was the presumptive first pick in the upcoming National Football League draft, Notre Dame wide receiver and kick returner Raghib “Rocket” Ismail. Seemingly destined for stardom down south, he made an unlikely detour, signing with the otherwise all-but-moribund Argos of the Canadian Football League.
It was all about money, of course (though it would be a few years yet before everyone understood exactly where that money had come from…). By outbidding the NFL, the ownership triumvirate of genius and con man Bruce McNall, Wayne Gretzky and John Candy, in one grand gesture, seemed to have altered the destiny of three down football.
The good times lasted precisely one magical season, culminating in an Argos Grey Cup win in Winnipeg which included the famous frozen-beer-can tossed as the Rocket was streaking towards the goal-line. Things fell apart soon after because McNall’s elaborate ponzi scheme fell apart soon after (the first hint of trouble, even as his Los Angeles Kings were thriving, was when he cut off funds to the Argos…), and the CFL’s ill-fated American expansion, which was also part of his grand plan, in the end nearly sunk the league entirely.
But it sure was fun while it lasted.
Cut to another, equally unlikely scene. At Tim Horton’s Field, at a hastily-arranged press conference on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of a long weekend, Johnny Manziel was introduced as the newest member of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
His signing had been in the works for more than a year, and was the logical outcome of a unique set of of circumstances: Manziel had bombed out as a first-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns following a stellar Heisman Trophy-wining career at Texas A&M University; a long series of off-field incidents including a domestic violence charge and issues with alcohol and other substances, plus an obvious lack of maturity and discipline had scared off other NFL teams. The Ticats, under the CFL’s unique rules, exclusively held his negotiating rights; though there was talk of him joining a new spring league in the United States in 2019. If he wanted to play professional football before that, there was only one alternative.
So, no, Manziel probably didn’t dream of this day when he was a high school star back home in Texas. He never imagined himself holding up the black-and-gold uniform of this ancient CFL franchise with his name on its back in a town that long defined itself through its football teams. It’s been a long time since he played in a stadium as small as this one.
But, for now, and presumably for at least the next two years, this is home.
“I don’t want to wait around anymore,” Manziel said, with the team’s head coach June Jones sitting by his side.
Manziel hit all of the right notes. He seemed humble and grateful for the opportunity. He deferred to the Ticats’ starting quarterback, Jeremiah Masoli. “I’m just looking forward to meeting him and being in the room with him,” he said.
The 25-year-old said that he had talked to others who had come north to play football – most notably Doug Flutie, who stuck around and became (arguably…) the greatest player in the history of the league, which would of course be the fairy-tale model, at least from a Ticats’ perspective. “I’m going to have to earn my stripes,” Manziel said. “I’m going to have to work extra hard to do what I want.”
Then he delivered the punch line: “This isn’t just a pit stop for me.”
Of course, he hopes it will be exactly that, the same way all of the others did, the same way so many of the American players who come to Canada every year imagine that it’s but a short pause before cashing much bigger checks playing at home.
That’s always been the carrot, for the stars and lesser lights alike. And it has also always been true that the CFL is the place for second chances, where players who had issues in college (see Masoli…) or in the NFL, which requires a far higher commitment in terms of time and a far greater rigidity of schedule, could operate in a more relaxed environment, make a modest or more-than-modest living, all while playing a variant of the game they love.
Manziel’s contract commits him to Hamilton for two seasons. Other players have cut backroom deals to be released after one, allowing them to return for another crack at the NFL immediately, but given the level of scrutiny on this one, it’s hard to imagine the league would let that happen.
And even if it did, the truth is, there is no down-side here.
If Manziel succeeds, he’ll be a big attraction, bring attention the league, and make for some exciting football. If he stays long-term, all the better.
If Manziel falls short, a segment of CFL fans will take peculiar pleasure from it, as they did when Vince Ferragamo and Ricky Williams and various other celebrated imports failed to turn the league on its head, because it would be taken as evidence that the CFL is less an inferior league and more a different league, where the distinct Canadian rules present a unique challenge.
If Manziel falters off the field – well, that would be on him. Before allowing the Ticats to sign him, the league head office under commissioner Randy Ambrosie insisted on a long vetting process, just to make sure they were going in with eyes open. They came away satisfied that Manziel presented no immediate risk, or at least that the reward side of the equation justified the leap of faith.
“I’m happy to be part of a team again, happy to have a job again,” Manziel said. “I’ve been taking a lot of things in my life one day at a time.”
He’s self-aware enough, or twelve-step aware enough, to admit that’s a cliché.
But in the end, what great sports story isn’t?