MONTREAL — Johnny Manziel ambled through the lobby of the downtown high-rise wearing shorts, a gray T-shirt and a baseball cap that hung just above his eyes. There was no bling, no Champagne bottles, no paparazzi.
In the temporary residence that Manziel currently calls home, a few people passed without even a glance at one of the most infamous and recognizable athletes in the United States. Manziel, now trying to rebuild his career in the Canadian Football League, settled comfortably into the booth of an empty restaurant, took off his Montreal Alouettes cap and let down his guard.
“I dug myself such a hole and made myself look so bad,” he said, referring to years of self-destructive and sometimes violent behavior. “How do I even get this thing back on track?”
Manziel had been given a second chance long before he got to Montreal — and a third and a fourth and probably a few more that the public does not know about. Montreal and its football team are giving him his latest, and possibly last, chance to resurrect a once-promising football life derailed by poor play, bad behavior and arrests — including one on charges that he had assaulted his girlfriend.
Even if many of the people in this city, where hockey is king, seem unaware that a phenomenon nicknamed Johnny Football sits among them at the local Five Guys restaurant or on the Metro, there are millions more who know one fundamental truth about Manziel: He messed up in spectacular fashion.
Manziel knows this, too. All his troubles — the drinking and the drugs, the multiple arrests and the unflattering photos, and ultimately his exile from the N.F.L. — were his own fault.
“One hundred percent,” Manziel said.
That acknowledgment, one of many he made in a candid discussion this week about his past, present and future — including revelations that he had contemplated suicide and used his wild behavior to self-sabotage his way out of Cleveland — could signal that Manziel understands that at 25 he is quickly running out of chances, and time.
He still has a long way to go, of course, and expressions of regret and public pledges of self-reflection are not a new phenomenon for him. For all those who remain skeptical that the next Manziel headline is just as likely to be about his being arrested in Las Vegas as about his throwing a touchdown pass, Manziel this week said he understood that his words alone would not erase that skepticism. Only years of consistent, mature behavior, he said, can do that.
“A lot of it is time going by and doing the right things,” he said, “and just trying to build and work on your character and your life.”
The union between Manziel and the Alouettes is an appropriate one: Both have seen better days. The Alouettes went to eight Grey Cups from 2000 to 2010 and won three C.F.L. titles, but they have not had a winning season since 2012. They were 3-15 last year and are 1-6 entering Saturday’s game against the Ottawa Redblacks, a game that Manziel, acquired in a July 24 trade with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, is expected to start.
Interest in the Alouettes has waned in Montreal, but the team heralded the arrival of Manziel, perhaps hoping that the addition of one of the most electrifying college football players of the young century, whose skills may be perfectly suited for the fast-paced, wide-open Canadian game, might build enthusiasm and ticket sales.
“They need him on the field and off it, absolutely,” said Herb Zurkowsky, who has covered the Alouettes for The Montreal Gazette since 1997.
After all, Manziel is a slippery, undersized improviser, not dissimilar to Doug Flutie, who was one of the C.F.L.’s best players. Flutie struggled in his first year in Canada, throwing more interceptions (19) than touchdown passes (16), and Manziel is not off to a good start, either. His first game as a starting quarterback in Canada was a disaster. Unprepared after only a few practices, he threw four interceptions and was benched by Coach Mike Sherman in a 50-11 humiliation against Hamilton.
Manziel told reporters after the game the same thing he told his teammates and coaches in a postgame meeting: that the loss was his fault — even though the defense and offensive line were terrible, too — and that the experience had humbled him.
“He took full responsibility,” the longtime Alouettes offensive lineman Luc Brodeur-Jourdain said. “But you have to remember, it’s a different game in Canada. It takes a while for a quarterback to get familiar with it.”
Sherman, the Alouettes’ first-year head coach, said he loved the accountability Manziel had displayed, saying he took it as a sign of maturity. Sherman knows Manziel better than most: He recruited the Texas boy wonder to Texas A&M when he was the head coach in College Station from 2008 to 2011, and he oversaw Manziel’s redshirt freshman year.
Sherman was fired before Manziel’s first season, in 2012, when Manziel led the Aggies to an 11-2 record and became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy as college football’s best player, and so he was gone before stories emerged about Manziel’s partying and at least one arrest in the summer of 2012. The Manziel that Sherman knew and recruited was quiet and respectful, always saying “Yes sir” and “No sir” while lighting up the practice field with the kind of ridiculous plays that, as Sherman put it, captured the imagination of a sporting nation a year later.
“He’s the same kid now as he was back then, in my opinion,” Sherman said, adding, “It seems like he’s managing his life well, right now.”
The key words: right now.
A lot happened between Sherman’s departure in 2011 and now for Manziel to make the circle back to civility complete, if he truly has. Manziel said that at the end of a tumultuous two-year tenure with the Cleveland Browns that included more partying, demotions and a stint in rehabilitation, he had decided at some level to “self-sabotage” his way out and sign with another N.F.L. team. It was a bad plan.
“They were tired of it, and I was as well,” he said of the Browns’ management. “I wanted a fresh start. Unfortunately, everything that happened in January put the stamp of disapproval on me.”
What happened in January 2016 was that Manziel was accused of, and later charged with, misdemeanor assault after allegedly hitting his former girlfriend in the side of the head and threatening her. The case was dropped last November after Manziel reached a deal with Texas prosecutors that required him to complete counseling for anger management and substance abuse.
By then, though, the Browns and the rest of the N.F.L. had given up on him. Drafted 22nd over all in 2014, he had started only eight games for the team in two seasons before he was released in March 2016.
Unemployed, he spent the next several months in a haze of depression, self-medication and general debauchery.
“I had whatever I wanted to do whenever I wanted to do it,” he said, “and my life revolved around that.”
Twenty-three at the time, Manziel was nearing the alarming target date his father, Paul, had set for a potential tragic ending. In February 2016, a month after his arrest and a month before the Browns cut Manziel, Paul Manziel told The Dallas Morning News that if his son did not get real help, he might not reach his 24th birthday. Looking back, Manziel said his father might have been right.
“Yeah, I even started having suicidal thoughts with how bad my depression was,” he said. “If drugs or alcohol didn’t kill me, maybe I would have.”
In early 2017, he said, he met his wife, the model Bre Tiesi, began working out daily in San Diego with the quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. and started seeing a counselor to address his anger and depression. That led to more extensive therapy and, he said, an eventual diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which Manziel announced in an interview on “Good Morning America” in February.
Manziel said that he was taking lithium to balance his moods but that his disease was not the cause of the litany of incidents that still make him cringe.
“I can’t sit here today and blame my mental health directly for everything that happened in my life,” he said. “There were a lot of things that happened in my life that were a result of direct choices and decisions that I made as a 23-, 24-year-old man. I’m not proud of it. It’s hard to sit here today and look back and see some of the things that did happen.”
Now, with a skeptical world watching, Manziel professed a desire to succeed in Montreal, where, for now, he enjoys relative anonymity. He said that he was ecstatic to take over the familiar reins of being a starting quarterback again and that he appreciated that the Alouettes were even monitoring his daily routines away from the field.
A triumphant return to the N.F.L. is the ultimate goal, of course, but Sherman said Manziel could not succeed if he had one foot in Canada and the other in the United States, angling for a quick comeback. For now, Manziel said, he is happy with the quiet life he is living in his hotel residence, playing the video game Fortnite, splurging on the occasional Five Guys hamburger and taking the subway to work at Olympic Stadium.
After two tumultuous years, he is back playing football again, with only a little fanfare.
“I’ve had a lot of fun,” he said of his scandalous past. “Now I can put fun on the back burner for a long time and be able to enjoy my career and my profession.”
Minutes later, he was gone, headed back upstairs to his apartment. As he strolled through the lobby, no one looked his way.
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