WASHINGTON — Johnny Manziel had a rough night Monday in Landover. Of course, so did Brian Hoyer, his primary competition to become the starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. And yet, no matter how poorly or how well he plays, he draws interest like few players in the game.
His professional career hasn’t even really started yet, but his name is ubiquitous within the NFL right now.
That’s why everyone is jammed into this press box and this interview room Monday night — to ask him questions about anything and everything, to get Johnny Football’s opinion on the quarterback competition, on the bird he flipped the Redskins, and most of all, really, on Johnny Football.
I’m here because it’s the first chance I’ve had to see him play a football game in person in five years.
* * *
It’s a stormy night in late November 2009 deep in the heart of Texas, and I’m settling in with about 6,000 fans to watch two high school teams from small towns most people have never heard of. It’s the second round of the Texas High School Class 4A Division II state playoffs between Pflugerville’s Hendrickson High School and Tivy High School, of Kerrville.
It’s the best football game I’ve ever seen.
Despite the weather, the teams combine for 119 points in a game with too many twists and turns to even think about starting a recap early, even if I wasn’t busy tracking stats. Tivy trails the entire game, and is only coming close to keeping pace because of their signal-caller, an undersized, spritely dual threat who alternates between hucking the ball downfield and making bouncy, jagged escapes from larger defenders.
He’s thrown for four touchdowns and rushed for three more, topping 200 yards in both departments. With the game tied at 56-all and the clock ticking away, Tivy gets the ball back. On the first play, the quarterback rolls right and pitches the ball to his running back, the offensive line shuffling towards the near sideline to form a convoy of blockers in front of him.
But then the back pulls up short, cocks his arm and unloads a high, arching throw back across the field, through the raindrops, where his quarterback has sneaked out behind the defense. Thirty-nine yards of open field later, he is in the end zone, and the Antlers have won.
I race down to the field as the final seconds tick off the clock, determined to talk to the star of the show, if only for a couple minutes. He answers my questions calmly, with a composure greater than many of his peers, a smiling confidence in his demeanor.
“I was a little worried there at the beginning,” he told me. “But we talked all week about wanting to be the guy to get in there and step up. I wasn’t going to let anybody stop me tonight.”
As we finish, Johnny Manziel turns, helmet in hand, and jogs diagonally across the field past the back corner of the end zone, onto the bus that will shuttle him and his teammates the 70-mile drive home.
I’m the only reporter to talk to him that night.
* * *
“You don’t believe him until you actually see him.”
Lorne Chan would know. As a sportswriter for the San Antonio Express-News, he saw Manziel as much as anybody who knew him before his breakout game against Alabama.
Chan saw both sides of Manziel before nearly anyone else. There was the good.
“All these other players, even then, looked up to him,” Chan says. “Opponents, fellow players were the ones to speak most highly of him.”
Manziel’s engaging personality and friendliness stayed with him as he left for Texas A&M, where he would still join in the Friday-night football chats while redshirting his freshman year. He tagged Chan on Twitter in a photo taken with other top talent from the San Antonio area earlier this year, referencing their uncommonly close athlete/reporter relationship.
— Johnny Manziel (@JManziel2) January 10, 2014
And then there was — well, the rest.
“There’s the famous story that he once texted me at halftime of a game to ask what his stats were,” Chan says. “He’s still the only player who’s texted me during a game.”
After tearing it up on Tivy’s freshman squad, Manziel was thrust into the starting quarterback position as a sophomore. He was rushed into the role, ironically, because the incumbent quarterback at the time was suspended for drinking. His junior year brought the insane playoff win over Hendrickson. Still, though, he was not on the national radar.
“San Antonio had six players on the Rivals 100 that year,” explains Chan, referring to the list of top prep players in the country. “And he wasn’t one of them.”
The only coaches who wanted him at that point were Stanford’s Jim Harbaugh and Oregon’s Chip Kelly. Considering the questions of his viability in the pros at his size, there’s another level of irony there, as Harbaugh now leads the San Francisco 49ers and Kelly the Philadelphia Eagles.
“He’ll always be an injury risk, with all the hits he takes in the NFL,” says Chan. “But that stuff’s kind of changed to where he will have a little more freedom. Besides, he’s as tall as Drew Brees, and that guy worked out. I think a lot of that stuff gets over-analyzed. Just let him play and let’s see what happens.”
* * *
The Browns’ first preseason game against the Detroit Lions — a decent team, but not likely a Super Bowl threat — drew the highest preseason rating in the history of NFL Network. The exhibition was seen by more than 2.8 million viewers, 36 percent higher than the previous record. Manziel threw all of 11 passes and ran the ball six times.
Fantasy football previews caution against taking him too high, calling him a “perfect late-round lottery ticket.” Despite becoming the first freshman ever to win the Heisman Trophy and leading Texas A&M to a 20-6 overall record in the Aggies’ first two seasons in the SEC (and two bowl victories), he has as many critics as admirers.
Manziel’s personality inspires at least as much hate, seemingly, as his talent does hope. On Monday night, he was shown making that obscene gesture toward the Redskins’ sideline while jogging off the field.
“I get words thrown at me each game,” he began to defend himself, before backing off. “I should have been smarter.”
Manziel had to wait 22 picks in the NFL Draft, as all eyes turned to him. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
Incidents such as that, or the infamous money hand-sign from his final season at Texas A&M, lead some people to paint him as the villain, an easily unlikable antagonist. June’s NFL Draft turned into a one-man watch party, as everyone wondered aloud how far the undersized quarterback would drop. It turns out that he might have gone to the Dallas Cowboys — imagine that drama — but for the grace of owner Jerry Jones’ son literally snatching the draft card from his father’s hand.
The list of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks who have not lived up to expectations in the NFL is not a short one. There have been moderate successes, such as Doug Flutie, Ty Detmer and Charlie Ward.
Robert Griffin III is another name on the Heisman list, in case you’d forgotten. The jury is still out on whether or not he’ll live up to the hype, but his quiet demeanor has taken him farther out of the spotlight, with at least some of that focus shifted to Manziel.
Then there have been the busts: Andre Ware, Gino Torretta, Danny Wuerffel, Eric Crouch, Troy Smith.
That last name is important, not because he and Manziel are really in any way comparable on the field but because of the media frenzy that has surrounded them. With Tebow, the controversy seemed as much rooted in his religious beliefs as his awkward throwing motion. Manziel’s talent (or more so, his size) is also questioned, as it has been at every level along his path, but it is his off-the- field antics and attitude that get people riled up.
And in that sense, Manziel is the anti-Tebow. He’s not shy about anything he does on or off the field, as he’s proven every day for the past five years, from that rainy night in south Texas to Landover on Monday.
But he’s taken Tebow’s and Griffin’s reign as the focus of our national football obsession. For better or for worse, he wouldn’t have it any other way.