Wedged in between two of the biggest pro days on the 2018 NFL draft scouting calendar—Sam Darnold’s session at USC on Wednesday and Josh Allen’s at Wyoming on Friday—was an event that was barely on the league’s radar until Wednesday night. Coming off a 10–3 season and a second-round exit in the FCS playoffs, University of San Diego didn’t figure to draw much attention for its pro day Thursday until word spread that Johnny Manziel would be throwing.
It marked the first time NFL teams had seen Manziel throw since 2015, at the tail end of two tumultuous seasons with the Browns riddled with off-field drama that culminated with a four-game suspension for a violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. Manziel has been working with a trainer in Los Angeles since the middle of January and began throwing with his old quarterback coach George Whitfield about three weeks ago to get ready for another run at a pro career. Two San Diego receivers whom he’d been throwing to didn’t have a quarterback for their pro day, so they asked the former first-rounder if he’d do it and Manziel obliged.
Thirteen NFL teams attended the Toreros’ pro day. They saw Manziel, in a light rain, throw 38 passes with two misses. The Patriots also brought him inside the USD facility to get his updated weight on him (197 pounds).
“Man, I thought it went good,” Manziel told SI Thursday afternoon. “I’d only begun throwing with those guys since like the week before. It’s a precursor for what we’re about to do. It wasn’t flawless or anything. I missed a couple of throws. When we did our pro day I was working with those [receivers] every day. We knew the script without having a piece of paper. With this, you run a slant, you don’t know how those guys are gonna come out of it, but I thought it was good for everybody.”
Whitfield, his coach, says Manziel’s arm has more juice now than it did when he was coming out of Texas A&M, although he needs to keep working to improve his timing. Manziel has noticed a difference in his arm strength, as well.
“I think it’s because of the workouts that I’ve been doing,” Manziel says. “This is the strongest my core has ever been. What I’ve been working on with my guy in L.A.—we haven’t gotten into a squat [rack] or done dead lifts or tried to bench 300 pounds. It’s been, let’s do core work and stuff we need to for my shoulder and my arm. Then when I started working with George the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed a difference. I feel like I’m in the best shape that I’ve been in a long time, like at least since my Heisman year at A&M.”
Manziel knows his talent isn’t the real question NFL folks are going to have about him. He has been through rehab for substance abuse twice. In response to their concerns, he says his whole world has completely changed. He just got married earlier this month. He says he has been sober for almost 90 days—before that he says he did smoke marijuana. “As far as hard drugs or anything like that, it’s been almost a year,” Manziel says. He has let old friends know he’s had to make drastic changes.
“I let them know, ‘Hey, I gotta be selfish in what I’m doing. I gotta do this for me. Listen, I’m not gonna block your number but if I don’t text you back and I don’t answer your calls, don’t be offended. I’ll call you when I get bored and I wanna say what’s up. But don’t invite me on any trips. Don’t tell me to go to Texas to go to [friggin’] Sixth Street. None of that.’ The people I know that are in my life that by no fault of their own are going to want to do something that I just don’t have the luxury of doing anymore. When I first got in the league, did I have some leeway? Sure I did, but I have exhausted all leeway and all second chances. This isn’t the second chance. This is the 35th chance. This is the last of the last chances to show people that I’ve made a drastic change in my life, and it’s for the better and I’m happy with where I’m at.
“I need to be safe for myself. I’ve let multiple people know—guys that had been around me for years, I reached out to a multitude of people and said, ‘Listen, I’ve never been selfish in my football career. I’ve always flown you guys to every game. I’ve gotten you tickets. I’ve done everything. But for now, I’m selfish with what I need to do because I don’t have room for you guys to come around and for me to get off on a bad path. It just can’t happen. I’m happy. I’m married and I’m doing what I’m doing. My wife is my buffer with all of the bulls---. She doesn’t let me get away with any of the B.S. She’s just straight to the point. She has my best interest at heart, and there’s times where I don’t like it. I’m still a stubborn guy—I don’t like listening all the time. I’ve had a lot better sense of being able to sit back and reflect, even if it’s a daily reflection. I have that backstop. I’m working with good people and I’m working the majority of the day."
Manziel’s first trip to rehab three years ago he describes as “old-school, 12-steps AA, narcotics” rehab. “We went down the first avenue—if we can just get him to stop drinking, things will be good. But when I decided to try and make the whole comeback attempt last year, I stopped drinking for four or five months—dead sober. But it still didn’t change me going to the club with some of my boys and just drinking water. But it still didn’t affect me making bad decisions or tone down the knucklehead moves I was making.”
Manziel believes a key factor in his turnaround was being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2017. That has helped him get his life settled down, with a new understanding of his issues and a way to treat them. It has diffused the anger that often bubbled up inside him, he says. “Finding out that diagnosis and accepting that diagnosis, taking my medicine, is like someone that had diabetes and is taking their medicine every day. I take two in the morning and one at night.
“[The medications are] supposed to keep you even-keel. Sure, I do still drive in traffic and when someone cuts me off, I get pissed, but I’m able to take a deep breath. When I went to that mental health place, I started dealing with different coping mechanisms to really help me not being so drastic in my actions all the time.”
Manziel also realizes that he faces a lot of skepticism. He lost the benefit of the doubt a long time ago.
“I told people [after the USD pro day], I can sit here and talk to you guys all day. I’m a great talker. I have media savvy. I can do an interview like I’m not worried if I get into tight spots but the thing is, I can talk ’til I’m blue in the face about how I’m a different person but here’s what happens: I do this for two months, I do this for three months, I do this for six months and then something always sets me back,” he says. “So until I have a year under my belt of me being better—and now I have three months of really positive traction going around every aspect of my life—my main key is consistency, consistency, consistency with my regimen. With not missing s---, with not going missing, with just doing what I’m supposed to be doing every day and doing it for a long point of time. And until I get into [an NFL] building and I’m able to show that, it’s all just talk. It’s all just me saying that I’m different. Now, I know I am.
“My dad came out here a couple of weeks ago and we played golf. We had the greatest trip of our life. We’d never spent father-son time quite like that. He said, ‘The anger is gone. A lot of the things I’d seen in you over the past few years are not there any more. I’m happy with where you’re at. I’m glad that you found a girl that you really love.’ I’m just a different person on these meds. I would like to say that it’s something different—I had gone through that struggle with the negative stigma that surrounds mental illness, but for whatever reason when I take these little pink pills, it helps me be stable. I’m not as crazy. I don’t want to go out and party. I don’t want to escape from life or the problems that I’ve made from it. I started facing some things head-on.”
His career NFL stat line is modest: seven touchdowns, seven interceptions. Manziel has done the post-mortem in his mind many times over why things went so horribly wrong during his two years in Cleveland.
“As much as it was me not having my head right off the field, it was more of me falling into that really hard depression when I went to Cleveland and got there,” he says. “I was down. I was pissed. I hated it. I didn’t give it a chance. I was so mad at myself. The biggest thing was when I got on the field and I thought the field was supposed to be my safe haven and my sanity, I didn’t perform. It was the first time in my life that I hadn’t gone out on the field and been better than everybody else. Or even shown flashes of rookie promise. In minicamp, I still played like s--- against other rookies. I was extremely discouraged, and I didn’t have a lot of positive things going for me. [Brian] Hoyer wasn’t like how [Josh] McCown was, but it wasn’t his fault. He was a guy that had bounced around a million times and was finally getting a chance to start, and so of course, he’s going to try to take every advantage he can of the situation.”
The problems that surfaced in Cleveland, of course, started long before Manziel got to the NFL. His success at Texas A&M, where he led the Aggies to their first top-five finish in over a half-century and became the first freshman to ever win the Heisman Trophy, masked his issues. The extent to which he thrived on the field was a remarkable feat in itself. He cringes now at how he handled all of it.
"I got to a point especially [in 2013] when life was so hectic and I was dealing with all of this other B.S. I had no privacy and I would take my stresses and anger out on other people," he says. "I didn’t care what their feelings were. I didn’t care how my actions and my behavior made them feel. That was a huge, huge thing that I’ve been working on even up until this year, that I was only gonna do what I want to do when I want to do it. In reality, I feel like that’s what marriage has helped me with because even when I’m right, I’m wrong. And when I’m wrong, I’m definitely wrong.”
His days the past couple of months have been much more structured. He drives over to UCLA Monday through Friday to throw for two hours. Then he’ll drive to the gym to work with his trainer. “And then I’m doing psych meetings and I’m going to the psychologist and the psychiatrist, and I’m making sure my meds are right, and I’m going to get my blood work done and doing all of this stuff that I need to do,” he says. “It’s a lot of tedious maintenance work that I have to keep up to take care of my mind just like I do my body.”
On Monday, Manziel will leave Los Angeles and fly to Texas to play in The Spring League. Players officially report next Wednesday, with the first game on April 7. He also plans on attending Texas A&M’s spring game on April 14. Down the road he says he’d like to be an ambassador for the school. He’s trying to get a licensing agreement to sell some merchandise there and hopes to collaborate with some mental health charities around the Bryan/College Station areas.
“The proceeds go to certain things that I feel like have made a difference in my life and where I can start helping some other people because that’s one thing I didn’t do,” he says. “I didn’t help some other people. I only cared about me and where my money was and what my situation was. I didn’t give back the way I should’ve given back, and it’s time to change. I’m working on doing some cool things to try and make up for lost time.
“At the end of the day, if I was never to make it back to the NFL, I’d be completely happy to be clean and sober. But is that what I want and I aspire to? No. But at the same time I can live knowing what I’ve accomplished football-wise because I know there’s more to life than just a game. I didn’t always see that before. I felt it had to be Super Bowls and $100 million contracts and the whole works. Keep it simplistic: Let’s try to get a contract offer to go to training camp. Clean and sober with a contract offer to go to training camp and I’m on Cloud Nine. Play in a preseason game and I’m on Cloud 39.”