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Johnny Manziel Finds Door Back Into Football With CFL's Tiger-Cats

On Saturday, Johnny Manziel announced his signing with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, doing what other quarterbacks in his position haven't been willing to do: Head to the CFL in search of a path back to the NFL

Johnny Manziel has messed up—a lot—over the last four years. And he’s burned any trust he once had with NFL teams. There’s ample reason, too, for everyone else to doubt how serious he’s been about “#ComebackSZN”. All that branded apparel only added questions on his motives.

So give him credit now. He’s not telling you. By signing in Canada—he announced via Barstool Sports on Saturday morning that he’s doing a deal to play for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats—he’s showing you.

Manziel is doing what a lot of other quarterbacks who’ve found themselves on the outside of the NFL looking in haven’t been willing to. He’s looked for any door he could back into the football-playing world. He found one with the Spring League earlier this year, and now he’s opening another one North of the border.

Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick were both out of football for extended periods of time, for different reasons, and each talked of how much they loved and missed the game. Both had opportunities to go to Canada—each was on the negotiation list of the Montreal Alouettes. Both declined. Plenty of other ex-NFL quarterbacks have walked away from the game, rather than try and pump life into the careers by working on their games in the relative anonymity of pro football’s de facto Triple-A league.

And for Manziel, it has to be as much about turning his life around as his football career. His substance abuse led to stints in rehab. Worse, he was arrested for misdemeanor assault against his former girlfriend in 2016–a case that was dismissed after he completed anger management classes.

• THE FALL OF JOHNNY FOOTBALL: Two years ago, Emily Kaplan reported on how it went so wrong for Manziel in the NFL.

But Manziel has put almost a year of thought into this. He worked out for Hamilton last August; his agent, Erik Burkhardt, kept the lines of communication open in the time since. The Tiger-Cats offered Manziel a two-year deal in January, which gave the team his negotiating rights for the period of a year. It didn’t hurt, either, that Burkhardt had a relationship with Hamilton coach June Jones from his days at SMU.

At the time, Manziel was holding out hope of getting into an NFL camp this summer. In an effort to get in front of teams—and another sign of how badly he wanted back into pro football—Manziel showed up at the University of San Diego’s pro day in March, and threw for a couple receivers he’d been working out with in California. He did the same at the pro day of his alma mater, Texas A&M, later that month, before heading off for the Spring League.

Manziel has been working with QB guru Terry Shea and trainer Jamal Liggin (who has Odell Beckham Jr. out there too) in California. He actually quietly worked out for an NFL team this month, and his camp stayed in touch with a couple others, but there wasn’t an opportunity forthcoming, and the quarterback viewed tomorrow, May 20, as a deadline.

The reason for that? That’s Day 1 of Hamilton’s training camp. And he decided that if he was going to go to Canada, he needed to be there from the start, because he’d be learning a different game—12-on-12, bigger fields and only three downs. He was given no promises, only a shot, and being on time would help him make the most of it.

And so last night he was on a redeye from LA to Buffalo. He spent three hours at the border getting a work permit. There’ll be a press conference in Hamilton this afternoon. The Tiger-Cats have their first team meeting tonight, first practice tomorrow, and first preseason game on June 1.

Manziel consulted only A&M teammates like Jeff Fuller (former Alouette) and Derel Walker (Edmonton Eskimo) about playing in Canada, and by signing he’s making a two-season commitment to the league. That means no NFL until late 2019.

Will this work? It’s hard to say. Is it O.K. to be careful about trusting what he says? Of course it is, and he put himself in that spot. But with the sense of desperation this move suggests, you can’t say he’s not trying.

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