Johnny Manziel’s Last Chance—as a Backup in the CFL

The Browns washout is trying to revive his career, and rehabilitate himself, in the Canadian league. Here’s how he went from NFL first-rounder to Hamilton Tiger-Cats backup in four years, and the process that cleared him to play
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HAMILTON, Ontario—For all practical purposes Bob Young is the owner of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, but he prefers being called “caretaker.” Hailing from this tight-knit industrial city located an hour southwest of Toronto, the 58-year-old software businessman bought the historic CFL franchise to memorialize his younger brother, a lifelong Ticats fan who died of skin cancer in 2002. Now when players enter the stadium before home games, they pass beneath a sign that proclaims: WIN, MIKE IS WATCHING. It is that kind of environment.

On a breezy, blue-skied afternoon in late May, the second week of Tiger-Cats training camp, Young is observing two-a-days from the sidelines at McMaster University. Two dozen fans dot the bleachers, some holding old jerseys or glossy 8 x 10 photos that they’ll ask Hamilton’s newest attraction to sign. Speaking of which: Here he comes now, a CFL patch embroidered above the No. 2 on his yellow non-contact jersey, a towel dangling from his waistband and a play chart wrapped around his left wrist. He bobs along to a pre-practice soundtrack: “No Role Modelz” by J. Cole. He jogs over to Young, extends a hand and greets his boss for the first time.

“Nice to meet you,” Young says.

“Glad to be here,” replies Johnny Manziel. “I appreciate all the help. It’s been a long year.”

Down in the end zone, the starting offensive line is drilling shotgun snaps with Jeremiah Masoli, the 2010 Rose Bowl signal-caller at Oregon, who passed for 3,177 yards and rushed for 446 more with Hamilton last year. Manziel, meanwhile, was signed last month as the backup, the role he’ll occupy when the Ticats open against Calgary on Saturday, 902 days after his last regular-season pro football game. “The truth is that Johnny needed this opportunity more than we needed him,” general manager Eric Tillman says. “We have an established quarterback.”

Separated by a single letter and a shared border, the CFL and NFL can feel worlds apart. Up north, teams 12 players instead of 11. Offenses must advance 10 yards on three downs, not four. Receivers are allowed to “waggle,” or sprint toward the line of scrimmage as a way of going in motion. The field itself is 10 yards longer and a dozen yards wider; each end zone is twice as deep, with the goalpost situated in the middle; the play clock ticks to 20 seconds, not 40. For Americans such as Manziel, the growth curve is often mountainous.

Then there is the spirit of the CFL itself, nine teams filled with players either unnoticed or unwanted by The Show. “Our league has historically been a league of second chances,” says Hamilton CEO Scott Mitchell, whose father, Doug, was commissioner in the ’80s. “It’s not the first time a big-profile NFL player has come up. There’s a lot of precedent for it.” As evidence Mitchell cites Dexter Manley and Ricky Williams, former Pro Bowlers who later found refuge in Ottawa and Toronto, respectively. And yet: Between the personal and legal troubles that trailed his arrival, the conditions imposed upon his two-year contractual stay, and the millions eyeballing his future, Manziel represents an entirely unprecedented case.

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The story of how Manziel wound up in Hamilton starts six years ago, months before he became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. Back then Manziel was still a relatively unknown redshirt at Texas A&M, but the Tiger-Cats saw enough to throw him onto their negotiation list, a secretive pool comprised of 35 names—now 45—that effectively lets teams place dibs on players who might one day join the CFL. “The reality is you’re waiting for them to exhaust their NFL opportunities,” Mitchell says. “We put them on there as a long-term possibility.”

According to Mitchell, who joined Hamilton as team president in January 2007, the organization continued monitoring Manziel from afar: as he starred for two seasons in College Station, as he fell to the Browns at No. 22 in the 2014 NFL draft, as he was released by Cleveland two years later, as he was indicted on misdemeanor domestic assault charges against then-girlfriend Colleen Crowley that April, as he was promptly fired by agent Erik Burkhardt, as his father, Paul, told ESPN in June 2014 that “hopefully he doesn't die before he comes to his senses,” as he twice entered rehab for substance abuse, as those aforementioned charges were dismissed under various court-imposed conditions, as Burkhardt took him back last March, as Manziel married Bre Tiesi in a private ceremony that same month, as he began seeking work as a quarterback again …  “There weren’t a lot of surprises in terms of his situation,” Mitchell says.

The process gained steam last summer when the Tiger-Cats contacted Burkhardt expressing interest in arranging a workout. (Burkhardt declined to comment or expand on timeline details, citing the “sensitivities” and exclusivity of Manziel’s podcast partnership with Barstool Sports.) On Sunday, August 20, according to GM Eric Tillman, Manziel traveled to Newport Beach, Calif., where he reunited with a familiar face. June Jones, then an assistant with Hamilton, had coincidentally been the first coach to offer Manziel a college scholarship when he was at SMU; now, headed home to Hawaii on the Tiger-Cats’ bye week, Jones detoured in California and watched Manziel throw.

“From an on-field perspective, it was, not surprisingly, very strong,” Mitchell says. “There was never a doubt about his physical ability. The workout confirmed what we already heard. At that point it was more of a situation of, ‘Let us know when he’s ready to get serious about the CFL, and good luck with all your opportunities, and we’re here to have discussions at the right time.’”

“A get-to-know-each-other,” Tillman says, “to even see if this was worth starting the music that we would dance to.”

The Fall of Johnny Football

The next meeting took place several days later in Buffalo. The Tiger-Cats brought a larger crew this time, including Mitchell, Tillman, vice president Kent Austin, scouting coordinator Rich Massaro and team doctor Femi Ayeni, who performed a physical. They dined at the Marriott Harborcenter, imagining fake headlines if their guest was spotted: JOHNNY FOOTBALL TO SIGN WITH BILLS. “He had the baseball hat on, glasses,” Tillman says. “We’re thinking somebody’s going to see, there’s no way we’ll keep him quiet. But it never got out.”

Not immediately at least. Within a week a source had told TSN reporters Farhan Lalji and Dave Naylor that Manziel had “too many red flags” to consider signing. But that changed. By mid-September, Manziel’s camp opened a 10-day window that helps negotiation-list players coax teams into offering a contract, trading or releasing them. On September 27, the CFL extended that window through American Thanksgiving, announcing that Manziel would be eligible to sign a contract for the 2018 season if he “meets certain conditions that have been spelled out by the Commissioner [Randy Ambroise].” On December 27, the league announced that an assessment “by an independent expert on the issue of violence against women, a review by legal counsel, and an in-person interview of Mr. Manziel conducted by the Commissioner” resulted in Ambroise informing the Tiger-Cats that he would approve a contract if terms were indeed agreed upon.

“At the end of the day, we have a discussion: Do we think the player can help us as a physical, from a physical standpoint?” Mitchell says. “We have that conversation with every player. And then it goes through a process about what do we know about him, who do we know, what kind of process do we put that player through in terms of who he is, character-wise, the intangibles.

“The ultimate conclusion was that it was worth bringing to the league office, that it was an opportunity and an interest in what the process would be moving forward, to see if he was eligible to play for us.”

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Tracy Porteous is the executive director of the Ending Violence Association of BC, a Vancouver-based organization dedicated to “supporting survivors of sexual assault, relationship violence, child abuse and criminal harassment.” Eight years ago she pitched the CFL’s BC Lions on establishing an awareness campaign called Be More Than a Bystander, which would dispatch players and coaches into the community to educate about violence against women and girls. “To my great surprise and happiness they said yes,” Porteous says. They knew they had a platform in the public domain and the knew this was an epidemic.”

Four years ago, after then-Ravens running back Ray Rice assaulted then-fiancée Janay Palmer at an Atlantic City casino, Porteous offered to help the CFL write a new domestic violence policy. Unveiled in August 2015 under previous commissioner Jeffrey Orridge, the comprehensive program contains four main components, Porteous says: “Prevention and education, responding, assistance to the harmed, and assistance to the people doing the harming.”

Citing personal privacy agreements, Porteous declined to speak specifically about Manziel’s case. (Crowley, Manziel’s former girlfriend, recalled two separate domestic violence incidents in a March 3 interview with the New York Post, including how he “shoved” her head into a car window and how an open-handed slap left her temporarily deaf in one ear.) But Porteous agreed to detail the general process teams must go through if they are scouting a player with such a history. “Whatever we can do to catch this early in someone’s life,” he says, “because they have the ability to make a change and not have this path engrained.”

The first step involves what Porteous calls a “360-degree collection” of public records—social media posts, articles detailing alleged abuse, arrest records, court transcripts and so forth. “At this point,” Porteous says, “in the past couple of years since the policy has been in place, sometimes teams walk away from their interest in players. When they see a whole pattern, they realize they don’t want that person representing their team or brand.” Asked how many players specifically fall into this category, a CFL spokesperson estimated, “several.”

From there the player will undergo a risk assessment conducted by Dr. Harry Stefanakis, a Vancouver-based psychologist with expertise in domestic violence and associating risk factors, Porteous says. Some of these sessions are conducted on Skype, others in person. “Talking to third-party collaterals, people who would be able to talk about their knowledge of this individual player, and then look at the likelihood of reoffending,” Porteous says, referring to a generalized risk assessment that would be communicated to the commissioner, along with potential measures put in place to mitigate that risk. “Then this psychologist provides a report to the commissioner’s legal counsel, and then a decision is made. It’s the opposite of a rubber stamp.”

Johnny Manziel Opens Up: 'This Isn’t the Second Chance. This Is the 35th Chance'

According to a CFL spokesman, after Hamilton informed the CFL that it was close to signing Manziel, the league followed up to investigate whether he had been retroactively meeting conditions that Ambroise would eventually apply. (Ambroise was unavailable for comment.) Recently Manziel told USA Today that he must regularly see a doctor, receive monthly lithium tests for a bipolar disorder diagnosis, and “visit with a therapist once a week.” Mitchell says the Ticats have also imposed their own set of regulations, developed separately from the CFL but which “parallels in a lot of specific situations.” Asked whom the team consulted, Mitchell replies, “I will say it’s medical professionals and diagnostic professionals who deal with issues that are well-known to what Johnny’s issues are.”

As the league was conducting its inquiry—“at arm’s length,” Mitchell says—Hamilton was busy laying the groundwork to lure Manziel. In January, Tillman and Austin met Burkhardt at the Senior Bowl and, according to Tilman, “talked to him extensively.” Burkhardt replied that Manziel was “very open to Canada,” but they wanted to wait through the NFL draft to see if anything opened up there. In March the team sent representatives to Manziel’s pro day in San Diego, where a dozen NFL teams watched him throw 38 passes.

The following month Tillman spent 10 days alongside Manziel’s family at the Spring League in Round Rock, Texas, a developmental and scouting-showcase league. One day, a half-hour before kickoff, Tillman recalls sitting in the stands and chatting with Manziel’s mother, Michelle. Upon hearing that Tillman worked for Hamilton, one nearby man opened his Cleveland Browns letterman’s jacket to reveal a Tiger-Cats T-shirt. Tillman took it to be a promising sign.

At one point discussions were held with another CFL team—believed to be Montreal, where former Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman now leads the Alouettes— to trade Manziel’s negotiating rights, but eventually Hamilton made an offer: two years at $122,000 in base salary, plus $18,000 in housing, $10,000 to sign, and performance incentives that can tick the total value north of $300,000. On May 19, Manziel tweeted to his more than two million followers, “Made the decision today to sign my contract with the CFL and further my football career after a long break. Very grateful for everyone that’s been supporting me along the way. I believe this is the best opportunity for me moving forward and I’m eager for what the future holds.”

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The campus of McMaster University is situated at the southwestern end of Lake Ontario, hard against a section of outdoor botanical gardens called the Cootes Paradise Sanctuary. It looks like most college grounds when school is not in session: Construction workers hammering, A/C units humming, a few summer students crowded around a picnic table, smoking a joint. During training camp the Tiger-Cats slept in twin beds at Les Prince Hall, swiped into the commons for team meals, held nightly meetings inside academic auditoriums. On the one hand, it was a far cry from Manziel’s old world. On the other, it was entirely familiar.

“It’s been a smooth transition with everybody here in the organization, with my teammates, with the offense,” he said after practice, encircled by reporters in front of an interview backdrop. (Manziel was not made available for individual questions.) “I don’t feel overwhelmed. I don’t feel pressure. I don't feel like I’m being treated any differently than anyone else on the team. I’m having a lot of fun building relationships with guys who I’ll be with for hopefully a couple years.”

On the ground, the welcome was warm. At the team store inside Tim Hortons Field, the initial shipment of No. 2 Manziel jerseys sold out within an hour. One fan freaked out during practice when Manziel airmailed a pass into the stands during no-huddle drills, even harder when his friend chucked the football back: “Man, you trippin’! Manziel touched that!” Another 20-something diehard remarked that he nearly canceled his season-ticket plan when the Ticats attempted to hire ex-Baylor coach Art Briles last August—until widespread backlash forced them to backpedal—but brought two pictures of Manziel at Texas A&M that he hoped to get autographed.

 “He’s humble, he’s a good teammate, the players like him,” says Jones, who took over as head coach four days after meeting Manziel in California last summer. “I can see why he’s been a successful quarterback, because the players will rally around him. I’m impressed so far. I think he’ll be Johnny once we get going, and I don't think anything will change about that.”

“There hasn’t really been any blowback,” Mitchell says. “I think the community has embraced an opportunity for a guy to get a second chance.” Asked why he believes Manziel deserves one, Mitchell replies, “We’ve talked to a tremendous amount of people at the professional level, from a mental and physical standpoint. As well as the experience he’s had with college and NFL people, we felt like, pending league approval, this was something worth discussing.”

And now, as a proud franchise seeking to regain its footing after a 6-12 record last season, the Tiger-Cats would rather discuss their collective football future than their new backup’s troubled past. “I’ve never looked at it or cared,” center Mike Filer says. “If he’s in our locker room, then I know they’ve brought him in to do one thing—be a part of this team. And he’s going to help raise the talent level and help us win.” Adds Mitchell: “Certainly we’ve put together a great team to enable him to be successful. But at the end of the day it’s up to the individual, to do that.”

Over the coming months, Manziel will attempt to meet those standards. Through practice reps and the Ticats’ virtual reality training program he has been learning the intricacies of Jones’ famed run-and-shoot offense, which Manziel says he has played on NCAA Football “a million times.” He made his exhibition debut on June 1 against Toronto—the TSN broadcast mentioned his name 22 times before he replaced Masoli late in the second quarter, plus “Johnny Football” twice—and then threw for 88 yards and a touchdown last weekend against Montreal. Depending on the circumstances, perhaps he will take a meaningful snap for the first time since completing a 14-yard pass as the clock expired in the Browns-Chiefs game on Dec. 27, 2015.

He has moved into a rental spot in Hamilton, where he will spend a grueling 21-game season that stretches until early November. He has recorded the first full episode of his Barstool podcast, in which he detailed how he was held up by border police for carrying thousands of American dollars—he was worried he wouldn’t be able to withdraw money in Canada. “I have a little bit of a solid foundation to build on and move forward,” Manziel says. “I’ve got a good partner off the field, a good team on the field. All is right in the world.” He will continue attending therapy, taking medication, meeting the terms that he must.

“There are always going to be critics, and that’s not on the critics,” Tillman says. “That’s on Johnny. Those who are averse to second chances, who are critical, they have every right to be, and we understand that. When you make mistakes, that comes with the territory. The onus is not on them to forgive him. The onus is on him to re-earn their respect and trust.”

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