In 2012, then-redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel took the college football world by storm, turning in dynamic after dynamic performance as the starting quarterback of the Texas A&M Aggies. Although ex-Aggies coach Kevin Sunlim’s had a policy for freshman players not to speak to the media, Manziel’s play trusted him into the national spotlight. It began with a 557-yard performance against Arkansas that broke Archie Manning’s 43-year-old record. Then the bright lights got hotter, and Manziel lived up to the task of going up against number one-ranked Alabama and beat them 29-24.
It was off to the races as he became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. His schoolyard style of play mirrored his penchant for partying off the football field. Who could forget the money signs and the overall commotion surrounding the Aggies in the two years he played there? The program undoubtedly benefited as much as Manziel. The 70-minute documentary, “Johnny Football,” almost feels like you’re watching a slow-moving car crash.
At the beginning of the documentary, Manziel gets inducted into the Texas A&M Hall of Fame. Now at 30, the quarterback who some thought would take the NFL by storm is playing for the Fan Controlled Football League. How did this all crash down for somebody who made so many plays in his college days without looking at a playbook? Manziel states that he loved the nickname “Johnny Football” but that the moniker and Johnny Manziel were two different people. You can deduct this as families, friends, and old coaches like Kliff Kingsbury and Manziel retell the worldwind journey starting in Kerrville, Texas.
If you picture Varsity Blues personified, this is how Manziel spoke about his high school experience. However, Tivy high school was a military-type football program that required two-a-day practices. Even though former best friend Nate Fitch described Manziel as wanting to be the best and drink beers afterward, he had the structure. As his play improved, so did the partying (particularly the saying, “Win or lose, we booze”). Kingsbury tells a story about their 2012 game against Mississippi State, where Manziel went out partying the night before, came to the pre-game hungover, and they win 38-13.
Was it just that the nightlife lifestyle would forever fuel Manziel? No, of course not. The school certainly didn’t impede that – they were setting records with $740 million raised. “Johnny Football” also touches on merchandising and his contentious relationship with the NCAA. College athletes making money with their likeness has been addressed with the introduction of NIL, but Texas A&M was bringing in funds hand over fist with the nameless Manziel jerseys they were selling throughout campus. This is where the autographing scandal went down – where Manziel and Fitch organized ventures back and forth from Miami where he would autograph merch for upwards of $30,000. Even so, only a half-game suspension in a 2013 game against Rice.
Anytime it felt like the good times would stop for Manziel, there would be some scheme or a plan that got him out of trouble. If it wasn’t the story that Manziel’s family had a fortune due to oil, it was his then-agent Erik Burkhardt helping him flush his system before a drug test at the 2014 NFL combine. Furious bits of focus would always seem to get interrupted by the “Johnny Football” persona. This all came to a head when Manziel went to the Cleveland Browns as the 22nd pick in the 2014 NFL draft. He describes that time seeing everything in black and white – he wanted to get out. Many of the improvisational tools he exhibited on the field while burning the candle at both ends would never work out professionally. The issues just snowballed until the Browns eventually had to cut him – leading him to the lowest point in his life.
“Johnny Football” ends on a note that does not necessarily display what could have been. I don’t get the sense that Manziel wanted to lead a team like Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes did. He was a spark that helped a college gain an identity and made us question the relationship between collegiate athletes and being paid performers. As much as the sports media reveled in the gestures and the confident play Manziel exhibited, they did as much latching on to his descent. Everybody loves a hero, but even more so when they fall. Manziel’s ascent will be one to remember, and his family members are hesitant to say everything is good. It may never be, but one can hope he finds something to channel that passion without drawing from all the excess.