HAMILTON — Johnny Manziel is a day away from beginning his professional football comeback in a league, and a country, he wouldn't have expected to find himself in just a few years ago.
The man nicknamed Johnny Football when he was a college superstar at Texas A&M hasn't taken a snap as a pro quarterback since December 27, 2015. That day, the former Heisman Trophy winner and first-round NFL draft pick completed only 13 of 32 passes for 136 yards, though he ran for another 108, in the Cleveland Browns' 17-13 loss at Kansas City. Manziel was then shelved for the following week's regular-season finale with a concussion and was reportedly spotted at a Las Vegas casino that weekend when he was required to be with the team.
A few months later, the Browns cut Manziel, halting a once-promising NFL career that saw him play in only 14 games over two seasons. During that time, Manziel's life fell apart amid an array of problems both on and off the field — including subpar play, a domestic violence charge, substance-abuse issues and excessive drinking and partying. He hasn't played pro football since.
That will change Friday night in Hamilton when Manziel suits up for the Tiger-Cats in their CFL pre-season opener against the Toronto Argonauts.
Now that the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner has some reps on a CFL field under his belt, 3DownNation founder and editor Drew Edwards talks to CBC Sports' Devin Heroux about Manziel's first impressions. 5:49
Hamilton head coach June Jones said at Wednesday's practice that Manziel, signed earlier this month, will serve as the second-string quarterback and will get a "number of plays" against the Argos.
With his reputation in ruins, Manziel knows this might be his last chance. He has admitted he needs to get it together — on and off the field — in a hurry, or his dreams of playing pro football could end once again in Canada.
Manziel, who said earlier this year he was taking medication to treat bipolar disorder, has said all the right things since arriving north of the border. At his opening press conference, he sounded hungry and grateful for the opportunity.
"I don't want to wait around anymore," Manziel said. "I want a chance to get on the field and get in the locker room and get a chance to play ball again. I truly sit here today and think that this is the best opportunity for me. I'm very thankful that they have given me a second chance to be able to come up here."
During training camp, Manziel has been high-fiving teammates, talking constantly with coaches and trying to glean knowledge from them between plays.
"His football IQ is very high. You can tell that just from the questions he asks. He'll pick up on the CFL game very quickly," Ticats receiver Luke Tasker said at practice Wednesday. "He's approached training camp and the meetings with a high level of professionalism."
Manziel feels he's fitting in well.
"It's been a smooth transition with my teammates and the offence," he said. "I don't feel overwhelmed. I don't feel pressure. I don't feel like I'm being treated any different. I'm having a lot of fun."
Earning his stripes
For as much fun as he's having, the competition is about to get very real for the starting quarterback job in Hamilton. Jones has made it clear that Jeremiah Masoli is the team's No. 1 QB and that Manziel has work to do as the backup.
"His footwork has gotten a lot better. When things break down he's doing what we ask. All those things," Jones said. "It'll be a while I'm sure before he's comfortable with all the routes we're running, but I bet if we had the first [string] guys in there with him he'd come along a lot faster."
As the backup, Manziel has fewer opportunities to prove his worth than if he were the starter. That, coupled with the fact that the CFL game is different from the NFL, has him playing catch-up. But make no mistake, he wants to be the starter at some point.
"I'm going to have to earn my stripes up here," Manziel said. "I'm going to have to work extremely hard to do what I want, and that's come and play at a high level."
Manziel has impressed Hamilton teammates and coaches with his ability and professionalism in practice. (Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Jones seems to have confidence in Manziel. During a podcast interview late last year, he said Manziel had the potential to be "the best player to ever play up here."
That support could be pivotal for the 25-year-old, who has faced scrutiny and media attention going back to his time as a flashy and controversial college star who was already gaining attention for his off-field behaviour. That noise quieted during his time away from the game, but now it's ramping up again on the eve of his first pro start in years.
Manziel said his phone "blew up" when he announced on Twitter he was coming to Canada to play for the Ticats. He added that he's only talked to his mom, dad, sister and wife, in an effort to limit outside distractions.
During that same video announcement on Twitter, Manziel said signing with Hamilton was a big move for him, that he was "no longer unemployed and getting back to what I wanted to do."
Now it's time to do it.
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