As documentary shows a man in limbo, what comes next for Johnny Manziel?
At the end of a documentary that, presumably, was supposed to have a happy — or at least hopeful — ending, Johnny Manziel is kicked back at a Scottsdale, Arizona, pool/darts party with a Stella Artois in his hand. Off camera, his sister is speaking.
“He’s not in a place mentally to go out and do something right now,” she said, solemnly, of his current state that seems mostly rudderless.
Generally speaking, documentaries are about telling a story in full. But with Netflix’s “Untold: Johnny Football,” this feels like the end of Act Two, with no clue about what could comes next. Maybe it’s a redemption of sorts. Maybe it’s, well, anything. A faulty gun, Manziel said, spared him of suicide once.
The documentary doesn’t provide an answer to what’s next. It does offer a window into the whirlwind of Johnny Manziel becoming Johnny Football.
Beating Alabama at Alabama. Winning the Heisman Trophy. Social media posts of Scooby-Doo outfits, inflatable swans and wild parties. This doc has all of that and then some.
There were his battles with the NCAA and his colorful — and very clever — entourage, led by Nate Fitch, who went by “Uncle Nate” but was just a high school buddy who handled Johnny’s business and media requests.
There was the lengthy draft debate over whether he was talented, let alone sober enough, to be a NFL star. There was the inevitable and spectacular bombing out as a Cleveland Brown, complete with him missing a game after jetting to Vegas, donning a fake mustache and claiming his name was “Billy Manziel.”
Entertaining. All of it. You couldn’t make it up.
In the process everyone made money, including, much to the NCAA’s chagrin, Manziel himself.
As sure as Johnny could slip a linebacker, Uncle Nate could do the same to an NCAA investigator. He made deals with autograph brokers and then laundered the cash through Manziel’s grandfather, who supposedly owned a bunch of oil wells. There was no oil fortune, though. Uncle Nate invented that story to explain all the spending on private jets, watches and Gucci wallets. It was just one of the funnier revelations.
Texas A&M made hundreds of millions off Manziel (still does). College sports as a whole did, too. Same with the media, the NFL, agents, handlers and so on and so on.
As long as the cash was flowing, the act carried on. It’s not that Manziel wasn’t offered help, but he was never truly accountable for his actions. His dad blamed A&M. Some at A&M blamed his dad.
Manziel was good enough to dominate college football despite studying no film, barely practicing, cheating drug tests and playing hungover. He was so good that — with the help of his agent, Erik Burkhardt — he covered most of it up and essentially tricked his way into the first round of the NFL Draft even if, by that point, he didn’t actually want to play anymore.
Manziel, Uncle Nate, Burkhardt, the family, even former A&M assistant Kliff Kingsbury, come clean on at least most, if not all of it.
Part of what made Manziel such a spectacular story was how quickly it happened. He was a mid-level recruit to A&M, where he sat out his first year. Almost no one knew who he was until everyone knew who he was, including Justin Timberlake and LeBron James.
Consider that his first arrest came in June of 2012, following a fight in College Station, Texas. Manziel was anonymous enough at the time that he carried a fake ID claiming he was from Louisiana. Six months later, he was an outrageously famous all-time Texas football legend hoisting the Heisman Trophy in New York City.
With an ascent that fast, maybe he never really stood a chance.
That he kicked away so much is on him. Manziel made all those mistakes. He had repeated chances at rehab. He had plenty of guidance. He was so valuable to so many that he got chance after chance after chance.
If an NFL career wasn’t enough to keep him straight for even a couple months, then who knows what it will take?
But that’s the thing. It’s still a question of what it will take. The documentary makes no declaration that he is clean, sober and healthy. He may not be at rock bottom, but that can’t be the goal.
It’s why the absurdity of Johnny Football’s world is only funny until you realize that nothing is truly in the past. This isn’t a survivor telling about the old days. It’s a guy in the middle cashing in on still being entertaining, if as much for his downfall as his climb.
In 2017, the Super Bowl came to Houston — New England vs. Atlanta. Manziel, two years removed from being cut by the Cleveland Browns, came too, at least for a paid appearance at a memorabilia store out in nearby Katy. A huge throng of mostly Aggies fans showed up.
They loved seeing him. They also lamented the wasted talent and the puffy face. He once texted Jerry Jones, promising to “wreck this league” if Dallas would draft him. Yet the league was downtown and he was in a mall on the outskirts of town.
“He’s got too much talent,” one fan, Tim Carlton, said, echoing everyone. “If he could just get his act together.”
Manziel was 24 at the time.
He’s 30 now and it’s uncertain anything has really changed.
Netflix will make him famous again. It will make him celebrated again. It will stir up memories and highlights and headlines and jokes.
Johnny Football sure was fun.
At least for the rest of us.