As we all watched Johnny Manziel take over the college football world back in 2012, winning a Heisman Trophy and putting Texas A&M on the SEC map in its inaugural season in the sport's toughest conference, we knew we were witnessing something unique, something awesome. What we saw with our eyes, on the field, brought us to our feet.
What we heard whispers about and got hints of on social media, Johnny Football OFF the field, sparked curiosity and intrigue, and often we were left wondering what exactly the WHOLE story was. Well, a decade later, we got the documentary that we wannabe Johnny Football historians have been asking for, as Netflix dropped Untold: Johnny Football earlier this week.
My biggest takeaway after viewing it? Seventy minutes isn't nearly enough to tell the story of Johnny Manziel. Not even close. It was a captivating seventy minutes, and I suppose "leaving the audience wanting more" is always a goal of any form of content, but unless there's a sequel coming, there are still so many parts of Manziel's journey in which the documentary left holes.
The producers went into incredible detail about the rise of Manziel, his time at A&M, the hero worship he experienced, and the money he made, all of it illegal in the eyes of the NCAA. Unfortunately, the fall of Manziel, which really began the day he set foot in the NFL, got way less attention, way less time, and maybe that was by design. After all, somewhat surprisingly, Manziel is still around to tell his version of his story.
Aside from the brevity of the project, here are some things that stood out to me on a show that I would most certainly still give high grades:
You can see why Johnny accepted the illegal financial perks
If the Manziel phenomenon took place in 2023, he would be lauded as the most lucrative NIL (name, image, likeness) money machine in collegiate sports. Unfortunately, for Manziel, he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars for his autograph back in 2013, when the NCAA was still running things, so he was viewed as an outlaw. The documentary did a nice job, though, of generating empathy for Manziel and what many, at the time, thought was greed. In the midst of Manziel Mania, the only one not making any above board money in it was Manziel himself. Kevin Sumlin got a raise. Kliff Kingsbury got the Texas Tech job. The school raked in $740 million in donations. I actually found myself getting angry at the hypocrisy of it all, ten years later.
"Uncle Nate" comes across as a likable character
Back when Manziel became a tour de force on the autograph and celebrity appearance front, he needed someone to organize his business affairs, and that person was his boyhood friend, Nate Fitch, affectionately known as "Uncle Nate." Back in 2012 and 2013, Fitch was perceived as an enabler and a hanger-on, and the documentary certainly does nothing to dispel the notion that Nate benefitted greatly in his social life from being a Manziel associate. However, the sense I got in watching Fitch in this documentary, and he was featured VERY heavily, is he really did have Manziel's best interests in mind for the most part. As much as a 21-year-old can have his eye on the big picture, at least. Unfortunately, once Manziel got to the NFL, his new inner circle had him discard "Uncle Nate," and the two haven't spoken since.
The Cleveland Browns are HUGE losers in this documentary
One of the few detailed anecdotes about the NFL portion of Manziel's saga came form his former agent Erik Burkhardt, who shared the story of Manziel's private workout for the Cleveland Browns, which was Easter weekend 2014 in College Station. It started with a dinner the night before the workout, where Manziel charmed the hell out of the Browns. It then proceeded to Johnny and his wide receivers for the workout getting wasted back at the hotel, Manziel waking up the next morning with no equipment, and his receivers too hungover to attend. Manziel wound up conducting the workout in spare cleats he found in the facility with Burkhardt and his attorney running routes at the workout. The coup de gras in all this —- the Browns actually DRAFTED Manziel after this debacle. IN THE FIRST ROUND! Poverty franchise.
Manziel reveals his attempt at suicide in 2016
Once Manziel was released by the Browns, following the 2015 season, his life then slid into the toilet, and we watched it all play out on Instagram. Manziel went on lavish drug binges and his weight dropped from 215 pounds to 175 pounds. His body became a graffiti wall of new tattoos, seemingly every week. What we didn't know is that, according to Manziel in the documentary, the end game in this multi-month bender was going to be suicide. Manziel claims he bought a gun several months prior, and at the nadir of his journey, he had the loaded gun ready to go, but when he pulled the trigger, the gun malfunctioned and didn't fire. In a documentary that outlined about a hundred lies that Manziel told or was party to, I have no idea whether or not to believe this, especially considering the producers spent about 15 seconds on the suicide attempt, but it was quite the story.
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