Dangerous Business: Counting Down Johnny Manziel’s Car Wreck of a Career, and a Life

The choice to do business with Johnny Manziel has always been a high-risk game of guts poker. Whether it was his whirling dervish, Heisman Trophy-winning days at Texas A&M or his franchise-cratering two NFL seasons in Cleveland, the “kid from Kerr-ville” has always been a walking Ben Franklin Test, in which you’re constantly evaluating and re-evaluating the pros and cons of your association with him. Indeed, if Vito Corleone were appraising quarterbacks, he’d probably look at Manziel, sigh and grumble, “Your business…is a little dangerous.”

If you’re a regent at Texas A&M, the danger was probably worth every sleepless night that Johnny was hanging at the Dixie Chicken until three in the morning. In 2012 and 2013, Manziel made Texas A&M the epicenter of college football, the rage of the SEC. However, if you’re a member of Mike Pettine’s coaching staff in Cleveland, your feeling about the Manziel-wrought danger is drastically different. That danger put you on the unemployment line about a month or so ago.

And now, as Johnny Manziel himself is on a countdown to unemployment — the Cleveland Browns reportedly plan to cut him on March 9, once they have the salary cap space to absorb the cap hit from doing so — the 22nd pick in the 2014 NFL draft is careening to a place where he poses real danger to himself and those close to him. Amid allegations of domestic abuse and the dark cloud of addiction, the Johnny Football saga is headed toward a sad, tragic ending.

How did we get here? How did Johnny Manziel go from having Nike CEO Phil Knight on speed dial to skipping Week 17 of the NFL season in order to toddle off to Vegas and get drunk for three days? (In disguise, no less!) How did Manziel go from having former presidents attend his Pro Day back in 2014 to allegedly rupturing his girlfriend’s eardrum with a stiff slap in the parking lot of the Hotel ZaZa in Dallas?

It starts with a protective cocoon in College Station, where Manziel’s character flaws were masked more than they were mitigated. The raw truth about the college football chapter of Manziel’s career is that his God-given athletic gifts were otherworldly compared with those of his competition. He was just that much better.

“Johnny is the best college football player I’ve ever seen or covered,” said Gabe Bock of TexAgs.com. “He mesmerized Aggies with a brand of football that was 90 miles per hour with his hair on fire.”

Peccadilloes like Manziel’s oversleeping at the Manning Passing Academy because he was reportedly on Bourbon Street until the wee hours back in the summer of 2013, or a slap-on-the-wrist suspension from one half of a football game against Rice for taking money for autographs that same summer, were brushed aside because Manziel was winning games and he was big business. Donations for the Kyle Field renovations rolled in.

“Unfortunately, Johnny has been unable to turn off that switch outside the lines and away from football,” Bock said.

After two seasons of college football, Manziel declared himself eligible for the 2014 NFL draft, and in what, in retrospect, might be the most miraculous portion of his career, he managed to stay off the social media grid and dedicate himself fully to working out with his private coaches and maximizing his draft stock from January through April in 2014. Eventually, Manziel was picked by the Browns in the first round of the 2014 draft, and in the first of many signs that the previous four months of clean living must’ve been for him the painful equivalent of holding in a sneeze, Manziel flashed the “money sign” hand gesture the second he emerged from the green room at the draft.

Johnny Football was back. Unfortunately, what worked in College Station was poison in the pros, and the selection of Manziel, which was believed to be driven by the Browns’ ownership over the coaching staff’s wishes, divided the team.

“[Browns head coach Mike] Pettine had no chance from Day One because Manziel polarized the organization,” said Tony Grossi, who covers the Browns for ESPNCleveland.com. “The coaches were never on board with him as the quarterback face of the team. From the beginning, it was out of their hands.”

So it’s safe to say that Manziel’s slide into darkness began with the very basic premise that he was unwanted by those tasked with mentoring him, which in any walk of life is about as toxic as it gets, especially for a guy who’d been the alpha dog in every sporting event he’d participated in up to that point.

The result in 2014 was a horrendous rookie season for Manziel in which he was destroyed in both of his two starts, and in which his off-the-field antics began to veer toward the violent side, with rumors of a fight in his building between his entourage and some regular civilians. Oversleeping practice and missing injury treatments were reportedly issues as well.

In February 2015 came the first truly ominous report about where this could all be headed. Manziel checked into rehab, where he stayed for ten weeks. “When he checked himself into rehab, that’s pretty serious,” Grossi said. “In 30-plus years covering this franchise, I never saw a player do that voluntarily.”

Upon emerging from rehab in the spring of 2015, Manziel managed to hold it together through training camp and into the regular season. There was hope. Manziel even got his first win as a pro in a Week 2 start against Tennessee. However, he was on a constant quarterback yo-yo with incumbent starter Josh McCown, and that adversity seemed to make him a ticking time bomb, especially given how inherently uphill the battle against addiction can be.

“It usually takes three or four trips to rehab before an addict gets any traction in the battle against addiction,” former NFL linebacker Ted Johnson, himself a recovering addict, warned. “Johnny’s got a long battle ahead of him.”

Things boiled over in October on the side of a road in Avon, Ohio, where Manziel was having an argument with his then-girlfriend, Colleen Crowley. Police got involved and Manziel admitted to having a few drinks, but, amazingly, everything seemed to get swept under the rug, and no charges were pressed. The Browns even announced Manziel as the starter for the remainder of the season in November. However, the signs that Manziel’s addiction issues were acute snowballed shortly thereafter.

In November and December alone, he popped up on social media in multiple drunken videos, lied about the circumstances of the videos to Pettine and took the aforementioned trip to Vegas in which he skipped the Browns’ Week 17 game. Pettine and his staff were fired the day after the season ended.

“I’ve seen much higher draft picks flame out. But I’ve never seen such drama with one individual before,” said Grossi. “It was a spectacular train wreck that set the franchise back two years and cost several jobs.”

Of course, as the ink was drying on Pettine’s termination papers, the scariest chapter in the Manziel saga had yet to even play out. On January 29, after an evening of carousing, Manziel found himself in an argument with Crowley in his room at the Hotel ZaZa. An affidavit filed on Crowley’s behalf indicates Manziel pulled her hair, hit her multiple times and took her back to her apartment against her will. It also details Manziel’s threatening to “kill [them] both,” which led Fort Worth police to use a helicopter to attempt to locate Manziel after he left Crowley’s apartment. As of this writing, the investigation into this incident is ongoing.

“In college, the hope was that Johnny was just a college kid having fun, like a lot of college football players, and that when football became his job, he would be locked in and be a professional,” said Bock. “Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened.”

So back to the original question — how did we get here? How did Johnny Manziel go from being one of the most vibrant brands in all of sports to an allegedly violent, certainly drunken and soon-to-be-unemployed bro on Instagram?

Certainly, there are those close to Manziel who will tell you some of it is genetics, as he comes from a long line of well-documented East Texas chicanery, with ancestors who were into everything from wildcatting to organized gambling to cockfighting. More in the moment, it’s safe to say that this is Manziel’s reaction to his first real dose of professional and personal adversity, which has to be harrowing for anyone who cares about him.

Unfortunately for Manziel, his inner circle is dwindling and he’s left scorched earth everywhere. He was recently let go as a client from LeBron James’s marketing agency, and his agent, Erik Burkhardt, also severed ties with him, saying that he would continue to support Johnny, but any business relationship at this point is counterproductive. Even Manziel’s father has said that his 23-year-old son will be “lucky to see 24” if he doesn’t get help.

The Cleveland Browns will begin digging out of the rubble in April when they likely will take Manziel’s replacement with the second pick in the 2016 draft. Hell, even Texas A&M, the one safe haven where Manziel’s devil-may-care persona flourished, was derisively labeled as having a “Manziel-led culture” by quarterback Kyle Allen, who recently transferred from A&M to the University of Houston.

Is there anyone left in Manziel’s corner? Well, a few days ago, ironically enough, Charlie Sheen of all people tweeted this bit of advice to Manziel: “It’s time 2 refocus all of your energy on health & Football! It’s never 2 late 2 get a fresh start!”

Somewhere, God knows where, Johnny Manziel sits evaluating his current lot in life, and we don’t know if he’s hit rock bottom. But if there is a rock bottom, my guess is that Charlie Sheen is there dishing out life advice. 

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at sean.pendergast@cbsradio.com.

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