He pushed through a set of red curtains on the way to the stage almost two years ago, wearing a Cleveland Browns lapel pin, a brown Cleveland hat and the combined look of relief and determination.
Johnny Manziel had waited backstage at the 2014 NFL draft for more than two hours, franchise after franchise passing on the former Texas A&M quarterback. Some believed he was too reckless on the field, no matter his 20-6 record as a college starter and the 2012 Heisman Trophy. Others, unable to ignore a pattern of off-field behavior and an apparent thirst for attention, were more concerned about his life before and after the games.
But now it was done. The Browns had traded up to select “Johnny Football” at No. 22 overall. He would be their quarterback of the future, and that night in New York City, Manziel seemed steadfast in rewarding Cleveland for its faith.
“I’m going to work extremely hard to get what I want, and I know what that is. I want to win, and I want to be successful,” he told reporters in May 2014 at Radio City Music Hall. “The amount of time I put in and the heart I put into this, which I know I’m capable of doing, will tell the tale.”
Now 720 days later, the 23-year-old Manziel — who has been in and out of rehab; a regular at parties and on social media; cut last month by the Browns; and seems, for all intents and purposes, to be an ex-NFL player — was indicted Tuesday in Dallas on a charge of assault for family violence. If convicted of the misdemeanor, stemming from accusations he attacked his ex-girlfriend in January, Manziel could be sentenced to a year in jail.
Appearing before a grand jury is the latest stop on a swift and serious fall for Manziel, a figure simultaneously fascinating and exasperating. He is talented and stubborn, showing signs in these past two years of a promising future and problems kicking his bad habits. The months since the 2014 draft have outlined — in painful, occasionally repetitive detail — Manziel’s steep descent.
Not long after the draft, Manziel traveled to Las Vegas to celebrate. It was one of many trips he would take to Sin City — for UFC fights, to lounge poolside, to stroll once through a casino in a blond wig. More and more, the “amount of time” he committed to Cleveland faded in favor of another trip to Vegas. If he had free time, he was on a plane. He traveled to Vegas between team activities, during a weekend following a Thursday game in November 2014, after he had been ruled out of the Browns’ final contest of 2015 with a concussion. He made at least eight known trips in the 11 weeks following the draft.
By late July 2014, less than three months after his selection, the Browns were expressing concern in Manziel’s pattern of behavior. Then-Coach Mike Pettine called Manziel that summer after photos circulated of the quarterback rolling up a dollar bill in a bathroom.
“I felt very positive coming out of the conversation and I’m very confident moving forward, now that it’s 100 percent about football, that it will be much less of an issue,” Pettine was quoted as saying then by ESPN.
The Browns started Brian Hoyer over Manziel to begin the 2014 season, which Pettine credited to Hoyer’s poise during the preseason — not to Manziel’s late arrival to a training camp meeting or, during a preseason contest against Washington at FedEx Field, flashing his middle finger to the Redskins’ bench. After 13 weeks, though, it was Manziel’s turn: He responded by throwing two interceptions and zero touchdowns, adding three sacks in a 30-0 loss to Cincinnati. A week later, he pulled his hamstring.
“It’s a job for me now,” he told reporters at the end of his rookie year, promising to spend more time in Cleveland during the upcoming offseason. “I have to take it a lot more seriously than maybe I did at first.”
Four days later, after Manziel missed a mandatory treatment session, Browns security staffers had to go to his house to check on him; the quarterback would later admit he had thrown a party the night before.
In January 2015, Manziel checked into a rehabilitation facility in Pennsylvania, eventually spending 10 weeks there. He appeared, at least for a few months, to have his life in better order. Then the new season began, and in mid-October police questioned Manziel after witnesses saw the quarterback allegedly beating his girlfriend, Colleen Crowley. Manziel told police he had been drinking earlier in the day. Manziel downplayed the incident, posting on Twitter that the altercation “was embarrassing but not serious…”
He started six games for the Browns in 2015, and on Nov. 7 Pettine named Manziel the starter for the rest of the year. Manziel reportedly promised his coach to avoid trouble during the team’s bye week. A few days later, a video was posted to the internet showing Manziel holding what appeared to be a bottle of champagne. Pettine — who along with General Manager Ray Farmer was fired in January — rescinded Manziel’s promotion to starter, in fact making him Cleveland’s third-string passer.
Weeks later, Manziel failed to check in with the team’s medical staff for a required post-concussion examination; the quarterback was rumored to have spent the weekend in Las Vegas. ESPN would later report Manziel appeared to have a hangover during a team meeting before his team’s final game.
He was cited Jan. 6 for driving with expired license plates, and a little more than three weeks later Fort Worth police were called to investigate a possible assault. Crowley, the quarterback’s girlfriend, would later say in an affidavit that Manziel pushed her into a car and hit her, dragging her back inside the vehicle after she tried to jump from it. Crowley also said Manziel had threatened to kill himself.
About a week later, the Browns released Manziel after a career that totaled eight starts, 147 completions and seven touchdowns. That same week the quarterback’s father, Paul Manziel, told the Dallas Morning News his son had refused to re-enter rehab and that without help, he was afraid his son “won’t live to see his 24th birthday” next December.
Manziel’s agent, Erik Burkhardt, cut ties with him in February, and last week Manziel’s new agent, Drew Rosenhaus, dropped Manziel. A marketing firm let Manziel go in January, and this month Nike ended its endorsement deal with the quarterback. He reportedly rented a house in Los Angeles recently and, according to the celebrity website Page Six, caused $32,000 in damage.
Two years ago, Manziel was just a complicated but talented young NFL prospect. “I went into the situation telling myself that everything would happen for a reason,” he told reporters on his draft day back in May 2014, “that I would land wherever I did tonight for a purpose.”
The saga has been brief but eventful, frustrating and sad. Now, the Texas legal system and not an NFL team will decide what, in the twisting saga of Johnny Manziel, lies ahead.