KERRVILLE, Texas – Their phones lit up on the last Saturday of May, not quite their worst fear but something close.
Have you heard anything about Johnny? He’s gone missing.
Earlier in the day Johnny Manziel had been scheduled to board a helicopter for a Memorial Day outing with his family. But after a long and occasionally chaotic night of partying in New York, he hadn’t shown up. He wasn’t answering calls or responding to texts, and so his family reached out to anyone who might’ve heard from him.
Manziel’s retired high school football coach started making calls. His former youth minister issued a flood of texts. The high school’s receptionist read the Internet stories she’d sworn off, an attempt at preserving her memory of the sweet and thoughtful young man she had once known.
Something like this, they feared, was inevitable: “Johnny Football,” whose audacity and air of invincibility at Texas A&M produced a national phenomenon and delivered the Heisman Trophy to small-town Texas, had finally brought Johnny Manziel to the edge of a cliff.
How else to explain it? The Johnny they knew was humble and gregarious, patient and loyal and good with children. The man they read and heard about more recently – whose behavior they tried, so often, to avert their eyes from – looked and seemed unfamiliar.
The gaunt figure standing near the Las Vegas pool in the Instagram post from May? Almost unrecognizable. The tabloid and gossip site mainstay who, according to an affidavit, dragged his ex-girlfriend into a car before allegedly hitting her and threatening to kill himself? Difficult even to fathom. The quarterback whose brief but turbulent career with the Cleveland Browns ended in March and who, two weeks before NFL training camps open, has shown no interest in playing again? A stranger, surely.
The Johnny who in the past five months has been sued, is facing a grand jury indictment, been involved in two car accidents and whose own father has publicly called a “druggie” and questioned whether he will live until December, long enough to reach his 24th birthday?
“That’s not the person I know,” said Tony Vela, the former youth minister who has known Manziel for years and considers himself a mentor.
Vela reaches out sometimes, almost always with the same message: I believe in you. Mark Smith, Manziel’s coach at Tivy High in Kerrville, texts him every few weeks, often with a Bible verse. It has been months since Manziel responded. “He’s kind of lost himself right now,” Smith said.
They hear about Manziel through news accounts or rumors or, most complicated, from someone inside his inner circle: the five or six friends, mostly individuals Manziel has known since high school – those along for the ride in the exotic car or party in the rented mansion. “He’s still the same Johnny to me,” said one close friend, and it is perhaps because of that analysis Manziel still responds to that friend’s texts and accepts his FaceTime requests.
As Memorial Day weekend began, a man stood on a Manhattan street and blocked the SUV carrying Manziel. With a TMZ videographer filming, the man attempted to confront Manziel about $90,000 in damage his group had allegedly done a month earlier to a special edition Mercedes-Benz. The weekend ended with Manziel getting a tattoo on a private jet.
In between, phones chirped and buzzed in Texas, many with the same question: Does anyone know where Johnny is? The immediate answer, trickling from one of those close friends never far from Manziel’s side, was that he wasn’t missing at all. Manziel had simply decided to skip the family outing without announcement, preferring to spend his Saturday night at a bar.
The full truth, though, was starker: The Johnny they knew has been gone a long time.
– – –
They decided to celebrate Tivy’s third victory with a few beers, the quarterback joining seven of his closest friends to toast the win and the chemistry of the Antlers’ offense.
Then the police knocked on the door, the quarterback and his teammates each given a citation for underage drinking. Smith’s policy was simple: Get in trouble with the law and you run until you vomit – and then you still get suspended.
Just like that, senior quarterback Colton Palmer was out, and a skinny sophomore named Manziel was in. Indeed, if alcohol would someday unravel the legend of Johnny Manziel, it also aided in its creation.
Anyway, the kid was ready: 375 total yards, six touchdowns and a 50-20 beatdown against Boerne Champion. Some Kerrville residents remember his first play, his first touchdown, his first win – where they were, how they felt, its importance in the city’s history.
“Within five minutes, we recognized that this was something we’ve never seen before,” said Stuart Cunyus, a sportswriter who covered Manziel’s career for the Hill Country Community Journal.
It was as if Manziel had been genetically engineered for excitement. Holding on an extra point once, the snap sailed over his head; Manziel chased it down, took five or six steps and zipped a pass into the end zone. He was 15 then. Another time, playing slot receiver, he caught a pass and did a 360 as he came down for a dash of showmanship.
“This impossible style of ball,” said Palmer, who split time with Manziel after serving his suspension.
If Fridays were for football, Manziel spent Saturdays at the YMCA officiating youth games and Sundays in the back row of church. He volunteered at Vela’s ministry on Wednesday nights, staying late to help clean or prep meals for kids. When Bessie Fifer’s rheumatoid arthritis forced her onto a walker, Manziel ran over in his pads to open a gate for her and apologize that Tivy had lost the game. “That touched me,” Fifer said, “and stayed with me forever.”
Manziel drank alcohol occasionally, ran his mouth a little more than that, but Smith said he mostly avoided trouble. He spent downtime with teammates, becoming especially close with Steven Brant and Deron Belford, two of his receivers. They talked about loyalty and the spread offense, Manziel going places but realizing a quarterback is only as good as the men at his side.
By the time Manziel was a senior, Kerrville’s secret had spread across Texas; out-of-towners drove from as far as Houston to come watch the elastic kid who seemed to have no idea what fear felt like. Fifer, the Tivy receptionist, called him “Johnny Man.” Wally Reed, the local radio analyst, insisted someone with Manziel’s gifts must be from another planet, and so on the air he called him “Rocket Man.”
It wouldn’t be long, though, before another nickname would attach itself to him.
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Manziel took the snap and looked downfield before bailing on the play, tucking the ball and turning upfield. He ran into two of his offensive linemen, the ball popping out of Manziel’s hands before he collected it.
Then he ran. To his left as Alabama defenders chased him. He was scrambling, backtracking and under pressure, trying to bow up at inevitability and the top-ranked Crimson Tide. He planted his left foot, a shortstop turning two, and flung the ball toward the end zone and wide receiver Ryan Swope for a touchdown.
“All due respect to Johnny Manziel,” CBS Sports analyst Gary Danielson said after Texas A&M upset Alabama, 29-24. “Johnny Football played a great game.”
By then the name was following him: into Kyle Field and on the road, as Smith and other visitors to College Station traveled the gantlet with Manziel from his apartment to the football facility, a few hundred autographs, selfies, hugs and high-fives in between.
The legend of Johnny Football was growing, inflamed by cockiness and wins and mystery. Aggies Coach Kevin Sumlin prohibits freshmen from speaking to reporters, the silence amplifying the buzz. Then there was the story of how Manziel jumped into a bar fight to protect Brant, one of the Kerrville friends he had sworn loyalty to, and had gotten himself arrested and nearly thrown off the team. That was most of what anyone knew about him.
Four weeks after the Alabama game, Manziel stepped onto the stage and became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, awarded each year to the best player in college football. He was humble and reflective. He thanked Smith and crossed the stage to hug Reed and his radio partner, Mark Keller, acknowledging most anyone else who’d made the trip from Kerrville.
But something changed that night. Emboldened by that 45-pound chunk of bronze, Manziel began testing boundaries. He experimented. He withdrew. Manziel learned he liked casinos, social media and good beer. He hated being told no.
He was sent home from the Manning Passing Academy (and denied it was because he showed up for a session hungover) and shook off a scandal in which he was accused of signing memorabilia for cash. He and his friends grew accustomed to free meals and VIP sections. Johnny Manziel listened to Drake; Johnny Football partied with Drake.
If he went out or attended a get-together, it became more likely someone would try to bait him into reacting. Going for a burger in College Station became an ordeal: a stream of fans and well-wishers asking for a photo or autograph. Seemingly every move made it to Twitter.
“Part of him liked it,” Smith said. “But part of him didn’t know how to handle it sometimes.”
A year after Manziel boarded the team plane and warmly greeted his teammates, he now wore headphones and kept his eyes forward. He avoided strangers. He kept to himself more often. “There were challenges with him,” said Eric Hyman, the former Texas A&M athletic director. “Winning the Heisman, you saw the transformation.”
Those in Kerrville saw Aggies coaches, in particular Sumlin, coddling Manziel and allowing him to become entitled. Manziel, for the arrest and drinking and autograph scandal, never sat out a game. Texas A&M administrators saw a strained relationship between Manziel and his parents; Hyman said Manziel’s father, Paul, told him before the 2013 spring game that the elder Manziel was “washing my hands” of his son and that he was the Aggies’ problem now.
“I’m sure there are a lot of things that could have been done in a lot of different situations,” Sumlin told reporters last week at a gathering of Southeastern Conference media; through a Texas A&M spokesman, Sumlin declined interview requests for this story.
The school tried to shield Manziel, Hyman said, but he was inconsistent in his wishes. He dreaded crowds sometimes; other times he reveled in them. He vowed to be a team leader but couldn’t help but go to Austin during the Aggies’ bye week to tend bar. He adored attention some days; others he wanted to disappear from it forever.
“I don’t want to say he was in prison,” Hyman said. “But he couldn’t be who he wanted to be.”
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In the months between the 2014 NFL draft and the Cleveland Browns’ first regular season game, Manziel seemed intent on figuring out which version of himself he wanted to be.
He flipped off the Washington bench and, on another occasion, rode an inflatable swan. He attended concerts and title fights. He arrived late to an early Browns team meeting, met with then-Coach Mike Pettine and vowed in interviews to never change.
After the season began, Manziel and his entourage were involved in a late-night brawl after a Browns fan attempted to give Manziel a hug. He threw two interceptions in his first start, and a week later he pulled his hamstring. He went to Vegas; according to a close friend, Manziel saw Sin City as the only place he could blend in. During one of his trips, he wore a blond wig anyway.
He vowed, this time, to change: “It’s a job for me now,” he said in December 2014. Four days later, he threw a party and skipped a mandatory practice. He had, ex-Browns general manager Ray Farmer would say on ESPN much later, a “Rolling Stone magazine cover type of persona.”
The folks back home recognized it differently.
“Johnny Football,” said Smith, the former high school coach. “I really don’t know if I can explain that guy.”
Months later, he went to rehab in Pennsylvania. He bought a three-bedroom house in a Cleveland suburb. He asked Julius Scott, his offensive coordinator at Tivy High, to move in with him. He adopted a puppy. Smith said Manziel was hopeful, determined, rediscovering a part of himself that had been dissolving.
He was named the Browns’ starter for their home opener in 2015. He claimed he had learned from the previous year but was nonetheless benched in favor of Josh McCown. Manziel and his girlfriend, Colleen Crowley, were stopped by police last October. After Scott returned to Texas, Crowley and Manziel had moved in together; now she had an abrasion on her arm. In November he was named Cleveland’s starter for the rest of the season. He celebrated with a trip to Austin and was subsequently demoted to third string.
Manziel reclaimed the starting job in December before suffering a concussion. Reports suggested he returned to Vegas and during the Browns’ final week arrived one day at the team facility “disheveled and inebriated.”
Last Dec. 27, he attempted 32 passes and rushed for 108 yards. His final play – perhaps in a brief and turbulent NFL career – was a forgettable, ultimately meaningless short pass to Darius Jennings as time expired.
About a month later, Manziel met with Crowley and her friends at a hotel in Dallas. The couple retreated to Manziel’s room and argued. According to Crowley’s affidavit, he threw her onto the bed before leading her down a back stairwell, through the lobby and toward the parking area. She told the valet she was scared for her life.
He pulled her hair, the affidavit said, and Manziel hit her left ear so hard she lost hearing in it. She hit Manziel back several times.
He threatened to drop her off, take her car and go kill himself. Crowley told him she loved him. She repeated it. He laughed. “We can figure this out, we can talk,” she said, according to the document.
She began crying. “Shut up or I’ll kill us both!” he said.
Crowley begged him not to kill her.
“I would never kill you. You don’t deserve that,” she said he told her. “I would only kill myself.”
– – –
In early April, a man named Travis arranged to rent a five-bedroom villa in the Hollywood Hills. The $1,375-per-night rent would be no problem; neither, Travis told the homeowner, would there be any problems with noise. On this Monday and Tuesday, Travis said, the plan was to watch movies and turn in early.
Travis, as it turned out, was Manziel. And rather than taking it easy, he threw a massive party that, according to a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, caused nearly $30,000 in damage.
In two nights, the complaint outlined, carpets were ruined, and so was a glass table, a bathroom door, a statue and patio furniture. Holes were punched in walls throughout the house. The police were called early one morning, and so, after Manziel’s group departed, was a Haz-Mat crew. Drugs and alcohol were strewn around the house.
It was, apart from the lawsuit, Manziel’s kind of night. Rather than spend his evenings in nightclubs, he prefers these days to do his socializing in rented houses. He can control the guest list, nobody baits him, and he can pose with or sign for whomever he’d like. He even sets parameters on the conversation.
Many of Manziel’s friends, even those within the circle, have no idea whether he’ll play football again. Or if he even wants to. If one of them brings up the NFL or Manziel’s playing career, one close friend said, Manziel orders the subject changed.
“Just a known thing that you don’t really bring up unless he wants to,” said the friend, who requested anonymity to simultaneously be honest and to stay on Manziel’s good side.
They speculate, of course. The friend said in May that he didn’t think Manziel had any intention of playing again. But maybe after his court battles are settled – in February he signed a protective order to stay 500 feet from Crowley and in May he posted bond in the related criminal assault case – he could attempt a comeback.
In the meantime, he is becoming familiar with the insides of courtrooms and the language of lawsuits. The homeowner who rented to “Travis” has asked for restitution that could reach into the six figures; the owner of the Mercedes-Benz Manziel’s group totaled is considering his own suit.
“I never wish anybody comes across this guy,” said Wayne Schneider, who rented Manziel the S550 and said an accident – Manziel was a passenger but not the driver – caused $90,000 in damage.
Manziel’s friends believe in him, though, which is one reason they have remained at the quarterback’s side as his circle has narrowed. Two agents have dropped him, NFL and Texas A&M teammates and coaches largely avoid the radioactive topic of Manziel, and Nike parted ways with him in April. One of his attorneys quit Manziel’s criminal case last month after sending an accidental text to The Associated Press, outlining his hope for a plea deal with prosecutors.
But his small circle, including former high school teammates Brant and Belford, is loyal. He throws them birthday parties, bankrolls nights out and travels with them to Mexico. He invites them to his home, and he answers their calls.
“He would do anything for us,” the friend said. “Any time you need something, you just give him a call.”
Manziel likes to talk about fashion, and so they go shopping or talk about which new jeans are about to be released. He likes watching the tattoo sleeve on his right arm come together: one rose each for his mother and sister, a scripture given to him by his grandfather, an acknowledgment of his father and his puppy, Chubbs.
The members of Manziel’s circle do not believe he has an addiction. They do not worry for him. “He’s a young dude trying to have a good time,” said Rafael Valdez, Manziel’s tattoo artist. “He’s not the only one out there. We’re all doing this.”
But lately, Valdez said, Manziel has changed yet again. He sold his house outside of Cleveland and moved to West Hollywood. He has been working out. He hired a personal chef. Valdez said Manziel, who set July 1 as his date to get sober, said his friend has stuck to his goal.
Valdez said he hasn’t seen Manziel drink alcohol in weeks.
Manziel did not respond to text messages requesting an interview for this story but his spokeswoman, Denise Michaels, said he is “content and settled” after she saw him last week.
She also emailed a statement from Manziel to The Washington Post: “I’m actually doing well. I have good friends around me supporting what I do and I try to support them in what they want to do. I’m not saying I’m never drinking again, but for now just mostly being healthy. I’ve got a killer gym in my house and I can spend time working out. I’m interested in doing a lot of different things in my life – including football – but, right now, I’m just exploring options and waiting to see what the future holds.”
– – –
Last month a few friends gathered at a coffee shop in Kerrville. They looked back. They told stories.
“Boerne is supposed to be the team to beat,” Vela said. “He didn’t see a lot of the second half.”
“Actually,” Keller said, “he didn’t see a whole lot of any of the second halves.”
“He set records,” Reed said, “that’ll never be touched.”
They laughed. Then they paused, lost in their memories.
“He was different,” Vela said.
“He was the best,” Reed said.
They like to remember him that way; in their minds, Manziel is frozen in time: forever youthful, smiling, making some impossible run. Vela said he tries to avoid news stories involving Manziel. Cunyus, the local newspaper reporter, said he hasn’t written about Manziel’s more recent exploits, preferring to focus on more hopeful articles. If Fifer, the former Tivy High receptionist, sees a story about Manziel on her Facebook feed, she scrolls past it.
They acknowledge Manziel’s problems, but they remain protective of him – or, more accurately, protective of their image of him.
“We don’t know Johnny Football,” Vela said, turning to the men at the table. “He don’t know Johnny Football, he don’t know Johnny Football, this community doesn’t know – we know Johnny Manziel. That’s who we know.”
Smith said he will continue to send texts, regardless of whether Manziel responds; he said the young man needs to know people still care for him. Vela will continue to send messages of hope, because the next one might be the one that makes a difference.
“We love Johnny more than we love football,” Reed said. “We want him to be okay.”
“If he’s a football player, that’s awesome,” Vela said. “But I care about the Johnny Manziel that I got to know here in Kerrville, Texas.”
“That’s the best thing that could happen,” he said, “to see Johnny Manziel again.”
He’s scrambling again, backtracking and under pressure. They’ve seen this before. They just hope he has one more dramatic run left.