Johnny Manziel’s greatest strength also his greatest weakness
The news that Johnny Manziel entered a treatment facility last week isn’t surprising. Or it probably shouldn’t be. The Cleveland Browns quarterback and former Texas A&M star has lived on the edge for a few years, and that has been well-chronicled.
I spent the better part of two years behind the scenes with Manziel while working on my book "The QB," and found him to be engaging, bright and very likable. He’s also reckless, which he’d admitted several times in the past. Manziel can be quite introspective and often had perspective that made him seem wiser than his years. Beyond that, Manziel was about as close as college football has ever had to a rock star.
About a month before his sophomore season at A&M — and a few days before he was booted from the Manning Passing Academy (more on that in a few minutes) — Manziel and a school contingent were flown out to L.A. for the ESPYs. After the show, Manziel’s coach, Kevin Sumlin, walked into an after-party where Snoop Dogg was performing, and Dwyane Wade, Gabrielle Union and LeBron James were among the stars hanging out in a private room along with his QB, who was walking around holding his ESPY trophy for Best Male College Athlete. The coach noticed there were two huge portraits in the background. One showing LeBron. The other, Manziel.
Asked how does all this not mess with the head of a 20-year-old, Sumlin laughed. "It messed with my head."
Whether it was his becoming the first freshman to ever win a Heisman Trophy or carving up Nick Saban’s defenses in back-to-back seasons or helping turn Texas A&M into college football’s "It" program, Manziel did so while seemingly in a series of frenetic scrambles. Somehow, in spite of that — or maybe because of that — it all worked for him.
Until it didn’t.
That was when he entered the NFL and the expectations and the challenges increased dramatically. And for the first time, Manziel seemed to buckle. A few NFL personnel folks interviewed for "The QB" probably aren’t surprised by this week’s news either. In fact, for all the pre-draft banter about whether Manziel could handle playing the game from inside the pocket at the NFL level, veteran personnel people told me they actually were more concerned about whether Johnny Football could cope with life off the field.
"Manziel’s greatest strength is that he truly believes that he is unstoppable and that he can find his way out of anything," one NFL scout told me for "The QB." "But his greatest weakness — and the thing that scares the (bleep) out of people — is also that he truly believes that he is unstoppable and that he can find his way out of anything. All the drinking or even if he’s smoking pot wouldn’t scare me. It’s the kid’s total reckless personality and God knows what else that’ll lead to. Nothing with that kid would surprise me."
I spoke to a few people close to Manziel on Monday who were encouraged by his taking the step to enter a treatment program. One of the things they discussed was the hope that not only will Manziel make significant changes, but so will some of his buddies who often hang around him and are along for the ride living the "Entourage" lifestyle. That can be the most challenging part of dealing with problems like what Manziel is facing, says Chris Herren, a former star athlete who is well-versed on the path the 22-year-old now faces.
"The one thing recovery teaches you is you need to learn how to love from a distance," Herren told FOX Sports on Monday. "(Manziel) probably has great friends that have been there for him for a long time, but they wake up in the morning and they’re not Johnny Manziel. They don’t have the same responsibility and expectations on them. You got to learn how to love from a distance. Being out at 3 a.m. and going to after-parties, that’s not going to help get you there."
Some 20 years ago, Herren was a mercurial basketball talent, earning McDonald’s All-American status and who, like Manziel, opted to stay and star for the local team. Herren signed with Boston College, but he later transferred to play for famed coach Jerry Tarkanian at Fresno State. Herren left New England, but his partying problems followed him. Despite his wild ways, filled with late nights of boozing and drug abuse, he still made it to the NBA, but his life was in a free-fall. Eventually, his basketball career was over and he was broke, and broken.
"Every night I went out, every night I pushed the limit socially, I knew I was terribly wrong," said Herren, who added at one point he was spending more than $20,000 a month on Oxycontin, heroin and other narcotics. "I knew it was going against everything that I worked hard for. I knew I was in the middle of self-destruction."
Herren’s second trip to rehab — 11 years after he went in the first time at 21 — changed and saved his life. He embraced his circumstances and his opportunities. Now sober for seven years and heading The Herren Project, a nonprofit foundation formed in 2011, Herren’s mission is to raise awareness about the dangers of substance abuse and to help others battling addiction.
Herren said he actually has met Manziel and spoken to him twice. Once when he addressed Texas A&M’s team and then again when the NFL brought him in to speak at the Rookie Symposium.
"He’s a nice, humble young man," Herren said. "I liked him as a person, and hopefully he sees the value in himself as a person."
Manziel’s social life had been a de facto reality show dating back to his days at College Station, thanks to his active and colorful Twitter feed, as well as the random camera phone. His drinking made headlines just before his sophomore season when he was asked to leave the Manning Passing Academy. He attended as a college counselor, but he missed a morning meeting. In truth, he didn’t get in trouble for drinking but rather for not rallying to be accountable for responsibilities whether he got eight hours of sleep or eight minutes.
Manziel’s partying, however, raised significantly more red flags as he was getting ready to make the move to the NFL. One photo taken of him chugging booze while sprawled out on an inflatable swan looked like it was straight out of a Hollywood movie. Worse still was a picture of Manziel with a tightly rolled-up bill taken while he was in a bathroom. That shot even jolted many of Manziel’s defenders, who had shrugged their shoulders at all the other shots of him partying.
On the field, in limited action as a rookie in Cleveland, Manziel floundered. It was really the first time in his life that football seemed hard. How much, if at all, did that contribute to Manziel going to rehab is hard to say. Herren noted that sometimes success has a way of hiding a problem.
"Johnny knows there are areas in which he needs to improve in order to be a better family member, friend and teammate, and he thought the offseason was the right time to take this step," Manziel’s advisor, Brad Beckworth, said in a statement.
To go beyond that step, Manziel also may have to unplug a persona he spent a lot of time and energy building up.
"The reality is you have a 22-year-old kid who could have an amazing future in front of him if he can get this situation on the right track," Herren said, "but a lot of people walk away from this and lose the opportunity, and I was one of them. And I was nowhere near a Johnny Manziel. When I was in college I just thank God there were no cellphones and people taking pictures of a 22-year-old’s every move.
"In those 11 years (in between rehab stints), there were some really hard moments for me and for my family. He’s 22. This can be the last treatment center he ever checks into and the sky’s the limit for him."
Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, came out in October, 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.