EDWARDS: To succeed, Johnny Manziel must fully embrace his CFL reality

The look Johnny Manziel had on his face, I’ve seen it before.

The one he had in the video announcing he was coming to the CFL Saturday morning saying “I’m somewhere, I don’t even know where, on the Canadian border trying to figure this whole thing out and figure out, I guess, how to play football in Canada.”

The one he had through much of his introductory press conference later on Saturday, where he pretty much said all the right things about wanting to be here, about being a back up quarterback, about how much he had to learn.

It’s not as dramatic as “what the hell am I doing here?” Nor is it quite deer-in-the-headlights. It’s the slightly vacant stare of a man who is not quite sure how his once promising football career has led him to the CFL, to this city, to this country. Holy crap, the look says, this is really happening.

Like I said, I’ve seen it before, on the faces of countless other American-born players, all of whom were stars in Pop Warner, in high school and at college, some of whom played in the NFL. Their self-belief is, by nature, limitless and their dreams never, ever feature a detour to some smallish city whose ongoing renaissance still features plenty of grit and sandpaper, where the game is played in a veritable farmer’s field. This was, quite clearly, not the plan.

Now, many players get over it. They quickly realize the football is good, the locker room is the same and that fans are rabid but, generally, respectful. The communities are nice, if sometimes a little boring by their previous standards. The CFL life, with its shorter days and less intense media scrutiny, is pretty darn good.

A lot of them come not just to like it but to love it. Some make it back to the NFL – this is a pretty short list, all things considered – but countless others put aside the remnants of their NFL dreams to make a career and a life in Canada. There are plenty of those guys, pretty much every star in the CFL.

Some players, however, never get past the fact that this isn’t where they really want to be. They are overwhelmed by the league’s shortcomings, it’s smaller crowds, it’s plebeian pay scale. Manziel will earn $150,000 CDN in base salary this season; he made $5.5 million USD in his two years in the NFL.

The most recent Ticat example I can think of is Will Hill, who came here last season after a 50-game NFL career, earned a starting job as an incredibly dynamic player, shoved a ref, caused a significant amount of chaos internally and washed out of the league in a matter of weeks. He didn’t want to be here and he couldn’t get past that.

Now, Johnny Manziel said all the right things on Saturday. He was suitably humble, contrite about his bad boy past, repeatedly acknowledged the long learning curve he is on. The only moment of awkwardness came when I asked him about his domestic violence arrest, an issue that led the CFL to keep him out of the league until he completed some vague, unspecified vetting process. Head coach June Jones jumped in to handle that question, referring it up the chain and emphasizing a focus on football talk. Manziel could have laid that issue to rest as well with just a few more words of contrition of apology, assuming he has it in him (and I think he does.)

But having watched some of his past press conferences, there was a certain energy missing a subdued quality that left me with the feeling that he couldn’t quite believe this was actually happening. Every time he said “two years,” – the length of a standard CFL entry contract – it sounded like he was still trying to wrap his head around it.

The Ticats are certainly on board. There were No. 2 Manziel jerseys hanging in the team store at Tim Hortons Field before the press conference was over and almost two dozen were sold in just the first few hours.

Football will help. Saturday night, Manziel will take part in his first team meeting and Sunday morning he’ll be on the field. The media circus which will descend upon training camp and eventually fade (assuming nothing crazy happens) and life will become how football types like it: routine.

And somewhere in that process, Manziel may not just accept where he is but fully embrace it. Maybe he’ll come to love it. And if he does, he might just have some success, even become great. But if he doesn’t there’s absolutely no hope and he’ll become just another great American college player who couldn’t shape his dreams into something just a little bit different.