HAMILTON, Ontario — It’s almost midnight in the family lounge at Tim Hortons Field, but it’s a mere hour after Johnny Manziel played his first professional football game in 887 days, so he lingers a little longer.
Wearing a black hooded sweatshirt, jeans and a bright gold beanie, he sets his phone down on a table and reclines in a plastic chair. Behind him, a massive screen flashes.
“Finally, the highly anticipated return of Johnny Football,” a voice booms overhead. “We bring you all the highlights, up next on SportsCentre.”
Manziel twists his head and his eyes scan upward, but he turns away. He won’t watch.
His Canadian Football League preseason debut with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats against the Toronto Argonauts will be painted by many as a success, the latest chapter of his comeback.
He describes it differently: A recovery.
“I just need to keep learning and staying away from situations that have been negative for me in the past,” Manziel tells USA TODAY Sports. “Because as quickly as I have built all this momentum and all this positivity, it can be taken away at the blink of an eye.”
“I heard a million stories in (Alcoholics Anonymous) of people saying they were 30, 40, 50 years sober and how it went out the window in one day, in one night, with one little bitty choice where I think I’m just going to have dinner somewhere and it could trigger me and lead me down a spiral that could be 10 times worse than anything I’ve been through.”
The first freshman ever to win the Heisman Trophy and a 2014 first-round pick by the Cleveland Browns, Manziel enjoyed a rapid ascent to stardom. But the former Texas A&M standout’s fall was precipitous, as he was waived by the Browns in March 2016.
Throughout and after his unceremonious run in the NFL, Manziel repeatedly was at the center of off-field run-ins and accusations, including a misdemeanor assault charge from a January 2016 incident in Dallas against his then-girlfriend. According to an affidavit signed by the victim, Manziel struck her with an open hand and said, “Shut up or I’ll kill us both.”
Manziel denied the incident, and charges were dropped after he met terms of a conditional dismissal agreement.
Today, Manziel still grapples with his well-being — he revealed in February that he suffers from bipolar disorder — and his fight for control.
“That’s the scary thing about my mental health: If I don’t continuously take care of it and make it the biggest priority in my life, I’m going to struggle,” Manziel said. “That’s hard to say. You’re making mental health a priority over your job? Well, there is no job without my mental health. There is no life and there is no family for me without my head.”
Yet amid this struggle, he still finds solace.
“I sit here today and know that if I wouldn’t have gone through the hell that I went through I wouldn’t be who I am today. I know it for a fact,” Manziel said before gesturing to the person seated to his right.
“If I wouldn’t have gone through what I went through, I never would’ve met her.”
Bre Tiesi and Manziel had mutual friends in Los Angeles, and the two eventually became close. When they first became started seeing each other in December 2016, Manziel was months removed from being waived by the Browns. In that same year, he faced a lawsuit alleging thousands of dollars in damage to a rental property and had been dropped by two agents in the span of two months. But, gradually, he began to take steps to improve his life.
One week after they began dating, Manziel moved in with Tiesi. Within three months, they were engaged. They married in a quiet ceremony at a California courthouse in March.
“I’m one of those no-(expletive), straight-to-it people,” Tiesi told USA TODAY Sports. “He was not used to that. He has been put on this pedestal and certain people were scared to say things to him, whether they agreed or not. He is who he is, and nobody ever wanted to overstep their boundaries. I didn’t really care. I think that was why we connected.”
Manziel also heeded Tiesi’s suggestions that he should seek help. She suspected he might be dealing with a mental condition, so she looked up symptoms. She booked appointments with psychiatrists and therapists, who eventually diagnosed his bipolar disorder.
“Admitting it took a long time. We knew for about a year,” Tiesi said of going public. “But to sit here and say ‘I’m not normal and I need to take this medicine every day to function’ is an ego thing. There was a lot of inner work we had to do before we could even start medicating.”
Manziel began to be treated with Lithium, for which doctors recommended monthly tests. After Manziel missed an assessment in May, he suffered a negative reaction and was hospitalized, so the Tiger-Cats organization facilitates appointments with doctors and therapists to keep his treatment plan consistent.
Traveling and changes in schedule often present complications, so Tiesi has become even more proactive. Now, when Manziel goes through mood swings, she reads the signs and tries to steer him back. She asks him to slow down, or points out when his sentences seem scattered and unfocused.
“There’s days when I feel very high energy and I feel very go, go, go, go and I have racing thoughts, speak too fast — kind of — head over heels in all aspects. Mentally, physically, in everything that I’m doing,” Manziel said. “Then there’s days when I feel lethargic. I can’t get out of a hole, almost like a mini-depression. It’s hard because one day you’re so high and the next you can wake up and not want to get out of bed, and you don’t know why.”
For Manziel, finding a daily sense of well-being requires awareness of his triggers (he tries not to linger in bed past 10 a.m.) and releases (golfing with a close friend he made in a Malibu mental health facility is his favorite outlet). He also said he has been sober for almost six months, though the urges remain.
“I know what happens when that happens, so why risk it?” Manziel said. “I do so well when I’m not doing it.”
When the touted quarterback stepped on the field for his first preseason action, many in the crowd gestured with the “Money Manziel” hand signal he formerly used to celebrate big plays. Manziel, however, refrained from making the signature move.
Beyond his solid stat line (9-of-12 passing for 80 yards, two rushes for 10 yards) in the Ticats’ 36-18 win, Manziel showed the kind of dynamic playmaking ability that made him a sensation in college.
Yet Manziel will likely remain relegated to the bench for the foreseeable future. Head coach June Jones said last week that if both Manziel and incumbent No. 1 Jeremiah Masoli are healthy, the latter would “absolutely” be the starter.
“I don’t think he’s ready to play right now,” Jones told USA TODAY Sports of Manziel after a recent practice. “I’m sure if I put him in there, he’d be Johnny Manziel. But I hate to put a guy in when he doesn’t have a chance at success because he still has a bit to learn.”
Whether he plays or not, Manziel’s employment in the CFL will depend on conditions set forth by the league, which called them “extensive and exacting.” Manziel labels them “mutually beneficial.”
Though the CFL has declined to make those stipulations public due to Canadian privacy laws and an assurance that they would stay confidential, Manziel revealed they include mandatory doctor visits and required Lithium tests each month. He also must visit with a therapist once a week.
“We understand the criticism that comes with the territory,” general manager Eric Tillman told USA TODAY Sports recently of the decision to sign Manziel. “We understand the questions. Many are excited to see a young person turn his life around. Others are more skeptical. Some are just flat out critical. Every one of those positions has validity.
“The onus is on Johnny to write the next chapter to re-earn respect. He’s going to be given every opportunity to do that.”
As he starts his playing career anew, many uncertainties in Manziel’s life have been stripped.
He is living in a dorm in McMaster University, part of the training camp arrangement, but will soon find somewhere to rent. Tiesi knows his schedule. She will split time between Los Angeles and Hamilton but pledges she “won’t miss a thing.” He has a two-year contract. He claims he’s content to sit on the bench and absorb the nuances of the CFL.
Manziel can’t help but wonder, however, about the looming struggle to eschew the triggers, the stimuli of his downfall. He admits it won’t be an easy road.
But when setbacks eventually surface, the difference for Manziel now is that he feels equipped to fight back.
“I know it sucks and what it’s like when you feel life isn’t worth living and there’s nothing to look forward to,” he said. “That’s why I’m so comfortable today because I don’t feel like that right now. I don’t feel like that anymore. I have a smile on my face. I’m happy with her being here. I’m in a good place and this is a great fit for me.
“This is beyond my dreams of what I thought a couple of years ago. I know everyone expected me to be in the NFL forever and do a bunch of great things. But I still have a chance. I still have a path to get there. That’s all I want.”