Johnny Manziel found CFL talent ‘pretty damn good,’ admits he manufactured exit from league

Photo: AP/Sam Craft

Johnny Manziel’s tenure in the CFL was brief, turbulent, and semi-shrouded in mystery — until now.

The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner recently opened up about his experience playing north of the border with one of the main takeaways being how much he came to respect the talent level in Canada.

“Surprisingly, (the talent level was) pretty damn good,” Manziel told Bertcast, a podcast hosted by comedian Bert Kreischer. “There’s actually probably three to four guys, maybe five on every single team up there that would have a shot to go to an (NFL) training camp and, if they played well in that training camp, could make a roster.”

“The talent is actually better than what people think, especially on the defensive line side of the ball. I played some f***ing monsters up there. … There were some (defensive) ends up there who will absolutely rip your f***ing d*** off and throw it in the dirt.”

As much as he came to respect the talent level in the CFL and enjoyed the league’s relatively light practice schedule, Manziel negatively described his experience with the game itself. He hoped his tenure in Canada might help him get back to the NFL but was unable to rekindle the passion he once felt for the game.

“The first day I f***ing stepped on the football field, I felt exactly the same way that I did when I was in Cleveland. I felt empty, I felt like I wasn’t having fun,” said Manziel. “Throwing, running, doing the actual physical act of the sport, I was sick to my stomach about. That exact same feeling that I’d had came back again and that’s when I knew that football wasn’t what I wanted to do for a career and for my life.”

Manziel had to sign a two-year contract when he joined the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2018 and, at the time, there was no way to get out of the second year of the deal. The CFL has since reintroduced a window that allows players to pursue the NFL regardless of contract status, though it didn’t exist during Manziel’s tenure up north, meaning he’d have to return to the CFL if he wanted to play professional football in 2019.

Getting the enigmatic passer to Canada was no easy feat in the first place, given his checkered past. Manziel was charged with misdemeanor assault in April 2016, one month following his release from the Cleveland Browns, stemming from an alleged incident that occurred between himself and then-girlfriend Colleen Crowley. The charges were dropped in December 2016 as part of a plea agreement, which included conditions that Manziel undergo counseling and agree to be monitored by prosecutors for up to one year.

Unable to earn another NFL opportunity after a year of out the game, Manziel considered signing in the CFL in 2017 and had a meeting with commissioner Randy Ambrosie during which he was given conditions for entry into the league, none of which have been made public. Manziel received approval three months later, though it took until May 2018 for him and the Tiger-Cats, who owned his exclusive CFL rights, to agree to terms on a contract, which required Manziel to maintain the conditions in order to remain eligible to play.

The now-31-year-old never ended up throwing a pass in Hamilton as he was traded to the Montreal Alouettes following the first third of the season as part of a blockbuster deal that also included veteran offensive linemen Tony Washington and Landon Rice, one-time Most Outstanding Canadian nominee Jamaal Westerman, four-time East Division all-star Chris Williams, and two first-round draft picks.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/

Manziel fondly recalled living in the Old Port of Montreal and finishing practice at one o’clock every day to go to a local restaurant where he ate steak and drank Canadian rye. He also enjoyed seeing other parts of Canada when the Alouettes were on the road, though his overall experience left him feeling used.

“I was used as a pawn in that league for views, I was used as a pawn in that league for business. The CFL is a very year-to-year, day-to-day financially-run organization. There’s not a real distribution of wealth to each team in that league every year, it’s very much, ‘How do we keep this thing operable and running?'” said Manziel.

“(The Alouettes) owned my rights for another year and now I start to think back about, ‘You know that provision that (Ambrosie) put in my contract that said he can’t do X, Y, and Z or you’re out of the league? I think I’m going to go do X, Y, and Z to get this f***ing contract voided.’ And that’s exactly what I did.”

One condition of Manziel’s agreement with the CFL appears to have been sobriety. The league sent an alcohol and drug tester to Manziel’s home in Los Angeles following the season and he was excited to provide a urine sample, knowing it would result in his immediate termination.

“I just remember smiling from ear to ear, I couldn’t wait,” he said. “This was probably the happiest I’ve ever been to go piss in a cup. And when I handed him this cup back, I just remember him being like, ‘Why are you so happy?’ I’m like, ‘Man, I can’t tell you what a blessing this is, what a Godsend this is that I don’t have to go back to Canada because of what you’re holding in your hand right there.'”

Kreischer joked that Manziel’s urine sample probably smelled strongly of alcohol.

“Handle with care and send it directly back, make sure that gets to Randy Ambrosie,” said Manziel with laughter. “Deliver that to him personally. You don’t even need to send it to the lab, just take the lid off.”

The CFL directed Manziel’s release when he violated the terms of his agreement and essentially banned him for life, publicly stating the league wouldn’t register a contract for the Texas A&M product if another team attempted to sign him. He finished his tenure in the league throwing for 1,290 yards, five touchdowns, and seven interceptions with the Alouettes, making eight starts for a team that missed the playoffs with a 5-13 record.

Had the CFL not been Manziel’s only possible route back to the NFL, it seems fair to speculate he never would have come to Canada. He signed in the upstart Alliance of American Football in 2019 but attempted only eight passes over two games with the Memphis Express before the league folded. He also played five games for the Zappers of the Fan Controlled Football League in 2021 and 2022.