The Sad Song of Johnny Football

Netflix’s Manziel documentary glosses over some very real issues

There are the feel-good, comeback player football stories that the American psyche feasts upon, and then there’s what happens on the inverse when someone eats total shit. Netflix’s UNTOLD: Johnny Manziel takes viewers into the broken archives of a player who is one of the most beguiling stories in college and professional football history. And boy, do we now know what wasted talent looks like up close and personal.

Of the few things that I can remember in the hellscape that is the last two decades, it’s the downfall of Manziel, who seemed poised to be one of the most iconic quarterbacks in the history of the game. His sad clown storyline dominates the 2012-2013 sector of many of our pop-culture brains.

For those who don’t devour sports media, here are the Cliff’s Notes: in 2012, Johnny Manziel suited up for Texas A&M as a freshman and beat the ever-loving shit out of college football. (He wanted to play for the University of Texas, but they never called. Johnny was a big UT fan; the documentary explicitly calls out this.) And when I say dominated, his stats were insane; they’re basically the equivalent of someone playing Madden on easy and playing against toddlers: He passed for 3,000 yards while rushing for 1,000, had a 68.0 pass percentage, and threw 26 touchdowns. And we’re not talking short passes, but instead, passes from deep in troubled waters, no look flips that came straight out of the depths of impossibility. The guy didn’t win a championship but was and is still the only freshman to win the Heisman.

Manziel’s face was emblazoned across the landscape because he was crushing it on the field, but he was an animal off the field, getting ripped up at parties, winding up criminally drunk with co-eds and doing some drug stuff. His school did a lot of sweeping his behavior under the rug. The guy put Texas A&M on the map to the rest of the country, which matters because they had just left the Big 12, which they’d been in since Jesus was on the cross, and now found themselves contending in the hardest conference in college sports – the SEC.

Manziel was living his best life. They started calling him “Johnny Football” – you can’t make this stuff up. And while he made boatloads of cash for the school as the face of the program, Manziel wanted to get paid, too. So, he and his best friend constructed a plan to sign for money behind the backs of the NCAA, which at the time strictly prohibited college kids from making cash off their likenesses or autographs. Manziel says, “fuck that,” and when he wasn’t in a game (he never watched tape or practiced), he was scribbling his moniker on Texas A&M memorabilia for a ton of cash in hotel rooms in secret deals.

While all this is popping off, Manziel became an absolute tool. He’s King Turd on Shit Mountain. The dude was having all the fun, letting his personal relationships go in the trash; he’s barely a student, mind you, and only a sophomore. Instead of working on his game, he assumed all is right in the House of Manziel. He stayed out all night with rappers in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, completely eschewing his responsibilities as a quarterback. At any level, quarterbacking is the most complex job in sports and requires a sound dedication to the position and game, neither interested Johnny Football. Instead, he wanted strippers and cocaine.

Manziel leaves college early to enter the draft, where it’s entirely obvious that while he can throw a bomb, he’s a liability. Both Houston and Dallas passed on him being their quarterback, which was telling because, as someone who lives in Texas, there is nothing more this state loves than a homegrown boy who did good in college at a Texas school t represent the state at the highest level of the game. Cleveland signs him, and it’s a trainwreck.

Manziel falls apart. He’s honest and candid about this. Looking back, he pulls no punches and gives clear testimony to what a garbage person he was. He doesn’t make you feel sorry for him and instead leans into what was a chaotic part of his life. His time in the NFL is short. His attitude of no practice, no tape didn’t translate into the big time, and he was out on his ass before anyone could make a solid Cleveland Steamer joke. All the talent in the world is in a Dumpster, and as much as he tries to restart his life, nothing sticks. Johnny Football is a cautionary tale, not the gunslinger the world expected him to be.

At the crux of it all, the documentary doesn’t offer justice to someone who’s clearly mentally unwell. The piece has a clear throughline that skates over the fact that this guy has problems. It’s not just that he was a bad-boy party animal, but that he has real addiction and mental health issues that clearly no one has ever treated with the respect they deserve.

The program mentions a suicide attempt, but glosses over it, just like it barely mentions the fact that he hasn’t spoken to his best friend in over a decade. Instead, the documentary explicitly leans into a trip back memory lane when Manziel was playing legend in the making. I came out of the UNTOLD piece wondering if Manziel had grown or recovered but instead got neither. It’s an electric set of highlight reels, but in the end, there’s plenty to wonder about what could have been had the right conversations been in place rather than just expecting the game to save an unsaveable man.

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Robert Dean

Robert Dean is a journalist, raconteur, and enlightened dumbass. His work has been featured in places like Mic, Eater, Fatherly, Yahoo, Austin American-Statesman, Consequence of Sound, Ozy, The Austin Chronicle, USA Today, to name a few. He's appeared on CNN and NPR. He also serves as features writer for Hussy Magazine, Culture Clash, and Pepper Magazine. He's Editor in Chief at Big Laugh Comedy, Texas' premier comedy production company. He lives in Austin and loves ice cream and koalas. His new essay collection, Existential Thirst Trap drops in May.

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