Manziel works hard to change the perception of Johnny Football

Posted Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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One of the first things Johnny Manziel worked on when he arrived in San Diego last month for pre-draft training was his grip. It was but a tweak to his game.

The Texas A&M star is undergoing bigger changes in his life as he seeks to become the first overall NFL Draft pick.

Manziel wants to be better in every way as he heads to the NFL.

“I feel like I’m at a stage in my life where I’m transitioning from college kid into a man who’s going to have a profession,” Manziel said. “I’m really starting to see things through a different light. More than anything, I want to make the people who come in contact with me have a lasting memory of me in a positive way, more than what some people think about me without them even knowing me.”

In two hours of interviews this week with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Houston Chronicle, Manziel addressed everything from his desire to be the best quarterback in NFL history to his past “goofball” decisions to his hopes of landing with the Houston Texans. The Texans own the first pick in the May 8 draft and are in need of a quarterback with Matt Schaub’s expected release.

Manziel arrived for pre-draft training with George Whitfield — his longtime quarterback coach — on Jan. 10. Manziel’s makeover began in earnest.

“I’m trying to show people that I’ve grown up, and I’ve learned from my experiences,” Manziel said. “I always feel like if you continue to make the same wrong decisions, continue to do that, that’s just not what I was raised on. That’s not the right thing to do. I feel like you’re a stupid person if you continue to make the same wrong decision over and over again.”

Manziel’s nickname, Johnny Football, became his identity during his time in College Station. He passed for 7,820 yards and 63 touchdowns and ran for 2,169 yards and 30 touchdowns in becoming the most entertaining, if not the best, player in college football history.

Manziel lived his life much the same way, and, in the new age of social media, he became the most publicized, scrutinized and criticized student-athlete in history.

Critics questioned his signature “cash-out” touchdown celebration and dissected his every Twitter post.

Manziel didn’t even get a pass on his seemingly innocuous decisions to wear a Tim Tebow jersey to a University of Texas fraternity party or to take online classes last spring. (He receives his Aggie Ring on April 11 and needs only 20 hours to graduate with a degree in sports management, which he insists he will finish.)

He left the Manning Passing Academy early after oversleeping and missing a morning meeting last summer when his cell phone died.

In August, the NCAA suspended Manziel for the first half of the Aggies’ opener against Rice for an inadvertent rules violation after finding no evidence of Manziel accepting money for autographs.

“The end result — me being suspended for a half — was something that I didn’t agree with,” he said. “At the same time, I felt like I was causing a cloud over what we were trying to accomplish. I had enough trust in my teammates that they could go out a half of football without me and take care of business.”

NFL teams will grill Manziel about all of it, beginning with cursory 15-minute interviews at the NFL Scouting Combine next week in Indianapolis.

Johnny Manziel somewhat is attempting to distance himself from Johnny Football, a nickname his corporation, JMAN2 Enterprises LLC, is seeking to trademark. A playmaker on the field, Manziel wants to quit being a newsmaker off it.

With his training a nine-hours-a-day, five-days-a-week grind, Manziel rarely goes out in San Diego. He and Aggie receiver Mike Evans, also a likely high first-round pick, share a rented house in San Diego. They spend their free time playing H-O-R-S-E or video games — Call of Duty and NBA 2K 2014 are favorites.

Manziel selected Maverick Carter’s LRMR management firm to represent his marketing interests, which could be significant. He has met with Under Armour, and he flew to Oregon on Wednesday, his off day, to meet with Nike executives. Former NFL quarterback Kevin O’Connell accompanied Manziel on the flight, so Manziel wouldn’t miss a film session. O’Connell was brought in to help with Manziel’s classroom work since O’Connell played for new Texans coach Bill O’Brien at New England.

Manziel’s agent, Erik Burkhardt of Select Sports Group, and his adviser, Brad Beckworth, have provided positive influences, insulating Manziel from off-the-field distractions. (Manziel said he won’t tweet again until at least the draft.)

“I was a kid who made some goofball decisions,” Manziel said. “That’s been part of my journey. Maybe it’s part of the whole Johnny Football deal that I’m trying to get away from. I feel like if I don’t put myself in any of those situations, then I can’t get blamed for it. If I’m not in the neighborhood, and I’m in the house, nothing can be said about me.

“I want to own up to that. I don’t want to hear that, ‘Oh, anybody in his situation would have been doing the same thing.’ I’m 100 percent responsible for my actions. I made those goofball decisions knowingly. I got the consequences that come for it. Just like you make any decision in life, you have your pros and your cons for what’s going to happen. I live with that. I’ve tried to move on from it and tried distance myself as best as possible.”

The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner and his team haven’t decided for certain whether he will throw at the combine next weekend. Based on recent top quarterback prospects’ lack of participation in the on-field part of the workouts, Manziel won’t throw. Scouts likely get their first look at Manziel’s arm March 27 at his Pro Day in College Station.

NFL teams want to see Manziel, who played in a shotgun offense at A&M, taking snaps under center. It’s a skill he’s honed since his college season ended with a come-from-behind 52-48 victory over Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

“The perception about Johnny is that he’s an instinctive playmaker who never played under center and never really threw an NFL route,” Whitfield said. “You hear people say, ‘We want to see him drop seven and throw to the boundary.’ He didn’t play in a seven-step offense. But just because that wasn’t the vehicle they drove doesn’t mean he can’t drive it.”

Whitfield had Manziel alter his grip the first day he arrived for training, and Manziel has seen positive results.

“I’d always wanted to but never did,” Whitfield said. “… His hands are so big [XXL]; his fingers were coming off the smooth part when he threw. He did it the first day. About an hour later, I couldn’t get him to change back. We didn’t make a big deal out of it. That’s so personal for a quarterback. You change a guy’s grip, and if he’s prideful, he doesn’t want a big deal being made out of it. But when he sees the results, he’ll embrace it.”

Manziel expects to measure exactly 6 feet and weigh around 210 pounds at the combine. He and Evans have a nutritionist and a personal chef. Ryan Flaherty, who trains athletes at his Prolific Athletes facility, directs Manziel’s speed work and weight lifting.

“What he’s getting in the weight room is a suit of armor,” Whitfield said. “I told him nobody cares what he’s lifting. They care about seeing him get knocked down and get back up and get to the next play. We’re not entering him into a body-building contest. It’s to power out the ball. His back and shoulders have gotten so strong. The stronger you are, the more effortless you can do certain things.”

Several draft analysts rank Manziel first on their pre-combine draft boards, but Manziel still has to convince the Texans he is more worthy of the top pick than Blake Bortles or Teddy Bridgewater.

Manziel certainly knows how to play the game.

Having hung out with the rich and famous, including LeBron James, Drake, Vince Vaughn, Justin Timberlake and Nolan Ryan, since becoming a star himself in 2012, Manziel has a short list of who he still wants to meet.

“Bob McNair and Bill O’Brien,” Manziel said with a sly smile, naming the Texans owner and head coach. “Those are the two guys I really want to meet.”

Manziel, it seems, has a new grip. Literally and figuratively.

Charean Williams, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @NFLCharean

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