Johnny Manziel wanted to drive to dinner one day last week, but then his agent, Erik Burkhardt, already held his keys. So, of course, it came down to what it always does with Manziel.
Rock, paper, scissors.
Manziel, having won two of three, climbed into the driver’s seat of his rented Ford Explorer for the short trek to Piatti, an Italian restaurant in La Jolla.
Winner, winner, pasta dinner.
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“He is the most competitive person I know,” Burkhardt said, “and he usually wins.”
Manziel ranks as the Ping-Pong king at Prolific Athletes, the training center where he and Mike Evans are among those preparing for the NFL Draft.
The Texas A&M teammates rented a house together in San Diego, and they spend their free time competing in H-O-R-S-E or playing video games — Call of Duty and NBA 2K 2014 are favorites.
“I hate losing,” Manziel said over a medium steak, mashed potatoes, a side of pasta with Bolognese and iced tea. “I don’t care if it’s a game of Go Fish, I want to win. I don’t care what the game is. That’s how I am.”
And who he is.
He posted a 20-6 record in two seasons as the Aggies’ starter. He wants his next triumph to come May 8 when the Houston Texans make their selection with the first overall pick in the NFL Draft.
“They have the first pick,” Manziel said. “I want them to say absolutely, without a doubt, with 100 percent certainty, that I’m who they want. I want everybody from the janitor at Reliant Stadium to the front-office executive assistant all the way up to Bob McNair to say that this kid is 100 percent, can’t miss, this is who we want being the face of our program. We want the Texas kid staying in Texas and leading the Texans.”
An A&M booster bought a billboard in Houston — “Keep Johnny Football in Texas” — supporting that sentiment.
Houston attorney Tony Buzbee also created a website — draftjohnnymanziel.com — and has more than 3,000 signatures on a petition encouraging the Texans to draft Manziel.
Manziel has heard about the billboard, and though he hasn’t signed the petition, he shares the website’s message to Texans owner Bob McNair: “Don’t blow it Bob — Draft Johnny!”
If the Texans select someone else, Manziel expects to end up in Jacksonville with the third choice. Cleveland drafts fourth.
“It would be the worst decision they’ve ever made,” Manziel said of the possibility of the Texans passing on him. “I’d be in the same division playing against them twice a year. Sorry, but you just turned that chip on my shoulder from a Frito into a Dorito.”
Manziel’s makeover began in earnest when he arrived in San Diego on Jan. 10 for pre-draft training with his longtime personal quarterback coach, George Whitfield. Whitfield changed Manziel’s grip the first day, with Manziel seeing positive results.
Other changes have been less subtle.
“I’m trying to show people that I’ve grown up, and I’ve learned from my experiences,” Manziel, 21, 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 cellphone 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.”
Johnny Manziel distances himself from Johnny Football, even as his corporation, JMAN2 Enterprises, LLC, attempts to trademark the nickname. A playmaker on the field, Manziel wants to quit being a newsmaker off it.
“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.”
With football now a full-time job, Manziel spends more time in the film room and in the weight room than he did in college.
Former NFL quarterback Kevin O’Connell works with Manziel in the classroom, and Ryan Flaherty, who trains athletes at his Prolific Athletes facility, directs Manziel’s speed work and weightlifting.
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, take snaps under center. It’s a skill he’s honed since his college career ended with a come-from-behind 52-48 victory over Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
But his height and weight, and cursory, 15-minute interviews with teams carry importance for Manziel in Indianapolis as he tries to sell himself.
With a nutritionist and a chef, Manziel expects to weigh 210 pounds, 10 pounds heavier than he did last season. Manziel can’t do anything to make himself taller, but Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, at 5-foot-10 5/8, “kicked that door down” by winning the Super Bowl.
Manziel, generously listed at 6-1 at A&M, swears he will measure exactly 72 inches.
“Alabama’s defensive coordinator didn’t know how tall he was, but he was tall enough,” Whitfield said. “All those teams in the SEC didn’t know how tall he was. How tall do you have to be to whip around a 13-ounce ball?”
Manziel plans to impress new Texans coach Bill O’Brien with his knowledge of O’Brien’s offense.
O’Connell, who played for the Patriots in 2008 when O’Brien was an assistant coach there, schools Manziel daily.
Manziel takes meticulous notes in a thick notebook while watching film of the 2011 Patriots. O’Connell continually quizzes Manziel, smiling at every correct answer the quarterback gives.
“You’re getting cleaner and cleaner and cleaner,” O’Connell said. “You’re ready to draw it up for people. You’re now tooled to speak the same language.”
When Manziel flew to Oregon on Wednesday, his off day, to meet with Nike executives, O’Connell accompanied Manziel on the flight, so Manziel could continue his film work.
“The thing I love about him is you teach him something, and it’s competitive for him that he only wants to be taught one time,” O’Connell said. “He doesn’t like to be wrong.”
First things first
Manziel selected Maverick Carter’s LRMR management firm to represent his marketing interests, which could be significant. He met with Under Armour as well as Nike.
However, Manziel turned down a $350,000 guarantee to push a product at the Super Bowl.
Football ranks first in his life right now, he said.
Several draft analysts list Manziel atop 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. “Those are the two guys I really want to meet.”
Manziel to the Texans sounds like a win-win.