The CFL's biggest name returns to the field this week as the No. 1 quarterback of the Montreal Alouettes.
Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner while a celebrated freshman at Texas A&M, will be in his element in front of a national TV audience when he leads the Alouettes' offence onto the field against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Investors Group Field Friday night.
In his first CFL season, Manziel is trying to revive an NFL career cut short when he was released by the Cleveland Browns in 2015. He was Cleveland's first-round (22nd overall) pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Manziel's much publicized fall from grace in Cleveland was hastened by a myriad of off-field issues, including allegations of domestic abuse and reports of drug and alcohol abuse. He has spent much of the last year rehabilitating his life and image.
In February, he told ABC's Good Morning America he had been diagnosed as bipolar and had battled depression, using alcohol as a form of "self-medicating."
The 3-9 Alouettes are tied for last in the East Division but still have an outside shot at a playoff berth. Winnipeg is 5-7 and tied with the B.C. Lions for the bottom of the West.
"We're going to try and take it game by game and end the season on the right note," said Manziel during a media availability at IGF Thursday afternoon.
'It's been an interesting journey. It's taken a lot to get here, a lot of people here on the outside. Life's changed a lot for me, but I'm happy with where I'm at and glad to be back to football' – Johnny Manziel
"Personally, on and off the field, I've come a long way from December of 2015 and the last time I was on a football team and walking onto a football field. It's been an interesting journey. It's taken a lot to get here, a lot of people here on the outside. Life's changed a lot for me, but I'm happy with where I'm at and glad to be back to football."
Manziel was rushed into the Alouettes lineup following a mid-season trade from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and he struggled mightily in two losing starts, completing 27 of 46 passes for 272 yards with no touchdowns and four interceptions.
The 25-year-old from Tyler, Texas did not play in Montreal's next four games — first while out due to concussion protocol and, more recently, after suffering from a stomach virus.
His replacement, rookie Antonio Pipkin, performed ably in his absence and went 2-2 in four starts but created an opening for Manziel's return to the starting lineup with a dismal 11-for-22 passing performance in a 32-14 loss to the B.C. Lions on Sept. 14. In that game, Pipkin passed for only 95 yards and tossed four interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns.
Two weeks ago, Manziel suggested he should be starting in place of Pipkin. He understood that his comments could have been viewed as selfish but he didn't regret them.
"Obviously, I might have let my frustration get the better of me," said Manziel. "I could have kept that in and kept that as a private matter but nevertheless, I wanna play and I came up here to play. I get that opportunity tomorrow. I want to make the most of it. It’s what I asked for and I feel like I give us the best opportunity to go out there and get us a win.
"I’m looking forward to the opportunity. It’s a good challenge but it’s what football’s all about. Getting the opportunity to get back on the field again has been a long journey for me, so I’m looking forward to it."
Manziel added he's enjoying his experience in Canada.
"It's been fun," he said. "It seems to be in each place I've been to I've seen either a Browns jersey or an A&M jersey. There's been a lot of support for me in the stadiums we have gone to. CFL fans are extremely passionate about their football. It's been fun to see almost every stadium now. I'm sure we're going to get a good one tomorrow night as well."
Living in a diverse city such as Montreal has been an eye-opening experience for Manziel.
"It's good," he said. "It's a new experience. I live in L.A. for most of the year... it's a different experience than anywhere I've ever been. The language barrier is something I'm getting used to, seeing things in French all the time. Outside of that it's a great city. I've enjoyed my time there. I look forward to spending more time there."
'I wanna play and I came up here to play. I get that opportunity tomorrow. I want to make the most of it. It’s what I asked for and I feel like I give us the best opportunity to go out there and get us a win' – Johnny Manziel
But could Montreal be too much fun for someone with his personal history?
"I'm a big back-and-forth, from-work-to-the-house guy right now," said Manziel. "My wife's been up here for a little bit. It is a little different than the NFL. You're out of the building a little earlier, a different schedule and not nearly as demanding. I've changed in a lot of ways to be able to spend some time with my family, my wife and our couple of dogs that are up here.
"We've enjoyed the city and it's been good for everything. We'll see how the cold's starting to come in a little bit, and get back into that routine. It's been a couple of years.
On the field, Manziel's ability to extend plays is a primary concern for Blue Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea.
"All 12 guys have to be disciplined because plays take longer now, right?" said O'Shea. "You’re not playing a quarterback who’s going to stand back there and get rid of the ball in under three seconds, where you’re disciplined in your lane, get your hands up and try and tip the ball, because you know you’re probably not going to get as close to him as you’d like to on a regular basis.
"So with mobile quarterbacks, especially confident ones that are creative like the two we could face, you understand that the plays are going to take longer. They can stand back there and go through their progression, go through their offence, the play that’s called, and then at the end of that they can move around and extend the play."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.