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The Ballad of Johnny Football: How Manziel's Career Cratered

If Johnny Manziel doesn't find a way to save himself, he will go down as one of the NFL's most spectacular, and tragic, busts.
Image: Johnny Manziel
Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel walks off the field after a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, in Cincinnati.Frank Victores / AP

"I'm going to work extremely hard to get what I want, and I know what that is. I want to win, and I want to be successful. The amount of time I put in and the heart I put into this, which I know I'm capable of doing, will tell the tale."

— Johnny Manziel, after the Cleveland Browns drafted him in the 2014 NFL draft.

Quarterback Johnny Manziel often seemed on the precipice of disaster, even when he was most brilliant.

Brash, electric and unapologetic, Manziel was for a few years one of the greatest young football players in America, a fleet, improvisational quarterback who seemed to flourish under pressure. But he couldn't seem to find his off-switch, often appearing hellbent on destroying himself. He drank, fought, partied, talked smack, drove recklessly, went to rehab and still kept getting into trouble.

The latest crash, the one that may end his career for good, came Tuesday, when a Texas grand jury indicted him on charges he hit ex-girlfriend. The arrest came a month after Manziel, 23, was released by the Cleveland Browns following a dismal two seasons, freeing him to sign with another team — provided anyone will want him.

Two sports agents have quit on him since February, when his father, Paul Manziel, told the Dallas Morning News: "I truly believe if they can't get him help, he won't live to see his 24th birthday."

The son of a wealthy oilman in tiny Kerrville, Texas, Manziel as a teen was a Parade All-American and 2011 National High School Coach Association player of the year. He enrolled at Texas A&M, where he sat out the first season as a "redshirt" freshman. A year later, just before the start of the 2012 season, he was arrested for disorderly conduct after an off-campus fight. Still, he was named starting quarterback, and, dubbed "Johnny Football," led the Aggies to an upset over No. 1 Alabama and a victory in the Cotton Bowl. He became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.

The following summer, while preparing for his sophomore season, Manziel was dismissed as a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy after oversleeping and missing meetings. The circumstances — Manziel said he'd suffered from dehydration — fueled speculation of binge drinking. But Manziel didn't seem to care.

"I'm still a sophomore in college. I'm still going to do things that everybody in college does, and I'm going to continue to enjoy my life," Manziel said, according to "Hopefully, people don't hold me to a higher standard than that."

A few weeks later, the NCAA suspended Manziel for half a game over suspicions he signed autographs for money. He entered the season opener in the second half, rubbing his fingers together in a "make money" gesture that became his trademark.

Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M.Scott Halleran / Getty Images

Manziel's 2013 fell short of his freshman performance, but he was great nonetheless, one of the first bona fide college football stars of the social media era. In January 2014, he announced he would enter the NFL draft.

He decamped to California to train, proclaiming a break from his old college persona.

"I was a kid who made some goofball decisions," he told a visiting Houston Chronicle reporter. "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'm trying to show people I've grown up and I've learned from my experiences. I feel like you're a stupid person if you continue to make the same wrong decisions."

The reality, five months later, did not live up to the hype.

Team after team passed on Manziel, as cameras captured him awkwardly waiting backstage at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Finally, after more than two hours, Cleveland called his name as the 22nd overall pick.

He promised to reward the long-suffering Browns for their faith.

Instead, his descent accelerated.

NFL player Johnny Manziel at a UFC match in Las Vegas.Mark J. Rebilas / USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

Manziel went to Las Vegas to celebrate, and returned to the city many times. Just before the start of summer training camp, reported that the Browns had become "alarmed" by Manziel's behavior, including a photo that showed him rolling up a $20 bill in a bar bathroom. He partied with celebrities around the country, exploits that were documented on social media.

Browns coach Mike Pettine made Manziel a backup going into the 2014 preseason, where, during a loss to the Washington Redskins, he flipped a middle finger at the opponents' bench. He was fined $12,000, according to ESPN.

Manziel didn't start a game until late in the 2014 season, when he passed for 80 yards and threw two interceptions in a 30-0 loss. He called it his worst performance ever. He started again the following week, but injured his hamstring in the first half.

The morning of Dec. 28, 2014, before the season's last game, Manziel, unable to play, failed to show up for a team meeting. Browns security personnel drove to his home, where he seemed like he had partied the night before, according to ESPN. The team fined him and left him in Cleveland while they played in Baltimore.

The following Monday, Manziel was spotted in a Miami nightclub.

In January 2015, Manziel checked himself into a rehab clinic in Pennsylvania and stayed until April, when he issued a contrite statement. He later announced he would no longer use his "money sign."

Johnny Manziel with former girlfriend Colleen Crowley at a Major League Baseball game.Tom Pennington / Getty Images

He returned to the Browns' bench, but got a start in the second game of the 2015 season, a win against the Tennessee Titans in which he showed flashes of his old brilliance. He earned a few more starts that year, none of them as good the Titans game. And trouble returned: a police dashcam video showed Manziel arguing with his girlfriend, Colleen Crowley, after getting stopped for speeding. She claimed he'd hit her, but didn't press charges. He was caught partying a couple more times, including at least one trip to Las Vegas.

In January, Crowley told police Manziel had assaulted her in Dallas, which Manziel denied. That led to Tuesday's indictment. On March 11, the Browns released Manziel. In April, he was a passenger in a car crash in Los Angeles, police said.

He released a statement saying his career wasn't over yet.

"I’m hoping to take care of the issues in front of me right now so I can focus on what I have to do if I want to play in 2016,” he said.

The odds seem long.