In the near future, Johnny Manziel will add another item to his heavily spotted résumé. Johnny Manziel’s Money Bar, whose opening was announced last week, is coming to College Station. The establishment seems certain to be the worst place in all of Texas to watch the Aggies play on Saturdays, unless it sounds to you like the best. Either way, it’s likely to be a place of extremes, and as the Netflix documentary Untold: Johnny Football reminds us, anything else would be downright out of character for Manziel.
The film is seventy minutes of pure Johnny Football, told through talking head footage of Manziel; Manziel’s parents; Manziel’s estranged college best pal, Nate Fitch; former Texas A&M offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury; Manziel’s former agent Erik Burkhardt; and others who help reconstruct the highs and the lows of his journey. The documentary takes viewers through Manziel’s life, from Kerrville high school football legend to Aggie quarterback supernova to, briefly, NFL quarterback, and finally to thirty-year-old washout looking for something to do with his life. Here are the key things we learned from the film.
Manziel was never going to be a good NFL quarterback.
Skeptics had long questioned Manziel’s potential as a pro signal-caller, and Manziel’s two seasons with the Cleveland Browns (to say nothing of his time in the 2018 Spring League, the Canadian Football League, the Alliance of American Football, or the Fan Controlled Football league) proved his doubters correct. The film illustrates why it was wise to be dubious of Manziel’s NFL prospects.
The answer wasn’t really his size, or even his penchant for partying (though neither of those helped him), so much as a simple fact: Manziel certainly loved being the center of attention, and he talks in the film about how he loved being in a college football locker room as the leader of a group of frat boy athletes. But as much as he enjoyed running around a field tossing bombs and scoring touchdowns, he doesn’t seem to have actually liked football very much—that is, the mechanics of the game, the study of it, or the work of practicing and watching film that a player who can get by on raw talent in high school or college needs to put in when they’re playing at a level on which everybody on the field is an elite athlete. Manziel could have been six four and replaced the partying with a hundred pages of Proust every night, and he still would have failed to succeed as a pro because he didn’t want to be a pro quarterback.
In the film, Manziel talks about how often he studied the playbook at A&M (never) and how many hours of film he watched during his tenure in Cleveland (zero point zero). He’s hardly the first football player to check out of the game when it ceases to be fun, and toiling in the NFL is famously a whole hell of a lot less fun than playing in college. Not enjoying playing football at the NFL level is an entirely rational response to a very intense—and often downright brutal—workplace environment, but the film makes it clear that old saws like “He’s a winner” or “He beat Alabama” are downright meaningless when it comes to actually being a successful professional quarterback.
A&M didn’t set him up to succeed—but he did anyway.
With the JFF era in the rearview, it’s easy to forget the extent to which that 2012 game against Alabama during his sophomore year created the mythology around Manziel. The film reminds us that the Aggies football program was caught completely off guard when the redshirt freshman quarterback from Kerrville became an pop-culture phenomenon overnight. Accordingly, normal activities for a college student—such as, say, attending class—became downright impossible for him. Kingsbury tells the filmmakers that “they had to put him in online classes, and that’s not a good idea for Johnny Football.” All of the reasons Manziel might have had to show up for class were essentially removed, and he had Drake and LeBron James clamoring for his attention. (Neither icon chose to appear in the film.)
Manziel’s experience reveals much about how big-time college football exploits its athletes. The school benefited to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. The NCAA benefited from the presence of a captivating superstar who made its marquee sport must-watch TV. Manziel, in exchange, got . . . to sit at his laptop and take some free online classes? This comes to a head in the film as Manziel begins selling his signature to autograph dealers—something that Fitch, his former best pal–slash–manager, helped him navigate by spreading a narrative that Manziel’s family was awash in oil money, explaining away his courtside seats and flashy Rolexes as some rich-kid excess. In truth, Fitch and Manziel explain in separate talking head segments (which the filmmakers smartly juxtapose with footage of ESPN pundits talking about Manziel’s “oil family” money) that they simply laundered the cash Manziel received for signing stacks of memorabilia through Manziel’s grandfather, who’d cut them a check for it. The punishment Manziel suffered for this violation of one of the core tenets of the NCAA’s amateurism rule at the time, astute observers may recall, was a half-game suspension.
Manziel’s future still seems uncertain.
It’s tough to know when, exactly, the final footage from Untold: Johnny Football was shot—but the film doesn’t attempt to impose a happy ending on the troubled athlete. He seems happier with football behind him, and there are flashes of insight and growth in his interview segments. When the film discusses his 2016 domestic violence arrest, he doesn’t attempt to deny the incident; when it talks about his 2012 misdemeanor charge, he’s downright jovial, reacting to claims at the time that the incident didn’t reflect his character and acknowledging in hindsight that, in fact, it did. He describes himself as a “frat boy” who wasn’t ready to play in the NFL, and he talks openly about his drug use and suicidal ideation. The film doesn’t make the claim that all of those problems are behind him—in fact, it cuts to his mom as she expresses continued concern about her son.
Manziel is opening a bar in College Station sometime soon, which seems like the absolute height of where his ambitions should be right now. (The website for Johnny Manziel’s Money Bar says only “FALL 2023,” but we’ll assume that Manziel’s partners in the enterprise would surely like the place to be open for most of football season.) It’s easy to come away from the documentary with some sympathy for the former star, a young man whom America seemed to love watching get away with anything he tried—from converting absurd scrambles in the backfield into touchdown passes to violating NCAA rules to willing himself into becoming a first-round pick against the better judgment of NFL draft analysts. And then, when it all came crashing down, America got a thrill out of watching him fail. Coming out of the film, it seems appropriate to hope that he pursues modest goals, and that he succeeds.