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‘He looks like Johnny Manziel’: Johnny Football draws a crowd at Texas A&M’s pro day

Former Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel  during Texas A&M’s football pro day Tuesday. (Michael Wyke/AP)

COLLEGE STATION, Tex. — As the 6-foot quarterback paced around Texas A&M’s indoor practice facility, in the shadow of the hulking stadium where he once announced himself to the world as Johnny Football, television cameras followed his every move, iPhones shot into the air, and people craned their necks to catch a glimpse, however fleeting, of Johnny Manziel’s latest attempt to be the football player he once was.

Manziel once used this same campus and facilities to build a star reputation that, while polarizing and complicated, made him into the 22nd overall selection in the 2014 NFL draft. Now here he was again, four years after a pro day he assumed would be his last, again looking to use Texas A&M as a springboard to an NFL opportunity. Then he was 21 years old with limitless potential and intrigue. On Tuesday he played the part of a 25-year-old NFL washout throwing in front of scouts and personnel from all 32 NFL teams, who were also there to see 14 Aggies players auditioning for next month’s draft.

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The morning began with physical testing as Manziel lingered outside the pack, pacing around the turf field while bobbing his head to music only he could hear, itching to throw a football. He quickly did, finding a throwing partner and zipping 10-yard passes before lofting 20-yard throws inside his former school’s indoor practice facility.

As he threw to a handful of receivers and running backs, television crews staked out spots in front of the Texas A&M backdrop where Manziel would speak after the event. Some tripods were in position two and a half hours before Manziel came off the field.

“Like I said the other day, this isn’t really about me,” Manziel said to start his news conference. “It’s about the guys we have out here getting drafted at A&M. … I need to thank Jimbo, Coach Fisher. I saw [about the pro day] on Twitter, and for him to just be like that and roll out the red carpet, especially at a time of my life when I don’t think I’ve made the school exactly proud all the time.”

“I know sometimes when I get involved it turns in to be a little bit about me,” Manziel added. “And it’s really not. That’s why I said what I said yesterday in a tweet, this is Christian (Kirk’s) day, this is his day, this is the rest of the guy’s day that are out here trying to fulfill their dream of getting drafted and I’m just here being a part of it trying to give them some balls.”

But what about his lingering dream of getting back to the NFL?

“I haven’t felt this good in a long, long time, from a mental standpoint and a physical standpoint,” Manziel said. “I felt like the ball came out really well today.”

According to the Boston Herald, the New England Patriots spoke with Manziel Tuesday both before and after his throwing session. The team could be in the market for a young quarterback project after trading away both of Tom Brady’s backups last year, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett, while adding veteran Brian Hoyer.

That news brought recollections of New England’s pre-draft scouting report on Manziel that reportedly leaked in 2014. The document showed a positive assessment by the team of his on-field capabilities, including “outstanding” athleticism and toughness, but also red flags about his character, including concerns that he was a “spoiled brat” who “doesn’t study the game.”

Manziel already had thrown for scouts from 13 NFL teams — including the Patriots — during the University of San Diego’s pro day last weekend. According to ESPN, he threw 38 passes, missing two, in light rain. He was invited to San Diego’s pro day by wide receiver Justin Priest and tight end Ross Dwelley, who needed a quarterback to throw to them.

George Whitfield, a private quarterbacks coach who has worked with a number of prominent athletes, has been working with Manziel for three weeks and told ESPN that Manziel is “a completely different young man at a completely different stage in his life.”

The former Aggies quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner, who hopes to revive an NFL career that ended in failure as his lifestyle veered out of control, appears to be in football shape. He recently married, and has gone through rehab. He’ll play in a spring league next month in Austin, but first came another round of throws Tuesday.

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“I’m just happy he’s turned his life around positively,” said Mike Evans, who played with Manziel at Texas A&M and is now the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ top receiver. “And he spun it great. He looks like Johnny Manziel.”

Evans spends his offseason in Texas and came to the facility Tuesday to see his former quarterback. He said he and Manziel have regularly stayed in touch over text since college, but that the two don’t discuss Manziel’s off-field issues. That said, Evans added: “He seems like he’s in his right mind. Like I said, looks like he’s turned over his life for the better. Got him a woman, got married, doing the right things, maturing a lot.”

As for Manziel’s possible return to the NFL, Evans was sure in that Manziel deserves another chance to prove what he can do. Evans acknowledged why some teams might think the risk is too high, but pointed out that the potential return with Manziel under center is even greater.

“I think the reward is there,” Evans said. “He’s a phenomenal talent. He’ll bring fans. If the team or the franchise isn’t really selling tickets, he can do that. And he can just flat-out play. At least he’s a No. 2. At least he should be a No. 2 somewhere, if not the starter.”

Manziel lasted all of 14 games over two NFL seasons. He completed 57 percent of his passes for 1,675 yards and seven touchdowns with seven interceptions. He had 259 yards rushing and one touchdown. His hope is to return to the NFL rather than head for Canada, where the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League hold his rights, but Manziel told reporters Tuesday that he would play in the CFL if he doesn’t get a chance to make an NFL roster.

One thing is certain: Manziel said he has now officially retired from pro days. He described his first one as a “circus,” as he jogged out in full pads and a helmet, with music blaring in the practice facility, to throw in front of a massive crowd of NFL personnel and former President George H.W. Bush. Then, it wasn’t a question of whether Manziel would get a shot in the NFL, but which team would give it to him.

That’s far from guaranteed now. That’s why this pro day was quieter, carrying as it did the weight of Manziel’s uncertain future. But it still showed that the spectacle of Johnny Football has yet to fully fade.

“I’ve blocked it off,” Manziel said of what he’s heard regarding his chances to get back to the NFL. “I can’t do anything about it, I can’t stress about it, all I can do is make sure where I need to be, where I’m mentally, where I’m at physically.”

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