CFL: Summer Blockbuster: A look behind the Johnny Manziel trade

By Chris O’Leary, Senior Writer,  @olearychris

It was late in the afternoon on Sunday when Johnny Manziel’s phone rang.

The 25-year-old quarterback saw that it was his coach, June Jones, and he reached for the phone. Manziel was unaware that the life he’d grown comfortable with over the last two months in Hamilton was about to change.

“I was going about my Sunday just as everyone in this room was,” he said almost 24 hours later, sitting at a press conference in Montreal as a brand-new member of the Alouettes.

The general managers of both teams; Eric Tillman in Hamilton, Kavis Reed in Montreal, have acknowledged that the trade itself came together over a four-day period, with the final 24 hours of it being particularly intense, but this deal is something that’s bubbled on football’s horizon for the last 16 months.

This is the story, from both GMs, on how the Montreal Alouettes acquired Johnny Manziel.

* * *

Eric Tillman pulled his vehicle over to the side of the road on an anonymous stretch of Mississippi’s Highway 49, rolling to a stop outside of a Taco Bell. It was March, 2017 and he and his wife were taking their two children on a mini-roadtrip in the state that Tillman grew up in.

“Our kids had never met the minister that married Francine and I,” Tillman says. “He had leukemia and we had gone, I wanted them to meet him before we lost him.

“So it was spring break and we drove down to see him with the kids. (The minister) only lived a couple of weeks beyond that. We had just left visiting with him and starting back it was an hour-and-a-half to my mom’s place and Kavis called.”

Reed was one of many across the football world whose ears perked up at the possibility of Manziel playing in the CFL. Manziel’s star was launched at Texas A&M, plateaued before he left the program and it began to fall faster and harder through two seasons with the Cleveland Browns.

As a pro, his unprecedented talent at A&M was overshadowed by off-field distractions and negativity. There were stories of him partying too hard, absences from the team and especially damning, a domestic violence charge in February, 2016. The Browns released him a month later, with sponsorships, marketing agencies and agents leaving in quick succession.

As he worked to straighten his life out, Manziel had been very open about his desire to return to football. With the reality setting in of NFL teams not having interest in him, the CFL became a possibility shortly after the Ticats revealed that they’d had Manziel on their negotiation list.

The conversation on the side of that Mississippi road was very basic. Would Manziel even be interested in playing in Canada? How attached are you to the name on the neg list? What might it take to move it?

“I’m sitting there talking and she’s in the back seat,” Tillman says of his daughter, “and Alex says, ‘Daddy, who is Johnny Manziel?’ All they knew was they were stuck in the backseat and they weren’t going anywhere and I was having this lengthy conversation with Kavis.

“Who would have believed, 16 months later, the twists and turns?”

* * *

As Manziel’s football options grew less appealing over the last year, he and his agent, Erik Burkhardt, began to explore the opportunity awaiting them in Hamilton. The talks got to the point that the Ticats worked Manziel out in Buffalo in late August of 2017.

Reed watched this development from Montreal. In his first season as the team’s GM, his Alouettes were struggling. That week, his team went into BC and took a 41-18 loss to the Lions, their fourth loss in a row, dropping them to 3-8. They wouldn’t win another game that season.

From Vancouver, Reed called Tillman again.

“It was just a casual conversation at the time,” Reed says.

“I said that I wouldn’t do anything unless I had the opportunity to sit down with him and see him, talk with him. I asked them to give me 72 hours to meet with the kid. They agreed to give 48. I flew from Vancouver to Montreal to Dallas, because I had to organize a workout.

“We worked him out at a high school, spent a few hours with he and his agent, really wanting to get to know the individual. He had a really good workout. He was in shape. I’d seen photos of him not in shape, so I wanted to get visual validation on that. He talked to a few people here to make certain that as an organization he’d be comfortable with us.”

The cost at that point was still very high.

“A lot more than what they got right now,” Reed says. “The price tag was pretty significant. A lot of draft picks, a lot of current draft picks.

“We’d just come off of a year where we didn’t have a first-round pick, so we didn’t want to go successive years that way. So we tabled it, saying we’ve got to wait to see what the league will do.

“At the time when…he’s not even vetted by the CFL yet, I wasn’t going to go there.”

Manziel’s past — the domestic violence charge in particular — loomed over him. Eventually, after a face-to-face meeting with Manziel in September, CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie decided that Manziel wouldn’t be eligible to play in the 2017 season. If he could meet specific criteria, Ambrosie said, he’d be eligible to sign for 2018, opening an eight-month window that would give Manziel a chance to show he could meet the requirements and be ready for the start of a two-year contract.

Tillman and Reed put a pin in the trade talks and both moved forward in the off-season. Hamilton extended starter Jeremiah Masoli, and the Alouettes explored other QB options through the off-season, signing former NFL QB Josh Freeman (he retired in training camp) and keeping Drew Willy and Matthew Shiltz on their roster from the previous season.

Manziel signed with the Ticats on May 19, with the intention of learning behind Masoli. The common thought was that Manziel would get a start early in the season, perhaps no later than Labour Day. Masoli had other plans. He started the season off throwing for over 300 yards in his first four games and putting him at a CFL-record tying nine straight games, going back through his last five games of 2017.

“Multiple things led to this decision (to make the trade),” Tillman says. “But certainly two of the more significant ones were the quality that Jeremiah has continued to play at. He has the total confidence of June (Jones), our coaching staff and all of the guys in the locker room.

“Then the second part that’s kind of underrated is the emergence of (third-stringer) Dane Evans.”

On the Als’ end, Reed saw his team’s offence trending in the same unproductive direction it had last year. That all of his quarterbacks were dealing with injuries only worsened things for him. He’d started talking in-depth with Tillman again through last week and when Drew Willy was injured in Saturday’s loss in Calgary, the urgency to get a deal done increased.

“That day a conversation had started but it really intensified after the game,” Reed says. “I flew to Toronto after the game, got back (to Montreal) at 7 a.m. and went to Toronto.”

* * *

Reed has always preferred the face-to-face meeting over a phone call. Last year when he and Tillman were first talking about Manziel, the two met in Toronto, the same way they did this past weekend, to sort out what turned into the Als’ 48-hour visit with Manziel in Dallas.

“We were probably 90 per cent of the way home (on the trade) Saturday before the Calgary-Montreal game,” Tillman says.

“Scott (Mitchell, the Ticats CEO and president) and I met with Kavis and another Montreal employee that Kavis holds in very high regard.”

They met in the lobby of the Westin at the Toronto Airport Sunday morning.

“We went into the lobby and found a secure area and battled it out,” Reed says.

“Both parties were hungry, I hadn’t showered in 24 hours. I wished I smelled worse,” he says and laughs, “because then they would have been more eager to get out of there.”

If you’ve ever thought about what the negotiations on these sorts of deals looks like, you’re not far off thinking it’s similar to buying a car. There are low ball and high ball offers and both parties try to work their way toward the middle.

“I think you listen to one another and I think what’s important is that you don’t dictate terms,” Tillman says.

“You try to listen to each other and find out what’s important. From our standpoint, obviously, in a perfect world…everybody talks about Johnny and I understand that, but in a perfect world you’d rather not trade Tony (Washington) or Landon (Rice).

“Tony’s been our starting left tackle and a very solid player and Landon’s been our sixth guy, but we use tight end formation so much that he’s played over 50 per cent of the snaps this year. But again that’s part of listening.

“In our first conversation we talked about Chris Williams, we talked about Westerman and the flexibility (a Canadian brings for the ratio). We went through several scenarios, but those were the names that were prominent. There were some names we advanced that it was absolutely no on that end and there were two or three that he advanced that were absolutely no on our end.”

“Certain players you don’t want to have involved (in a deal) and for (Hamilton), there are certain players and picks they wanted to have involved,” Reed says. “To me the key to negotiation is start with what you’re not going to change on and what they’re not going to change on. If we know those things that you’re not going to change on and you can’t agree with those over the phone there’s no need of going through it. It worked out well.”

By the afternoon they’d worked out the details of the deal. Manziel and offensive linemen Tony Washington and Landon Rice went to Montreal in exchange for Canadian defensive lineman Jamaal Westerman and former Ticats receiver Chris Williams, along with Montreal’s first-round picks in 2020 and 2021.

With both parties agreeing to the terms of the trade, they agreed on one more thing. They were hungry. They went across the street and had an early dinner at Lone Star. Seated, Reed looked around and had a sense of deja vu.

“It’s amazing that the conversation about Johnny started at the Lone Star and it ended at the Lone Star at the exact same table,” he says. “Last year, went into the Lone Star before I got the permission to go to (Dallas). It started there. We were all at a table. The irony of all ironies, we had the same server. Everything started there and everything ended there.”

* * *

It felt like deja vu watching Manziel address the media on Monday. His second introductory press conference in two months, he faced many of the same questions about his expectations with a new club, his desire to get back to the NFL and of course, his past and his domestic violence charge (a settlement in Dec. 2016 saw the charge dismissed, with Manziel undergoing counselling and having his conduct monitored by Dallas prosecutors for a year afterward). Whether in Hamilton or Montreal, he handles softball questions and the tough, pointed ones in the same, seemingly earnest way. It’s a trait that makes him look far older than his 25 years.

Saskatchewan Roughriders coach Chris Jones wonders at times if his star receiver, Duron Carter, functions better when he’s in the middle of a media firestorm. In the glimpses he’s gotten of Manziel, in watching his new quarterback sit front and centre in front of a dozen TV cameras and a room full of reporters, Reed doesn’t see that sort of situation.

“There are personalities that like chaos but I don’t think that’s him,” he says.

“That’s why I wanted to go to Dallas to meet him. I wanted to see a repentant person. When you have that, the eyes don’t lie. I saw a repentant individual. Someone that really wants to do the right things.

“Admittedly he’s made some mistakes. It just so happens he’s Johnny Manziel, Heisman winner, there’s a lot of attention around him. We all want to see people get a second chance to succeed. I wanted to see that, I wanted to look him in the eye and to see that. I saw that (on Monday) as well.

“It’s very difficult to admit your transgressions, to face the decisions that you made that aren’t good and the lives that you may have affected. He took ownership of it and that was a key moment for me in Dallas. It was important to see it again (in Montreal).”

Manziel won’t start on Thursday, but he’s expected to get a package against Edmonton, giving him his regular-season CFL debut. He’s been busy in practice this week, with his involvement increasing each day. He could be the starter for next week’s game, when the Als host the Ticats, but Reed and coach Mike Sherman, the coach that convinced him to re-commit from Oregon to Texas A&M, will work to make his development as a starter a smooth one.

Watching him with the Ticats over the last two months, Tillman thinks Manziel is ready.

“I think this week has been great for him. The one missing piece was that he needs to play. It’s what he does, it’s what he loves and it’s why he came here,” Tillman says. “We didn’t anticipate this happening but we all do hope it ends up being a win-win scenario.

“I think he’s been through so much…much of it self-inflicted, but still, he’s been through so much. You almost become an entertainment figure. You go out to have a dinner and TMZ shows up. Your whole life…everything is under scrutiny.

“I think for him it was so refreshing (in Hamilton). June was great, Jeremiah was unbelievable with him. Instead of being territorial, being helpful, being encouraging, being welcoming.

“Just to see Johnny, the body language from when I first met him, becoming warm, trusting laughing, smiling. Johnny the person, to see him happy again. I think it’s a tribute to our league, it’s a tribute to June and the whole environment we have. He hasn’t been Johnny Football, he’s just been Johnny.”

The long prologue to Manziel’s CFL career seems like it’s finally concluded. Sunday’s trade was an interesting one. A huge name in football with no actual CFL experience was the cornerstone of a history-making trade in this league. No deal in league history has involved two first-round picks from a single club in a single transaction.

The 16-month journey should end on Thursday and we can finally start to see what we’ve been waiting for.

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