Untold: Johnny Football 2023 Movie Review
UNTOLD: Johnny Football maps out the rise and fall of Johnny Manziel, from winning the Heisman Trophy as a freshman at Texas A&M to busting out of the NFL within two seasons to suicidal depths after his career fell apart. Like many of UNTOLD’s documentaries, the main subject is also the main storyteller, with interviews with Manziel forming the backbone of the film. The story is fleshed out through interviews with Manziel’s family, friends, former teammates, coaches and figures from the college and professional football worlds.
I can’t pretend to have an objective editorial voice in reviewing UNTOLD: Johnny Football. I’ve covered college football for a decade online. I grew up an avid fan of the Cleveland Browns. I was sitting in Radio City Music Hall on the night in May 2014 when the Browns–having been encouraged by Manziel’s famous “hurry up and draft me” texts to their coaching staff–selected Manziel in the first round of the NFL Draft. I have literally hundreds of emails with friends lamenting Manziel’s performance once he arrived in Cleveland–a mixture of bad on-field play with terrible off-the-field behavior that found him out of the league in only two years. I cannot be objective about Johnny Manziel.
It’s a testament to the quality of UNTOLD’s storytelling then, that this documentary could make me–someone who could quite fairly be described as a Johnny Manziel Hater–both remember how fun the rise of Johnny Football was as it happened, and feel a pang, however slight, of sympathy for the way his career played out.
The first act of UNTOLD: Johnny Football is the fun part. We relive Manziel as a high-school star who kicks down the door upon his arrival at Texas A&M–a scrambling, swaggering fireplug of a player who lit up scoreboards and got lit up in between games. A player at odds with the stodgy, militaristic vibe of Texas A&M–one of the most traditionally dour and serious programs in college football–he immediately won over fans with his it’s-not-talking-shit-if-you-back-it-up performances, a phenomenon that came to a head with a Heisman-defining upset of the Alabama juggernaut in Tuscaloosa.
That game is shown as a turning point–when the freshman Manziel is rocketed to a dangerous level of fame for someone so young, suddenly unable to walk around campus or attend classes without being mobbed by fans. His success became a huge moneymaker for people other than Manziel–a boon for local hotels and businesses, but also for the university. Texas A&M boosters raved about the recruiting boom, and a massive renovation and expansion of the university’s stadium Kyle Field is implied to be a direct result of his success. The school sold out of blank #2 jerseys, something that–in the pre-NIL world–didn’t see a dime going to the ‘student-athlete’ Manziel.
With others making millions off his efforts, Manziel sought to make some money of his own, quickly getting swept up with autograph dealers and relishing the lifestyle of a superstar, buying Gucci and Rolexes and driving brand-new luxury cars. He’s unapologetic about this, and–to be entirely fair–he was violating NCAA bylaws that many objected to at the time and that no longer exist today. Even with that caveat, this moment is where things feel like they’re headed off the rails. “Once he won the Heisman, I saw a different side of him,” Manziel’s sister Meri Malechek reflects. “There was nothing stopping him from doing what he wanted to do.”
Obviously, Manziel bears the primary responsibility for what happened next–from his NCAA suspension to his off-the-field legal troubles and eventual flame-out in the NFL, one that Manziel says came with a “$5 million bender” and a suicide attempt. But in watching UNTOLD: Johnny Football, we see a web of enablers, too, from his friend-turned-manager on up to coaches and university administrators. One especially damning quote comes from Kingsbury, a coach who personally benefited greatly from Manziel’s performance. “I always felt you had to be careful in telling Johnny how to live his life,” Kingsbury explains about the then-20-year-old player under his supervision. “It wasn’t ideal for us as coaches, but it’s kinda like, that’s the dark side he needed to play good, and as long as he wasn’t getting in trouble, do your deal.”