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Johnny Manziel's NFL draft fall breathes life into long-suffering Browns franchise

NEW YORK – Johnny Manziel was in the middle of his NFL draft night news conference, one that finally came a couple hours and a couple Cleveland Browns trades later than maybe he wished.

It didn't matter, he kept saying. Picked fourth, picked 22nd – in the end he was in the NFL. In the end he was headed to the Browns and …

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Johnny Manziel is congratulated after being selected 22nd overall in the first round. (AP)

"John-NEE Cleve-LAND," came the chants from down a Radio City Music hallway, behind some curtains that were designed to keep fans from the draftees but turned out no match for desperate Browns backers who couldn't contain the excitement. "John-NEE Cleve-LAND," they kept screaming.

Manziel broke into a small smile before the chant switched to "Johnny Super Bowl" and, well, Johnny Football might need to trademark some new nicknames.

"Pretty cool," Manziel said. "I want to get to Cleveland now."

This was a Cedar Point roller coaster of a draft night for Manziel and the Browns, the dynamic former Heisman-winning quarterback and the excitement-desperate franchise that seemed destined to meet up.

Only Cleveland didn't take Manziel at No. 4. It traded down to nine. Then the Browns moved up to No. 8, but instead took cornerback Justin Gilbert. Manziel was left sitting in the green room, cameras focused on him, as pick after pick slid by.

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Browns fans cheer after Johnny Manziel is selected. (USA TODAY Sports)

For a moment everyone wondered if Dallas would grab him at 16 considering owner Jerry Jones' affection for the Texas A&M product, creating an all-timer of a soap opera and media frenzy over a QB controversy featuring Manziel and Tony Romo. The Cowboys passed though, and even Manziel was a bit relieved: "I don't know if the world can handle that, honestly."

Finally it got to 22 with Philadelphia and coach Chip Kelly, who once recruited Manziel to his wide-open offense at the University of Oregon. Kelly didn't need a QB, though, and fielded dueling offers from Cleveland and Minnesota, each desperate to get a second shot at Manziel. The Browns offered more, picks Nos. 26 and 83.

And Johnny Cleveland was born.

"It's a great story," Manziel said. "It's great for me to end up there with a team that has fans that are as passionate as I am on the field.

"I play with a lot of heart," he continued. "Those guys are passionate about a team that hasn't had an incredible amount of success and they are still very loyal, very diehard. That means a lot to me. And it means a lot for this team to come back and trade up to take me."

For the first time since LeBron James bolted to South Beach, Cleveland has a sporting star – one who brings guaranteed high-wattage attention and flair even if his actual ability to deliver wins remains to be proven.

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The sight of Manziel on the Radio City stage, in a Browns cap, rubbing his fingers together in his trademark "money" sign is a jolt to the franchise and the city. The Browns famously haven't won a title since before the Super Bowl was invented and have averaged a meager 5.3 victories a year since being reinstated as a franchise in 1999. They haven't just been bad, though; they've been boring, irrelevant, ridiculous even (they are on their fifth head coach, Mike Pettine, since 2005.)

When you consider owner Jimmy Haslam claimed to ESPN part of his motivation to draft Manziel came via a suggestion by a homeless man he met the other night outside a restaurant, the endless struggles seem understandable.

Whether they win now, or Manziel even beats out Brian Hoyer as the starter, is anyone's guess.

They are, if nothing else, interesting. Manziel is the exclamation point of a bold offseason of free-agent signings (safety Donte Whitner, linebacker Karlos Dansby) and a first round of dealing. In trading back to get Gilbert, they picked up Buffalo's No. 1 pick next season to boot. Then they got their QB anyway.

"Let's do this," general manager Ray Farmer told Manziel.

"I was very excited to hear that," Manziel said. "… Dawg Pound here we come."

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Johnny Manziel joins Justin Gilbert (right), taken with the eighth overall pick. (AP)

Manziel looked excited and eager, but also like someone who'd been through a pressure cooker. Not just on a night when social media was clowning him as "Johnny Freefall" but across a four-month predraft run-up that saw every facet of his game and life analyzed and criticized.

When it was over, it was over. He vowed no hard feelings, although a bit of motivation, perhaps.

"If you call it a slide, I wouldn't call it [that] at all," Manziel said. "I was drafted in the first round of the NFL draft … This is a great day for me. My dream came true.

"Obviously you play that team [that passed on him] down the road, it does add fuel," he added. "Does it make a chip that's already on my shoulder grow and grow and grow? I don't think that's the case. But just as much as anyone else it just adds fuel to the fire."

All along Manziel kept saying he just wanted a chance to play football, a chance to compete. He's been doubted his entire career. Too small in stature. Too small of a high school. Too much freelancing. Too much off-field drama.

Whatever, he said. He's going to play how he's going to play, live how he's going to live.

"You're supposed to have fun with it," he said. "No one wants to go into a situation that's monotonous and boring. You want a situation that's lively and fun. It's supposed to be that way. It's meant to be that way. Football is football. It deserves to be fun."

Here on draft night, Cleveland Browns football was fun again: a shutdown corner, a future first-round pick, and finally the most interesting personality in the draft.

Johnny Cleveland, they were chanting. Johnny Super Bowl, they were shouting from behind that curtain.

Johnny Football could only smile at the noise. The possibilities are all in front of him now.

Dawg Pound, here he comes.

 

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