It was almost like the end of a summer camp Thursday night with all the selfies, bear hugs and handshakes.
Except it was the conclusion of the two-week Spring League at Kelly Reeves Athletic Complex. More than 150 football players were trying to catch the eye of a pro scout, whether from the NFL or CFL.
Johnny Manziel, the former Texas A&M star, 2012 Heisman Trophy winner and first-round NFL pick, lingered as long as anyone after his South team lost to the West 34-17. He ran into the locker room to ditch his pads then came back onto the field to talk to reporters. He signed autographs. He dashed back into the locker room and then trotted back out to pose for photos with teammates. He shook hands and told his new friends to “stay in touch.”
“We had fun,” Manziel said. “It was fun messing around with the guys, giving people crap about certain things. It was exactly what I wanted, no matter the outcome. What happened is I got to do exactly what I wanted to do that I’ve been missing for the past 2½ years.”
The league was divided into four teams. Two games were played last Saturday. There were two more games Thursday night.
Manziel was the league’s star attraction as he tried to shake off the competitive rust and remold his bad-boy reputation. He hadn’t played a down of organized football since December 2015. The Cleveland Browns released him in March 2016. He stayed out of football until the Spring League started 15 days ago.
Manziel, 25, looked far more at ease Thursday than he did in his previous outing, when he was sacked four times. He was 10 of 16 for 188 yards with an interception. He rushed six times for 27 yards and two touchdowns.
He looked most comfortable scrambling, using his speed on some quick bootlegs. He enjoyed the most chemistry with former Baylor star Antwan Goodley, an undrafted free agent in 2015 who has spent time on the practice squads of Seattle and Green Bay.
Goodley caught a 50-yard pass from Manziel on Thursday. He also combined with Manziel for a touchdown last Saturday.
“You never know what he’s going to do back there,” Goodley said of Manziel. “I’ve got to do my job and stay in his eyes. You’ve got to be the quarterback’s best friend and gain his trust.”
There were other players who stood out on Manziel’s team. Former Auburn tailback and former Houston Texan Ben Tate, a second-round pick in 2010, showed his speed on a 43-yard gain. Unfortunately for Tate, he pulled a leg muscle at the end of his run and couldn’t make it to the end zone.
Josh Gable, a former pro soccer player in Europe, kicked a 56-yard field goal with about 10 yards to spare. He was the only one in the league who had never played college football.
Bryan Scott, who quarterbacked the West, was named the most outstanding player of Thursday’s game. He completed 9 of 10 passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for two scores. Back when he played at Occidental College he was known as the “Aaron Rodgers of Division III.” So maybe a team noticed him this month in Austin.
Former LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who was a sixth-round pick by Tennessee in 2014, started for the West. He called his own plays and completed 6 of 11 passes for 47 yards. He also rushed for two touchdowns.
Manziel sought out Mettenberger before he left the stadium. Mettenberger said maybe the two of them would face off again in the CFL — Calgary has the CFL rights to Mettenberger; Hamilton has the option for Manziel.
“You’re really a star player,” Mettenberger told Manziel. “Stay that way.”