KATY, Texas -- The sprawling, town-sized mall of Katy Mills 20 miles to the west of Houston is perfectly Texan, excessively huge, unnecessarily packed and perfectly deserted. It was also the perfect place for Johnny Manziel, the one-time Heisman winner and Texas' favorite son, to make his first public appearance in over a year.
Manziel, whose star fell far enough to find himself spending Super Bowl week out of football and signing autographs at a Stadium Signatures store buried deep in the heart of a city that appears to revolve solely around the existence of a mall.
It's a bizarre, sad sort of setting for something like this, which made his appearance even more shocking. Manziel looked ... great.
The bar is low here, because of Manziel's admitted struggles. After being drafted by the Browns in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft, Manziel washed out of football before he could play out his rookie contract. He was the latest in a long line of bad investments at the quarterback position for Cleveland, but Manziel, a star on social media, a lightning rod for attention and someone who everyone held an opinion of, was different.
As quickly as his star rose, it fell just as fast. And when it fell, it fell hard.
Manziel was largely seen partying with various celebrities and in various locations over the past year, earning himself a four-game suspension and ensuring he was untouchable for any NFL team. He refused help from just about everyone.
Until recently. Manziel appears to be on the right track again, deleting his Twitter account and proclaiming that he'd gone sober. On Thursday night he looked refreshed, energized and interested in getting his life in order. He's not trying to "Wreck this league" anymore; he just wants a chance to play a sport he loves.
"I just want to get back on the field," Manziel told myself and John Breech in the autograph line. "If I played in a preseason game, I'd treat it like the Super Bowl."
Manziel was joined at the store with a group of roughly 10 media members (none of whom were particularly welcome) and a stunning number of fans. This is an NFL quarterback who routinely pops up in random places and who isn't afraid of taking photos with fans, but when he set up shop and charged $99 for photos and $99 for autographs, the line of roughly 150 people wrapped around the store.
Aggie fans young and old poured in to the decentralized location, making treks of more than an hour to see Manziel for a brief second. The Manriquez family left downtown Houston after seeing the Super Bowl sights during the day and drove out to Katy for a chance at getting a photo from the former Heisman winner.
The daughter, Elyssaa, said she and her father, Chris, made a trip from the Pearland area to Cleveland to see Johnny play (and had pics to prove it), so fighting through rush-hour traffic in Houston was nothing.
Like many Manziel-ites, they are fans of Manziel who became fans of the team afterwards.
"I was actually a Johnny fan [not an A&M fan]," Chris Manriquez said. "For them being in the SEC, I didn't know what to expect. Beating Alabama, that was cherry on the cake right there."
It sums up his attraction to the public perfectly.
One young A&M fan said there was no doubt that Manziel would eventually make a return to the NFL and pegged a potential return right here in Houston with the Texans.
Another huge Texas A&M supporter, David Molina, dressed up in a Scooby Doo costume to get a picture with Manziel (the outfit was a College Station Halloween homage).
Yours truly -- along with fellow intrepid mall reporter and colleague John Breech -- ensured some time with Manziel by ponying for a custom autograph as well.
You can't hide money, son.
Manziel was friendly, patient and aloof with the crowd. It probably wasn't difficult -- they were adoring. And he's used to dealing with throngs of fans. But he wasn't bothered by the presence of the media, politely greeting members of the Cleveland press when he saw them.
He did the Heisman pose for fans:
This was a smart way to get Johnny Manziel to do a picture pic.twitter.com/ExHBfE8aSC— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) February 3, 2017
He signed custom autograph notes. He hugged kids and welcomed the opportunity to connect with fans. He wasn't pale and sheepish anymore. He looked exactly like someone who fell into a dark place for a long time, climbed out and was finally shaking off the cobwebs.
That's a lot to read into an hour-long paid appearance at a sports memorabilia store. But the difference was that notable.
Manziel's got plenty of hurdles left before he's back in football. There's no telling what kind of football shape he's in or how long it would take him to acclimate to a roster or a playbook. If figuring out his life is a one-step-a-time deal, he's 100 yards from being back on the field.
But he seems to know it, and he maybe even grasp that he's approaching his final shot at a life in professional football. It's cheesy as all get out, but it's geographically appropriate: his heart looked full and his eyes looked clear.