He is the NFL's accidental All-Pro, a 27-year-old class clown with gaudy jewelry and detachable gold teeth, someone whose rise to the top of his sport required more serendipity than Tom Arnold's film career. Yet here is Cincinnati Bengals wideout Chad Johnson--sitting in an Islands restaurant in L.A.'s Howard Hughes Center, munching on chicken strips on a warm summer night--assuring you with the utmost conviction that he is a man with a plan.
The subject is touchdown celebrations, and Johnson is admiring the work of fellow NFL wide receivers Terrell Owens (Sharpie, pom-poms), Joe Horn (cellphone) and Randy Moss (fake moon) while vowing to up the ante during the 2005 season. Never mind that such a stunt will likely cost him money, in the form of a league-imposed fine (he has already paid upward of $65,000 for past celebrations), and will probably result in a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. When you regard your presence in the NFL as a miracle, the act of reaching the end zone can be so exhilarating that logic ceases to exist.
More likely, Johnson simply craves the attention--that's the only explanation for a player who once punctuated a score by displaying a sign, which he'd stashed behind a snow bank, reading DEAR NFL: PLEASE DON'T FINE ME AGAIN!!! MERRY CHRISTMAS.
"Fans pay to come to the games, just like when they go to the movies, and I'm determined to give them their money's worth," Johnson says. "I've got all kinds of original material that can top the cellphone and the Sharpie, and I'll probably do something on Sunday night [Oct. 9] when we play at Jacksonville."
So, assuming Johnson can scorch the Jaguars' secondary, go ahead and mark your calendars: In six weeks Paul Tagliabue's face will contort, and countless commentators will rail that Johnson represents all that is wrong with professional sports, and furious defensive backs around the league will privately vow to pummel him the next time he runs a crossing route. Johnson, meanwhile, will keep yapping happily while trying to carry out his master plan--uplifting the NFL's most hapless franchise of the past 15 years and stamping himself as the most compelling performer at a position that has suddenly moved into the spotlight.
With a record seven wideouts selected in the first round of the 2004 draft, and six more taken in that round in April, NFL teams are searching for gamebreaking pass catchers like never before. In an era in which receivers have emerged as the sport's most conspicuous divas, not to mention its most breathtaking playmakers, Johnson is determined to be noticed both on and off the field. "It's a receiver's world," he says, his eyes twinkling under a fancy brown bowler at the casual burger joint. "We stand out more than anybody, and this year I plan to stand out like never before."
Though he has started in consecutive Pro Bowls and attracted headlines for guaranteeing victories (he's 2-0) and sending bottles of Pepto-Bismol to Cleveland Browns defensive backs before a game (he's 0-1: He was held to three catches for 37 yards in an embarrassing loss last year), Johnson has a Q rating that ranks far below those of the flamboyant Owens and Moss, and even below those of lower-key stars Marvin Harrison and Torry Holt. Yet the 6'1", 192-pound Johnson, who last year caught 95 passes for 1,274 yards and nine touchdowns, may be more talented than any of them. "Man, I would argue with anyone that Chad is among the top two receivers in football," says Baltimore Ravens cornerback Deion Sanders, who has become good friends with Johnson. (Prime Time won't name the other member of his top two.) Fast, acrobatic, agile and aggressive, especially when the ball is in the air, Johnson has routinely faced double coverage over the past three seasons, yet he has averaged 1,265 receiving yards during that span largely because of his ability to push past cornerbacks near the line and then nimbly slip underneath safeties. "I like his attitude," says Browns cornerback Gary Baxter. "He tries to prove on every play that he's the best. If he's not the top receiver in football, he's in that top group."
But try as he might to draw attention to himself, Johnson knows there is only one way he can become embedded in the national consciousness. "Now," he says, "I've got to go to the playoffs." The Bengals, who haven't reached the postseason since 1990, the league's longest current drought, have rebounded from poor starts to finish 8--8 in each of coach Marvin Lewis's first two seasons. Might 2005 be the year they break the streak? Johnson considers the question and nods. "It's a guarantee," he says.
Seven years ago Johnson was making far less lofty predictions; the fact that he was making them from a toy store in south-central L.A. may have had something to do with that. "I was working at KB Toys in the Crenshaw Mall, making minimum wage, dreading whenever we'd get a shipment in," he recalls. By then the Miami native had squandered most of his football opportunities. Academic struggles kept him from getting a Division I scholarship out of Miami Beach High, and after enrolling at Division II Langston (Okla.) University, Johnson got kicked off the team for fighting before he had even played a game. So he could be near his mother, Paula, the self-described "knucklehead" ended up at Santa Monica College. He enjoyed a productive season there in 1997 before flunking out. "At that point," Johnson says, "I had given up, really."
When forecasting his future, Johnson envisioned flashy clothes and fancy cars--with a decidedly unhappy ending. "What would have become of me?" he says, repeating a question. "Let's see, to get the nice things I had to have, I would've had to do something illegal. Truthfully, if football didn't work, I'd have ended up in jail. Or dead."
Enter Charles Collins, the receivers coach at Santa Monica, who in 1998 started putting Johnson through daily, private football workouts while liberally imparting life lessons. After improving his grades and returning to play for Santa Monica in '99, Johnson, with just one season of collegiate eligibility remaining, yearned for a chance to showcase his skills on a bigger stage. He attracted interest from Oregon State, where Dennis Erickson had revived a long-moribund program and was filling out his recruiting class. "If a guy from West L.A. J.C. didn't flunk out of Oregon State in the summer of 2000, Chad would be nowhere," says Jerome Stanley, Johnson's agent until last January, when the receiver signed with Drew Rosenhaus. "He was one tick away from never making it."
Homesick and buried on the depth chart, Johnson called Collins from Corvallis shortly before the start of the season and hinted that he was contemplating quitting. Collins flew into town and got in his former pupil's face, saying, "If you even think about leaving, I'm gonna kick your a--. I worked hard to get you here; don't you dare embarrass me now." Johnson didn't, catching 37 passes for 806 yards and eight touchdowns as the Beavers went 11-1 and finished fourth in the polls, but his success masked his ongoing struggles: Oregon State's other starting wideout, T.J. Houshmanzadeh, remembers having to give hand signals to the confused Johnson across the field as the quarterback called out his cadence. Johnson was projected as a first-round draft pick until his disastrous performance at the 2001 NFL combine. After yelling out jokes during other players' 40-yard dashes, Johnson, wearing a gaudy, all-yellow outfit, slipped at the start and finished in a mediocre 4.57 seconds. He fell to the second round, as the Bengals took him with the 36th pick.
He has been proving his worth ever since, winning over coaches and teammates with his work ethic; during the season he regularly sleeps in the players' lounge of the team's training facility. Yet for all his ebullience, Johnson has his darker moments. "We call Chad 'Bipolar,'" says Houshmanzadeh, now a Bengals starter opposite his college teammate. Lewis, the team's coach, says Johnson is animated and upbeat "98 percent of the time. The other two percent is scary. He acts like someone peed on his cornflakes. He's in another world." As an example Lewis cites an incident during the Bengals' victory over the Dallas Cowboys last November. Johnson (whose distant cousin Keyshawn was playing for the Cowboys) became so flustered after tussling with cornerback Lance Frazier--and miffed over a perceived lack of balls thrown his way--that the coach felt compelled to remove his headset during a drive and counsel his receiver on the sideline. Early in a season-opening loss to the New York Jets, Johnson became visibly peeved at quarterback Carson Palmer, who was making his first NFL start. At halftime Collins dialed the receiver's cellphone and reamed him out as Johnson stood in the locker room, saying, "Don't TO me. You're acting like an idiot."
Johnson may be calculating enough to plan out his next end-zone celebration or to toy with the defenders who try to cover him, but off the field he's impetuous. He has 13 custom-designed automobiles, most of them named after cartoon characters, including a yellow Lamborghini dubbed Big Bird. He also has four children out of wedlock. "I worry about him a lot, more than he worries about himself," Keyshawn Johnson says of his cousin, "but I can't take him by the hand and lead him."
Like Keyshawn, who has long employed Stanley as his agent, Collins tried to talk Chad out of switching to Rosenhaus. Though he signed a five-year, $26 million extension in 2003, Chad believes he is vastly underpaid. Yet he can't tell you how much money he made in '04, and many of those close to him are concerned about his ability to hold onto whatever earnings he commands. "I was very disappointed when he bought that Lamborghini," Collins says. "At the end of the day, I just don't want him to have to need me again."
In the meantime, Johnson revels in his surprising stardom. Having recently taken acting classes, he says he wants to go Hollywood after football, joking, "If I was born any earlier than '78, Denzel would have had a run for his money."
A few minutes later, Johnson summons an Islands waitress and asks, straight-faced, if she could bring him a job application. She sizes up the man with the bling and the loud clothes, disappears, then returns with a one-page form that she places on the table in front of him. Johnson smiles. He often asks for applications at restaurants, going so far as to fill out and return the form.
Perhaps this is a way of staying motivated, of reminding himself how hard he had to work--and how fortunate he had to be--to get to where he is today. Or perhaps it is simply a way to stay in touch with his inner class clown. "Football's a crazy business," he says, picking up the form. "You never know when I might get cut."
The Best of the Rest
Need a player to break a game wide open? Here are three other up-and-coming wide receivers who can do just that
TEXANS, third season
Though he is only the third-most-recognizable Johnson to play his position, behind Keyshawn and Chad, the former Miami Hurricane is making a name for himself. "In my opinion he's the best in the game," says Houston general manager Charley Casserly of Johnson, who made his first Pro Bowl appearance last season after catching 79 passes for 1,129 yards and six touchdowns. "The coaches at the Pro Bowl thought he was the best, too." The 6'3", 219-pound Johnson led the NFL in yards after catch with a 6.1 average.
BRONCOS, fourth season
A 6'3" 200-pounder with great speed and leaping ability, Lelie is blossoming into one of the league's top deep threats. In 2004, his first full season as a starter, the former Hawaii standout led the league in yards per catch (20.1, on 54 receptions); he also scored seven touchdowns, and in each of the last 15 games he had at least one reception of 20 or more yards. During the off-season Lelie focused on becoming more physical and running short and intermediate routes with more precision.
LIONS, second season
Watch Williams go against Pro Bowl cornerback Dre' Bly in practice, and you realize how good he is. Blessed with strength, speed and terrific hands, he breaks free after being jammed by Bly and catches pass after pass. "I look at myself as the prototype wide receiver," says the 6'3", 220-pound Williams. "I get better every day working against Dre'." Now Williams will look to improve on his rookie year: 54 receptions, 817 yards and eight touchdowns in 14 games, many of which he played with a sore left ankle.
• For an archive of Michael Silver's Open Mike columns, go to SI.com/silver.
Bengals Wideout¬†Move over, Keyshawn. Your cousin has been to the last two Pro Bowls and is fast becoming one of the top threats--and most compelling figures--at the league's new marquee position. Not bad for a guy who needed a lucky break just to play for a major college