Yo, Chauncey,where's the key?"
This is an article from the Oct. 30, 2006 issue
Chauncey Johnsonshrugs. "Dunno."
Chad Johnson, hisyounger brother, Chauncey, and the rest of Chad's posse are standing on thecorner of Sixth and Ocean Drive in South Beach, under the late-afternoon sunand amid too many Saturday revelers in town for tomorrow's Miami Carnivalwho've been taking advantage of Florida's liberal open-container laws. Thesidewalks are thronged, and the tall, fine-looking fellow with the blond Mohawkis exerting a powerful pull on his fellow Americans.
"You're on myfantasy team, Chad, and I'm counting on you," says a puffy guy withsunburned shoulders in a white tank top. "You're my man. Sign this." Heholds out a receipt.
An older couple,in matching khaki shorts and polo shirts, stops. The gentleman hands Johnson acouple of business cards. "Can you sign these? I wish the Tar Heels had youthis weekend."
A German touristwanders over. "Excuse me," he asks. "You are WesleySnipes?"
Johnson is alwayswilling to sign, pose, smile, please. The Cincinnati Bengals' star receiverunderstands the deal he has made. By playing to the football media, byboasting, preening, celebrating, ripping, taunting and generally becoming thenoisiest wide receiver north of Terrell Owens, he knows he'll be recognized,beseeched and put upon wherever he goes. Still, even number 85--or Ocho Cinco,as he goes by when he's here in his hometown of Miami--has his limits.
"Who's got thekey?" he asks again. This is ridiculous. His Lamborghini is just sittingthere, yellow and sparkling and ready to whisk him away as yet another footballfan--this one in a number 85 Bengals jersey--approaches as if ready to take aknee and hold up a diamond ring.
Finally a valetappears. "The key?" Johnson says, making a turning-the-ignition gesturewith his right hand. "The key?"
The valet nods,flips through a stack of tickets, then shakes his head. "For what?"
"Forthis," Johnson says, pointing at the Lamborghini, "right here."
The valet nods andtrots off.
What might beconfusing the valet is that Johnson has four cars parked within a one-mileradius of this South Beach intersection. There is this Lamborghini, a classic1973 Chevrolet Caprice parked back on Euclid Ave., a black Dodge Charger downthe block and a Cadillac Escalade somewhere in the neighborhood. Johnson's crewrolled up to Wet Willie's in South Beach a few hours ago in Chad's variousrides and held court at a second-floor round table, his old neighborhoodbuddies Vest Jones and J.B. Blige and Chad's half brother, Sam Brown, orderingfrozen drinks with names like Call A Cab and Attitude Improvement, and platesof quesadillas and nachos, while Johnson nursed a bottle of water. (He doesn'tdrink alcohol.) The boys were talking about a high school football game thatnight--"What time is Miami Central playing? They good?"--when agorgeous sister in a tight white tank top and white jeans walked up andsqueezed Johnson from behind, slid her hands into one of his oversized pantspockets and said, "Where you been, Pocket Boy?"
"Oh,"Johnson said, smiling, "she been stalking me. What's up? Where youbeen?"
"Stalkingyou?" the woman responded. "You been stalking me."
Johnson laughedand rubbed his cheek against the woman's side. "O.K.," he said."Don't get mad."
"I can't staymad at you," she said, smiling.
Now here she isagain, out here on Ocean Drive, strolling over all bouncy and well-coiffed.Johnson slides over to her, around a sidewalk table where a family has beentrying to focus on its chicken wings, and gives her a reassuring hug. "I'llcall you later," he promises.
Where is that damnkey?
At 28, ChadJohnson is in the prime of a career that may be redefining what has become themost mediagenic position in professional sports--and its hottest in terms ofcontroversy. The genealogy of the blinged-out, outspoken, touchdown-celebratingwide receiver runs straight from Keyshawn Johnson through Randy Moss andTerrell Owens. Chad Johnson's predecessors were dominant athletes on the field,naturally gifted and defiantly assertive playmakers who could change a game, ora season, with one grab. They became exemplars of what is transcendent aboutmodern professional football (there may be nothing more beautiful in pro sportsthan a perfectly executed up route) and what is maddening about it (huge egoscan destroy a team's chemistry). Though compulsively watchable, those onceputative heirs to Jerry Rice appear destined to be ultimately disappointing, asthey lug their heavy baggage from team to team.
Johnson has takenthe florid displays of flanker ego even further, brashly predicting victories,√† la his idol Muhammad Ali, and once sending Pepto Bismol to an opposingsecondary before a game. He came to national attention in 2003, the first ofthree Pro Bowl seasons, when he began accruing NFL fines seemingly with everygame. He already had been fined twice for touchdown celebrations when, inDecember of that year, he scored in a 41--38 win over the 49ers, then reachedbehind a snowbank and pulled out a poster that read dear nfl, please don't fineme again!!!!! The league hit him up for $10,000. Since then he has transformedthe touchdown celebration into a kind of performance art. The greatest hitsinclude a stylized Irish dance after a touchdown against the Bears, bending toone knee and mock-proposing to a Bengals cheerleader, and, after catching atouchdown pass against the Jaguars last October, dropping down and performingCPR on the ball. "He's always running these ideas by me," says fellowBengals wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh. "Sometimes I veto them, but he doesn'tlisten to me." The NFL has done its part to curtail the most extremegestures, passing a rule before this season prohibiting the use of "foreignobjects" or the football itself in touchdown celebrations.
But Johnson hasmore than just touchdowns to celebrate. Since 2002 he has averaged 88 catchesand 1,307 receiving yards and has become, along with quarterback Carson Palmer,the public face of a resurgent Bengals team. Johnson's numbers are down a bitthis year (30 catches for 373 yards and only one TD), in part because coachMarvin Lewis is content to let him draw double teams that set up his playmakingpartner Houshmandzadeh. Not that Johnson can't deliver the big play--his diving32-yard catch on fourth-and-one in the fourth quarter on Sunday set up thewinning touchdown in Cincinnati's 17--14 victory over the Carolina Panthers."He has realized there is more to being a receiver than catching thefootball," says Lewis. "You have to do the blocking, you have to runafter the catch, and I think he's worked hard to improve and get better atthose things."
Still, Johnson hasmade his reputation with fans by catching big passes and publicly calling outopponents. He's already promised to "torch DeAngelo Hall" when he facesthe flashy Atlanta Falcons cornerback on Sunday, and last year he institutedthe Checklist, a whiteboard he kept in his practice locker that listed thecornerbacks who faced him. After each game he'd check off whether or not theysucceeded in covering him. Only Cleveland cornerback Leigh Bodden rated apositive mark, after limiting Johnson to two catches for 22 yards.
"It's just mebeing me," says Johnson of his theatrics. "It just comes out.Spontaneous. But you know what? I have to do it. The whole team feeds on me.They know if 85 is up, then it's gonna be a good day."
He says he hasclosely studied three of the flamboyant speedsters (and famous trash talkers)who came before him--Moss and Owens and Deion Sanders--and while he professesto admire all three, he believes he can avoid the pitfalls and publicapprobation they encountered. "You can say the system turned against allthree," he says, "or you can ask, Did they do something wrong? They'reall good friends of mine, but I don't know. Like T.O.--I just don't handle mybusiness that way. I'm smart. I'm not stupid.
"Or Randymooning the crowd [after a touchdown in Green Bay two seasons ago]. I loved it.But you have to think of the kids, of who was watching. So I can't make thatkind of mistake. I have to have common sense."
Johnson has struckupon what may be the perfect formula. He walks, talks and acts like thedangerous, trash-talking wide receiver, yet unlike other members of the club hedoesn't speak critically about his teammates or call out his quarterback."He has an internal compass that will keep him from bashing his team,"says his former agent Jerome Stanley. "The difference between Owens, Mossand Chad is that Chad is so damn likable." Johnson is acutely aware thatfans, his teammates and corporate America will turn against him if he crossesthat line, threatening not just his status with the Bengals--in April hereceived a six-year, $35.5 million contract extension--but marketing deals withDegree antiperspirant, Reebok and Fathead, and several more in the works."I want to be the positive bad boy," he says. "If you can have allthat excitement and thrills without all the negative connotations--oh, man,it's gonna get ridiculous. How can you resist that?"
But run intoJohnson after a disappointing game, such as a recent 14--13 loss to Tampa Bay,during which he had six catches for 99 yards but no scores, and he comesdangerously close to burning up some of that good will, complaining about thegame plan, about not getting more balls thrown his way. When asked what waswrong out there, he says, "You saw the game. How can I catch a ball that'sin the dirt?" But sensing that he is in dangerous territory, he quicklybackpedals. "The whole team lost. When things aren't going well, you haveto look at everyone. No way you can blame one person."
Palmeracknowledges Johnson's frustration and commends him for being patient when theoffense moves away from him. "I think he's understanding now that if hedoesn't have a big game, there are two other receivers who can have a biggame," says the quarterback.
"He likes tobe outspoken, to be out there a little bit," says Carolina Panthers widereceiver Steve Smith, Johnson's receiving partner at Santa Monica (Calif.)Community College. "He loves the game so much, and he shows it. But he'snot gonna go too far. Chad has been through too much to throw it allaway."
Rolling down OceanDrive in the convertible Lamborghini, Slick Rick blaring from 16 speakers,Johnson weaves in and out of traffic, flipping the steering-wheel-mountedgearshift as he accelerates and decelerates. Then he sees some daylight, blowspast a panel truck and takes the car up close to 100 mph and onto the MacArthurCauseway, over the blue blur of Biscayne Bay, the skyscrapers of downtown Miamifilling the windshield.
As he slows onapproaching his exit, a black SUV pulls up beside him. "What up?" agentleman with a shaved head shouts to Johnson. "I got some stuff at thestore for you. Come by."
Chad rolls downhis window and shouts, "I'll come by."
"Homeboy getsall kind of shoes and stuff for me," he explains to his passenger.
And then he's offthe highway and onto the narrow grid of Liberty City, heading to the cornerhouse where he grew up and where he still stays when he's in Miami: Momma'shouse. Bessie Flowers is Chad's maternal grandmother, but he calls her Momma.With Chad, that is a loaded word.
"Hey,Momma," he says after parking the Lamborghini in the carport. The house isa white single-story bungalow with a tiny circular red-tile driveway that loopsaround a dry, three-tiered white fountain flanked by stunted palm trees. Bessiesits on the front porch. "Why you need all those cars? He's always leavinghis cars here."
He is already pasther and into the living room, crowded with cabinets full of chinoiserie andlittle ceramic Louis Armstrong dolls. Flowers is particularly fond of kitschystatues of Chinese men and women in sweeping robes that she finds at fleamarkets. "I buy them in pairs," she says, then points to an empress ina pink robe. "Isn't she just beautiful? Isn't this one justmajestic?"
Flowers has Chad'salmond-shaped eyes and a bun of gray and black hair. She's a proud, prettywoman who seems as exasperated by Johnson today as she was when he was a10-year-old who'd just crashed her car into the front gate. (He'd told her hewas planning to get it washed.) Chad slips off his diamond watch and white gold305 MIAMI DADE COUNTY necklace and lays them on the octagonal coffee table.
"Where yougoing?" she asks.
"Take ashower," Johnson says. "Then I gotta go get some new shoes."
"Boy cannotsit still," Flowers says, smiling. "Has no attention span. Neverdid."
Chad's mother,Paula Johnson, left him with Flowers when he was five and took his youngerbrother, Chauncey, with her when she hopped a bus to California. Paula wouldlater tell Paul Daugherty, author of Chad: I Can't Be Stopped, "Two kidsout of wedlock. That's not me. I just couldn't get it together. I do regretleaving him. But I did the right thing."
Chad visited hismother in California several times and lived with her while he attended SantaMonica Community College. But he quickly angers when asked about her. "Idon't remember anything about that period, do you understand?" he says."Nothing." (SI was unable to reach Paula Johnson for this story; Chadhas had very little contact with his father, Sam Brown Sr.)
Charles Collins,the receivers coach at Santa Monica whom Johnson credits for his footballsuccess--"I owe it all to Coach C"--says Johnson is still struggling tobuild a relationship with his mother. "It's a bitter subject," saysCollins. "He still has that hurt."
"I stillmothered," Paula told Daugherty. "Even though I wasn't there, I wasinvolved in everything."
Chad now findshimself in the role of long-distance parent, albeit with considerably morefinancial means than Paula had. His four children--eight-year-old Jicyra,four-year-old Chad Jr., three-year-old Chadé, and Chaíel, nearly two--live withtheir mothers in Florida and California). "My job keeps me from being thereas much as I would like," he says. "But what I do right now is for themfor the future."
Flowers did mostof the in-person rearing of Chad, on a teacher's rather than a footballplayer's salary. His childhood bedroom is still festooned with faded miniaturepennants of every team in the NFL, old skateboards and youth-football trophies.He spent most of his free time, Flowers says, in the street, playing football,basketball or soccer. One afternoon he decided to teach himself to ride a bikewith no training wheels and no adult help. Her husband, James Flowers, lookedout the window and then shouted at him to stop, that he was going to injurehimself. But Chad climbed on, pedaled a few feet and then crashed down onto thepavement. He picked up the bike, climbed back on and fell again. "Thatboy's weird," Bessie said.
A few minuteslater Chad rode past the window, pedaling smoothly, scrapes and bruises downboth legs.
"He will neveradmit he's hurt," says Bessie today. "He will be bleeding to death, andhe will say, 'No, I'm O.K.'"
Bessie, who was ateacher in South Florida for 38 years, drove Chad to North Miami BeachElementary, Coral Gables High and then Miami Beach High, outside Liberty City,in search of a better education for her grandson. "He could not stay inclass," she says. "I was always fussin' at him, tellin' him he's notdoing it the right way. And he would say the teachers didn't like him. But Inever met a teacher that didn't like him. The school would call me and say,'Where's Chad?' I'd have to get in the car and drive over there and find himmyself." Chad would often cut classes in order to join other students' P.E.classes; on one occasion Flowers found him helping painters who were touchingup the front of the school.
"Hey,"Johnson says with a laugh, "if you're good at football, you don't have togo to class. I have to admit, though: Even if I wasn't good, I still wouldn'thave gone to class."
In fact, academicissues nearly cost Johnson his career. He graduated from Miami Beach High onlyafter attending night summer school classes; and at Langston University, anNAIA school in Oklahoma, he lost a year of eligibility when he was thrown offthe team for fighting. After transferring to Santa Monica and playing in 1997,he lost another year to academic ineligibility in 1998. "The question was,Would he ever play?" says Collins. He had wasted two years already. He wasbarely getting the grades to stay in school. But when it came to football hewas a sponge."
At SMCC, Johnsonwas part of arguably the best community college receiving corps in history,with Steve Smith and future Arena footballer Eugene Sykes. "There wassomething about him," Collins says. "You could see that he waspassionate about football. He was sloppy, wild--but he could run."
Collins, who hadworked with such NFL stars as Isaac Bruce and Keyshawn Johnson, is a specialistat developing elite wide receivers. He taught Johnson route-running disciplineand how to read defenses. "He just soaked it up," says Collins."That year he was ineligible, we worked through all of it--on when thesafety sits heavy in his stance, when he's light in his stance, when he has aquick-jump type of stance, which shoulder to attack. We worked on how to get aDB turned if he has inside position. Chad was obsessed. He would think aboutthis stuff, watch football and call me at home--early morning, late night, allnight."
During that yearof ineligibility, Collins had Johnson work out with some college players he wastraining--future NFL defensive backs Charles Mincy and Ricky Manning and futureCFL defensive back Kelly Malveaux. "These were some of the best collegeguys in the country," says Collins. "He just began to eat them alive.His ability to get them turned, beat them out of the break, get leverage. Thoseguys were coming up to me afterward and saying, 'He's good, Coach.'"
Collins toldDennis Erickson, then the coach at Oregon State, about this young prospect.Erickson watched tape and immediately liked what he saw. "And if CharlieCollins says they can play, well, they can play," says Erickson.
Even with DivisionI schools expressing interest, Johnson finished the 1999 season at Santa Monica18 credits shy of qualifying academically for the NCAA. "I told him, Youmake these 18 credits and I'll get you a scholarship," says Collins.Johnson spent the summer of 2000 shuttling between three Los Angeles summerprograms to make up the six classes he needed. "My window was closing,"says Johnson, "but when I set my mind to it, I can do theschoolwork."
Four days beforethe start of Oregon State's football practice, Chad was declared eligible. Hewould spend four months in Corvallis, playing with future Bengals running mateHoushmandzadeh, but that would coincide with the best Beavers season in ageneration. Oregon State went 11--1, earned a share of the Pac-10 championshipand beat Notre Dame 41--9 in the Fiesta Bowl. Johnson had 37 catches for 806yards and eight touchdowns that season. "T.J. did everything for me,"Johnson says. "We would be in the huddle, I wouldn't know the plays, and hewould signal me what to do. Without him I wouldn't have made it."
Since beingdrafted by Cincinnati in 2001--Johnson with the 36th pick and Houshmandzadehwith the 204th--the two have remained locker room neighbors. "We're likefamily," says Houshmandzadeh. "I can say a lot of things to Chad thatother guys can't, both in football and other things."
Houshmandzadeh hasaccepted Johnson's antics as a motivational tool. "Everybody has fear offailure," Houshmandzadeh says. "Chad just goes about it in differentways. If you make it this far, with the odds against guys like us, you are soafraid to fail. So Chad puts it out there, and then he has no choice but topush himself."
But Johnson,Houshmandzadeh says, stops short of putting himself before the team. "If hedoes stuff that we disagree with," says Houshmandzadeh, "we're gonnatake it up with him ourselves, or Coach will. We keep it on the team. Chadloves football too much to let anything get in the way."
On a recentTuesday afternoon at his three-story town house near Cincinnati's Eden Park,Johnson sits on a red suede sofa and rolls through a morning's worth ofinterviews--local radio stations, ESPN radio, NFL radio. Every host asksJohnson if something's wrong with Palmer, hoping, Johnson says, to bait himinto a slap at his quarterback. "You know what would happen if I showfrustration?" says Johnson. "Man, the media, everybody will kill me. Iwould be like fresh meat. T.O. all over again. They really want to see me andCarson go at it. I can't feed into that."
His friend SteveSmith has also been calling in advance of the upcoming Panthers game, tellingChad he has "personally blessed" the Panthers cornerbacks. "You'renot gonna see single coverage," Smith tells him. "It's gonna be Cover 2all day."
There has alsobeen the regular trash-talk call with Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall, a callthat always starts out with Johnson asking, "You get out healthy onSunday?" and Hall responding, "Yeah, you?" Then they go at it,boasting about how they are going to humiliate each other this Sunday. "Youcan't cover me," Johnson repeats. "It's ridiculous."
SurroundingJohnson in his living room are huge acrylic paintings--heroically scaled imagesof number 85 in various gridiron-combat poses. Atop the TV and tucked into thecorners of framed photos of Johnson are two-inch-by-two-inch school pictures ofhis children. Johnson's greatest regret, he acknowledges, is that he is not asgood a parent as he would like to be. "I don't think I'm the father I needto be right now," he said a few days earlier. "It doesn't really botherme that much because once I'm done, I'll have all the time in the world withthem. I've lost a little time. I know I'm missing something valuable--valuablemoments in their life."
Johnson points outthat this is a common dilemma for NFL players who spend so much time away fromtheir families. "But we never talk about that," Johnson says."That's more like what women would talk about.
"My kids comeup for certain games, before it becomes too cold," he says. "Not thatoften. I get a weekend here with them, a weekend there. Not that much. I knowI'm missing something. But we'll all be fine."
Another call comesin. This time it's Jim Rome phoning from his radio show. He also asks if Palmeris still hesitant because of the injuries. "Chad," he says at onepoint, "you can't be happy with your role in the offense."
Johnson does nottake the bait. He knows better.
How high will Chad Johnson and the Bengals climb? ReadDr. Z's rankings every Wednesday at SI.com/nfl.
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