12-6-02, 7:30 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Since that day in Indianapolis when he dropped the ball on fourth down in crunch time eight games ago, Chad Johnson has become the Bengals' big-play receiver of the future today and he dreams of the day he can set a goal for 2,000 yards in a season instead of 1,000 yards.
"The reason I didn't make (the catch) is being lazy in practice, not going hard all the time, taking plays off," said Johnson Thursday in a sit down with bengals.com on audio.
"After that, I really focused my energy on doing it the right way," Johnson said. "Going hard, running the route at the right distance. The little stuff means the difference."
Bessie Flowers, who raised her grandson from the day he was three days old in the tough part of Miami called Liberty City, has a sixth sense that he is becoming a bit more focused lately.
"He called me every day until this year," Ms. Flowers said. "Now he calls me once a week. He's busy this year. He'll tell me something like, 'Mummy, I have to go to a meeting.' I think he's shedding his skin."
But make no mistake. When Bessie Flowers read of her grandson's guarantee that the Bengals would win, she found herself doing what she did when Chad was 16 years old. When he missed class while he helped the painters outside paint the building, talking their ears off.
"I called him and told him, 'Chaddie, you've got to be quiet. You
can't say that. You have to think about the other team," Ms. Flowers recalled of last month's phone conversation.
"But that's Chad. He said, 'Mummy, I'm just trying to motivate my teammates.' And I said, 'Don't do it like that.' He thinks everybody likes him and he is a people person. I tell him, 'Not everybody is going to like you.'"
Everybody loves him now. The second-round pick from 2001 is on pace to become the Bengals' first 1,000 yard receiver of the century despite catching just 78 yards in the first four games. Criticized for being talented but unreliable, Johnson has started to focus and his grandmother recognizes the pattern.
"He didn't give me any trouble. Just the normal teenager things," Ms. Flowers said. "I did have trouble with him when he would goof off in school and I went and told the coach, 'When he goofs off, bench him.' And he said, 'Oh no, Ms. Flowers, I can't do that.' And I said, 'You most certainly can.'
"And I'd be at the game looking down from the stands and he'd be on the bench staring up at me, 'Why?'"
But she knew how to get him. He loved football too much, and he'd get his mind back in class.
Still, she would get the phone calls over at the middle school where she was a counselor. Chad, somehow, was late for class, and he would explain that he had to stop and talk to the principal, or he saw one of his teachers in the hall, or he was charming the girls, or. . .
"Talk? Oh my, how he could talk," Ms. Flowers said. "I told his teachers to put tape over his mouth if they had to. I told him, 'Chaddie, how do you think I feel about being a counselor at that school and they're calling me? Be quiet and don't do it. Concentrate on the school work."'
But there was always the energy. From the time he was eight years old, he was into sports. She signed him up for Pop Warner football when he was eight. Then he went to baseball. Then to track. She asked him, "When are you going to get your rest?" Some people ask that of him now because he takes virtually every snap in practice, running for the first team, second team, scout team, who ever is in a huddle.
"He always seems so busy. He doesn't call as much," Ms. Flowers said. "I guess that means he's growing up and that's what happens."
Bessie Flowers did a fine job raising someone about 45 years younger than herself ("I must have driven him to every field in the state of Florida,"), but it was time to move on after high school. He ended up near his mother in California at Santa Monica Junior College, and remains close to this day to Charles Collins, his offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach there. They speak several times a week and Johnson attends his camps in the offseason.
"I wore a lot of hats with Chad," Collins said. "I feel like I was the father figure for him. He liked sports, he never got to the point where he got into drugs. He never had a lot, but he's got a good spirit and he loves football. It's been a matter of becoming more responsible and being accountable for his actions."
There were rocky moments with Johnson. He had some off-field problems in California and Collins admits, "I didn't like him when I first met him. There was too much talk and he didn't back it up. I still don't like the gold tooth and the hip-hop clothes, because that's not really his personality. I've told him you're a professional and you are what you look like because that's how people see you. But he's got such a good spirit.
"His problem is that he's almost too accessible to people," Collins said. "He was a little bit naïve in that he was hanging around people who weren't good for him, but he didn't realize they could take him down with them."
Collins saw the spirit when he missed a season at Santa Monica because of academics. "He was so distraught, I decided to work with him in my spare time and out of 365 days that year, we worked every day except for about two weeks."
From the tape, Collins sees a player who is more attentive to detail and technique and is now getting the ball up field after he makes the catch. Despite the guarantee ("I've told him to be a silent assassin"), Collins sees a kid not talking as much before he thinks.
"He's become a more critical thinker," Collins said. "Every day, he's taking steps and becoming older."
He turns 25 next month and he understands the battle. He keeps saying, "I'm staying humble," and it's easy with Ms. Flowers down in Miami.
"He's always been respectful of his elders," she said. "And he's mannerly. It's always 'please,' and 'thank you.' I just want him to stop this guaranteeing business."
Now, he is into goals.
"A thousand yards is just average," Johnson said. "Are you putting up like 1,400, 1,500? Shooting for over 2,000. It might sound ridiculous. It's one of Terrell Owens' goals. If you can take yourself to that level with that type of expectation, that's when you know you're the man. With a couple of years of maturity under my belt, I would see setting the same type of goals."
For more of Johnson's interview,