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At home on the road

Posted: 10:05 a.m.



For the first time as a man Chad Johnson goes back to play football where he learned it as a kid and he's still trying to figure out how to be both and keep everyone happy in a season that has seared a hole through him.

The year he calls "very hurtful" mercifully ends in his backyard Sunday in Miami when the Bengals play the Dolphins. When he drops off the tickets at his boyhood home Saturday night where his grandmother negotiated him through the urban temptations of Liberty City, Bessie Flowers hopes he'll finally talk to her about it.

"He's different, sort of withdrawn," she says. "He doesn't seem happy and free. It's like somebody has put a foot on his neck. He can't smile. He can't grin. I know he'll be OK. I tell him I'm always here to talk to him and he says, 'Mommy, I'm fine. I'm happy.' But he's frustrated. It's like they've given up on him."

Johnson comes home as one of the most accomplished NFL wide receivers of his time. The Bengals all-time leader in catches and yards. Four consecutive AFC receiving titles. The defending NFL yards champion. Four straight Pro Bowls. An icon in football-mad Miami.

"I've got a stack of all these letters; and phone calls," Bessie Flowers says. "I don't know how they get my address or my number. Chad says they can get it off the computer. I have kids calling me up looking for tickets to the game. I say, 'Chad will try if he can.' ''

And he'll probably end up with more than 90 catches and around 1,400 yards this season.

But there is no Pro Bowl and no titles, and most importantly to him, he says, no playoffs. Only dropped touchdown catches, rumors of trades, and team strife. He's hurt. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said last month he thought Johnson was visibly affected by how the criticism affected those closest to him for the first time.

Whether he has ripped his team apart, matching his tattered soul, is subject to interpretation. Teammates from T.J. Houshmandzadeh to Justin Smith say the rumors are unfounded. "All that is National Enquirer stuff," Smith says. "Chad's a good teammate. He practices hard. He plays hard."

And Houshmandzadeh, his closest friend in the locker room, says, "What makes it so funny is that this is the best Chad has acted in years. He's been fine.

"I told him about the media a long time ago. Everything happens when things go badly."

Indeed, it's hard to argue some of Johnson's points. He's been demonized since his on-field brouhaha with quarterback Carson Palmer against the Patriots back on Oct. 1. Meanwhile, he says, the Chargers' Philip Rivers and LaDainian Tomlinson are hailed as gamers.

"Because we're losing," he told the Miami media this week.

Bengals president Mike Brown has already said that Johnson, signed through 2011, is staying put. And the Bengals have given him so much money in bonuses the past four years that a trade is virtually a salary cap fantasy.

But the rumors persist. Johnson, stung by the critics, doesn't help by being courteous yet silent to the local media and allowing the national pundits a field day through anonymous, lurking sources.

Even Johnson himself showed signs he wasn't happy very early in the season when he openly wondered why the coaches had spent the offseason criticizing and questioning him.

Back then, he shrugged. It hurt, he said, but it would make him better. Charles Collins, his junior college position coach, wished it had.

"I'm disappointed with the way he's responded in a tough season," Collins says. "He's abandoned the things that got him there. The discipline in the route-running. Trying to freelance more. The little things. I've counted him for 20 drops this year. Just flat out he got his hands on. That's just getting away from the things that have made him so successful.

"He's a great player. Tough, passionate. A great athlete. It just comes down to focus."

Collins and Johnson talk all the time. Collins, from out in California, spent the week telling him about the touchdown pass against Cleveland that was broken up at the last instant.

"If he just acts like a rebounder and shields the guy off and just falls on top of him, he catches it," says Collins, who also got on Johnson about the touchdown drop in San Francisco the week before. "That was just simply a case of lazy hands."

When the Miami media asked Johnson this week what he thought of a season in which he has just three 100-yard games and three games with touchdowns, Johnson talked about the double- and triple-coverages and the fact he can only do what he can do when the ball is thrown to him.

But Collins has been a lot tougher on him.

"All he has to do is look at T.J.," Collins says. "T.J. has never relied on natural talent. He's kept working at the little things. Last offseason, T.J. spent two-and-a-half months working with me. Chad spent two-and-a-half weeks."

But Collins agrees. No one has a bigger heart than Bessie Flowers' grandson. She has only seen him play once in the pros in person. In a Pro Bowl. And she can tell all the way down in Florida it's not one happy ESPN commercial.

"The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is pray for him and the last thing before I go to sleep at night is pray for him," she says. "I ask him why they don't throw him the ball and he says, 'Mommy, I'm double- and triple-teamed.' Oh well, I tell him to just bide his time. And he's not showing any signs of frustration."

"He's very happy for T.J." she says of the Bengals receiver going to the Pro Bowl. "He says, 'Mommy, he worked his way on to the team, and he earned everything. He deserves it.'''

Johnson has a new sparkling home in Miami's outer environs, but ...

"He tells me, 'Mommy, you don't know them but I have a couple of guys driving by to check up on you,' " Bessie Flowers says. "I think they check to see if my car is there and my door is shut and make sure I'm all right. I tell him, 'Well, thank you for letting me know.' "

She is justifiably proud of the little kid that is always in her living room. Bessie Flowers dressed him in his Sunday best for his first communion at St. Francis at about age 11 and the photo is still in her home and matches his ever-present image popping up on the nearby TV screen.

"He always seems to be on," she says. "He's either talking or playing."

But it's the picture that will be in her mind when she reluctantly goes to Sunday's game. She'll barely be able to watch. Johnson turns 30 in 10 days, but she still sees the picture.

"I don't like to go. I don't want to see him get hurt," she says. "I still see him as a baby. I don't know how the mothers do it. All the screaming and hitting. That's it. There's so much pressure. It makes me nervous. Mercy. Just as long as he doesn't get hurt."

Bessie Flowers spent Johnson's youth driving to football fields all over Miami. Anything to keep him occupied. On Sunday they are coming from all over Miami to watch him. The ticket count is 120.

"I don't think I know 120 people down there," says Bengals linebacker Rashad Jeanty, a Miamian himself.

"Cousins. Nephews. Nieces. Aunts. Uncles," Bessie Flowers says. "All these people have never seen him play. He's got these brothers he's adopted. All these people are going to be there. My pastor just asked me for four tickets. I told him, 'I'll get them if I can. Chad will do the best he can.'

"He'll give anything to anybody that asks. I say, 'Chad, you're going to give everything away.' And he just says, 'Mommy, it's all right.' "

No question.

That big heart that he wears on his sleeve.

"I like it when he does things," she says. "When he went to Africa with a group to help feed the children. When he gave a scoreboard to the league here in Liberty City. The kids that never get a break. That's nice."

At the end of a hard season, Sunday should at least be nice at home.

"I tell him, 'I'm always here to talk when ever you need to,' " Bessie Flowers says. "He knows where to find me."

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