Here is the latest installment of the Bengals.com diary as we ride on Chad Ochocinco's Soldiers for Giving bus tour from Cincinnati to Miami. We're getting off in Atlanta Friday night, so buckle up.*
Welcome to the ChadRide less than a half hour outside of Atlanta and not everyone is a Jets fan or is from New York.
One look at Erica Barkley, a strip of her brown hair still streaked with orange from her attendance at the Wild Card game, and you see some homegrown influence on The Tour.
While The Ocho sleeps, the front of the bus is watching the movie "The Gamer." The last stop before getting on the interstate was a Wal-Mart, where he bought whatever DVDs anybody wanted in order to fill the individual TVs above every bunk. The tour is sponsored by McDonald's with The Ocho's heavy-hitters of Motorola and Degree also helping out, but it is Ochocinco providing the surprises.
Barkley, wrapped in her coat as well as a McDonald's Snuggie, lounged luxuriously on the coach in the back of the bus as she satisfied her Jack Bauer fix with last year's episodes of 24.
"Like I'm home," she is saying, but if it was truly like home it probably wouldn't be nearly as relaxing because she would be at one of her three children's many extracurricular activities.
"I like the idea of helping disadvantaged kids. And, let's face it, it's a mini-vacation," she says when asked why she tried to win a ChadRide.
It was a natural for Barkley, a lifelong Bengals fan, to sign up for The Ocho's Fan Page on Facebook. Her father grew up in the Cincinnati section of Evanston on the first generation of Bengals and he passed the passion on to his daughter born as Paul Brown passed the reins to Tiger Johnson.
They went to as many games as they could together this year, including the Wild Card game, showing up in time to tailgate in their twin motorcycles.
So Barkley is used to traveling in style, but she is dreading a bit Friday's trip to the Scottish Rite Children's Hospital. Even though it is the reason she tried to win the trip.
"It's tough to see what these children really have to go through," she says.
Barkley, who lives in Colerain Township, knows. She sees it every day. She owns two state-funded daycare centers in low-income areas at the Fay Apartments and in nearby North Fairmont and she knows that the only reason some of the parents send their children to her is it will be their only hot meal of the day.
"I want to go to the baby ward," she says of Friday's visit. "I'm always helping out in the baby room. I can't stand to hear a baby cry. It always gets me out of my office."
It turns out she also has a way with words. She summed up Ochocinco's effort this weekend pretty well.
She bought him a cigar case engraved with "A life well lived. A heart well loved." She also got him a sterling silver flash drive/keychain embossed with his name.
"Just to say thank you," she says. "The story of his life. 'A life well lived.' He's reached his dreams. 'A heart well loved.' He makes such a connection with his fans."
Driver Steve Huddleston has us somewhere in Tennessee as The Tour relaxes with Madden, iPods, and some zzzs. Lisa Gilley, the middle school special needs assistant from suburban Dayton who has two jealous sons ages 17 and 13, just got a text from her nephew saying he saw her picture on The Ocho's twitter.
There is WiFi on the bus and enough 110-volt outlets to power a small college, so Collette Parris, a corporate attorney from Brooklyn, N.Y., is in touch with her office.
She ended up here because she is one of the five men and five women randomly chosen who went to the Ocho's web site and bought a T-shirt that says "Chad Ochocinco's Soldiers for Giving."
That's where it all starts for Parris.
"I'm interested in giving back," she says. "Our firm does a lot of pro bono work and people who are committed to service are people I like to surround myself with. Chad is very genuine about it from what he Twitters and the things he does."
Parris, a diehard Giants and Jets fan even when they play each other, got into Twitter and Facebook a few months ago to network as well as reunite with people from the past.
"One of the guys in our office knew I liked the NFL and suggested I follow Chad on Twitter," she says. "I guess that's right. When you think of Twitter and the NFL, the one person you do think of is Chad."
The Tour literally got a taste of service on its first stop Thursday morning, a foray into downtown Cincinnati's Freestore Foodbank. The Ocho and nine of the winners (the last one plans to meet them in Atlanta) help provide hundreds of hot after-school lunches for disadvantaged children by assisting the kitchen workers who are part of the Freestore's 10-week cooking tutorial called "Cincinnati Cooks."
The idea is to educate unemployed and underemployed members of the community while providing food for the hungry. It's the kind of idea that resonates easily with one of the Ocho's riders, John Ross. Ross, co-owner of the restaurant "The Alibi" on Miami's swank South Beach, could be seen mixing up fruit salad and wiping his hands on an apron.
"I like Chad. He's around a lot in Miami and l like the idea of helping the community," Ross was saying. "We've got a small place. My business partner and I do everything. That's the way it is in this business. You have to be willing to do everything from being the dishwasher to being the chief cook."
Dennis Coskie, this chief cook and the program director, has no problems with neophytes barging into his kitchen. As long as it's the Ocho spreading the good word of his program just like he spread the dough to make chicken pot pie.
"We had jobs planned for them," says Coskie with a slight glint in his eye.
His program has planned the jobs of the students well enough that 75 percent of the graduates have a job in the food service industry 60 days after they complete the course.
This is the next-to-last day for Annissa Duskin, who is helping The Ocho cut the dough. She already has a job in a nursing home, but one of her last assignments is to make sure the man with nearly 700 career catches doesn't cut off a hand.
"I think this is going to make me more eligible, now that I know how to cook," The Ocho was saying of his marriage possibilities.
Meanwhile, Mark Williams, 39, of College Hill, is teaching Gilley how to slice and dice vegetables. Williams has been looking for a job for a year-and-a-half ever since he says he got laid off from a computer company. But the stint in the kitchen has him confident again.
"I like to cook. I like to make people smile," he says, not unlike The Ocho. "He's my cat. I follow him. It's good to see him."
As Gilley pulled a tray of meatballs out of the oven, she was thinking how easy and good it would be to bring her sons to the Freestore to volunteer.
Before that, one of the workers noticed her way with the veggies and said, "You've got good knife skills."
"Mark taught me," she told him.
Put it on Twitter.
As we're pulling out of the McDonald's in Crescent Springs, Ky., The Ocho is giving a tour of the bus to Cincinnati's Channel 12 and it sounds like an old Robin Leach clip from Lifestyles of The Rich and Famous.
"We've got a state-of-the-art shower; 2020 state of the art," he says. "We've got a microwave. Stainless steel. Twelve bunks. Twelve waterbeds. Each one has an individual TV. If you don't have one, we'll stop at Best Buy. In the back we've got a big TV and computer whizzes."
He was only kidding about the waterbeds, but that's all. A condo on wheels. The bus driver, Steve Huddleston, is based in Nashville, Tenn., and has been driving celebrities for 20 years.
"You have to have some records before I meet you," says Huddleston, who once drove Paul McCartney and recently ferried Black Eyed Peas.
Big time for The Ocho, the kid from the Hell's kitchen of Miami's Liberty City who half a lifetime ago was punching up orders as a 16-year-old at his neighborhood McDonald's.
Now he gets behind the counter with Ronald McDonald himself and the throng is pushing forward so he can take their order. One young mother with a toddler unexpectedly finds Grand Central Station in this I-275 way station but has enough presence of mind to command to the man with her, "Lift her up so she can see Ronald."
But most everyone is like Marty Dillin, of Florence, Ky. He's here to see The Ocho. Dillin's screen name is alrightguy85, so he's been following The Ocho a lot longer than Twitter has been around. But Twitter is the reason Dillin is here because Chad tweeted his destination about half-an-hour before he arrived.
Marty's order to The Ocho is what he usually gets. Two cheeseburgers. Ochocinco asks with surprise, "Is that all?" and so Marty gets a coke.
"Any time I've seen him out and I've gone up to him, he's been nice," Dillin says. "Did he get his two cheeseburgers?"
Oh yeah. And a lot more than that. After he rung up a few orders Ochocinco signed a few autographs and posed for a forest of flashing cellphones before he huddled over a tray with his winners.
"The register is a lot easier to work than it used to be," The Ocho says. "The keys are bigger and it's electronic. It's a computer.''
Literally, that is the wrap. The McDonald's people say goodbye to everyone on the bus by giving everyone the snuggie The Ocho once made famous in a Twitter pic. This one is red and emblazoned with the words, "New Mac Snack Wrap."
"I love it," says The Ocho as he puts it around his shoulder and swings around the aisle, the McDonald's kid coming full circle.
I spent the morning in the sprawling new kitchen of the Freestore Foodbank in downtown Cincinnati and Chad Ochocinco is wearing oven mitts instead of orange gloves and is yelling "85 IS HOT. RIGHT NOW. MEATBALLS ARE UP. COME AND GET' EM."
Ryan Casey can't believe it either. He's been New York all the way in his 23 years. Grew up on Long Island. Just graduated from Syracuse. He's breaking in on Wall Street. Get this. Lives and dies with the Jets.
Like I said, we can't believe it.
"I can't believe it," Casey says. "I'm talking football with Chad Johnson. I mean, Ochocinco."
Casey is taking a break from breading the chicken for chicken parmesan and dicing vegetables as he helps the kitchen's preparations to feed between 800-1,000 children a hot afterschool meal. It is the first leg of The Ocho's Soldiers for Giving bus tour and Casey is one of the 10 enlistees that were chosen off ChadOchocinco.com when he bought a Soldiers for Giving T-shirt.
"He was just telling me that Baltimore and Pitt and the Jets do the same thing," Casey says. "They beat up teams with their front four and confuse you with the blitz. I told him that Peyton Manning is great picking up the blitz and he said yeah, he doesn't know how he does it, but he seems to always pick it up no matter where it is coming from. But he says the Jets have a shot. That's good. He gave them a shot."
We're pulling out of the Freestore now and the big debate is if The Ocho has enough time to swing by Paul Brown Stadium to pick up his Xbox and still have time to get to the McDonalds in Crescent Springs, Ky., in time for the noon news. The Ocho is on tour and that must be big news.
It certainly is for McDonald's, which has finally discovered their best salesman plays wide receiver for the Bengals. He has become the spokesman for the chain's new Mac Snack Wrap, and he'll be pushing it in the Fan Zone at next week's Pro Bowl, as well as at some various stops on this junket.
"How many years I've been talking about eating McDonald's morning, noon, and night?" The Ocho asks as he greets Molly McKenna and Brittany Gorniewicz of the campaign. "As long as I've been here. Nine years. This is wonderful."
Casey is here because he follows The Ocho on Twitter. Lisa Gilley of Beavercreek, Ohio, who is a special needs assistant at Ferguson Middle School, is here because she saw the contest for the trip advertised on Facebook and got Thursday and Friday off from her principal. She's also a Bengals season-ticket holder and she was in the stands watching Casey's Jets beat the Bengals 12 days ago in the Wild Card game.
"To be honest, at first I was a big T.J. (Houshmandzadeh) fan. I still can't believe they let him go. I loved the way they were together," Gilley says. "But Chad is such a sweetie."
This is quite a roster. You've got Casey, Gilley and John Ross, a 27-year-old co-owner of a South Beach restaurant in Miami. There is also Erica Barkley of Cincinnati's Colerain Township who owns two daycare centers. And 25-year-old Ryan Hart, a recent University of Cincinnati graduate who got a call about a job interview when he went into the Bengals locker room to help the Ocho get the Xbox. He happened to be standing next to Carson Palmer's locker when he got the call. The bigger thrill?
"Don't make me choose," Hart says. "I guess since I graduated in June, I have to say the call."