Posted: 3 p.m.
"All-everything wide receiver in high school, 6-3, 210 with wheels," is the way T.J. Houshmandzadeh remembers him.
Pope, "Kushy" to his friends, is the guy that Cerritos College wanted, so he asked them if he could bring along his main man to junior college from Barstow hard on the outskirts of Los Angeles where Kushy was known for catching balls and Houshmandzadeh was known for cocking dice.
"Then during practice before the first game I was just running an air route and the side of my foot cracked," is how Pope remembers. "They were going to get rid of him, but after that T.J. was in there and it's been the same thing since."
Houshmandzadeh is long done rolling the dice as one of the NFL's surest bets at wide receiver and he heads into Sunday's 2006 regular-season finale at the top of his chippy, angry street game.
In this year of the underachieving, inconsistent Bengals, Houshmandzadeh turned out to be the overachieving rock. He's been big in the wins (100-yard days against Oakland and Baltimore), solid in the losses (102 yards in Tampa Bay and 94 and a should-have-been-game-tying touchdown in Denver), and always tall against Sunday foe Pittsburgh. In the last three games against the Steelers he's got five touchdowns in the biggest of the big games.
Johnson may or may not have been joking a few weeks ago when he said Houshmandzadeh is the better receiver. But with three more catches and two more touchdowns than his more celebrated teammate this season, there are those who believe Houshmandzadeh is the Bengals' most consistent receiver and best big-game player even if he's not joining Johnson in the Pro Bowl as a third alternate.
Johnson's numbers and talent are beyond discussion. A Hall of Fame selection beckons with anything close the next few years.
"He doesn't believe it," Houshmandzadeh had said, sitting next to Johnson at their adjoining lockers when he uttered the words.
But Houshmandzadeh does. And has ever since he caught the fire for football in the wake of Kushy Pope's broken foot.
"When he first came (into the NFL) and was doing well, it was hard for me to deal with it. I was mad. That was supposed to be me," says Pope, now a warehouse manager in L.A. "But I had lost the motivation. T.J. had the heart and still has the heart. Even when we play pickup basketball, or dominoes, he gets mad if he's losing."
Pope came back from his broken foot to team up with Houshmandzadeh the next season in a three-receiver set, but it just didn't pan out for him. While Houshmandzadeh got the call at Oregon State, Pope hooked on with a high-flying offense at West Texas A&M. Problem is, they went through about two or three quarterbacks and before he knew it, he was done.
"I came back and worked out with Chad and T.J. before they got drafted," Pope says, "and I just didn't have the motivation. Something happened to me at West Texas and I just lost it. But those guys had it all the way."
Houshmandzadeh smiles, fresh off a day-long taunting session with Broncos linebacker Ian Gold last Sunday. As usual, Houshmandzadeh got after it hard blocking Gold and after he gave him a shot, Gold jawed back and that's why quarterback Carson Palmer got mad at him and told him to shut up and get back in the huddle.
Houshmandzadeh jawed back, "Carson, leave me alone," and the emotion of the moment has since been forgotten.
"I tried to block Bart Scott full-throttle," says Houshmandzadeh of the Ravens' monstrous backer. "He hit me smooth on my (butt). He rolled smooth over me. I can't win all of them. He said, 'You won't do that again T.J.,' and I said, 'Come on.' I win some, I lose some. The better I play, they know who I am so when I play like that they respect me. They understand that, where if I was a nobody they would really try to screw me up."
The thing is, Houshmandzadeh keeps playing like nobody trying to be a somebody instead of like the 15th most prolific receiver in the NFL with 1,037 yards ripping away from first-day drafted defensive backs and the most third-down passes in the AFC.
"He has something to prove all the time. He wants to compete and win be better than everyone else," says Bengals wide receivers coach Hue Jackson. "And he's on a mission to prove it."
A mission not so impossible now, although Jackson is always after him to channel the emotion.
"But that's who he is," says Jackson, still wincing over the helmet toss in Baltimore. "There are things we as a staff don't like that he does. The emotion can't hurt the team and we've talked about that. But it's also who he is and I want him to keep that edge."
This Sunday, when that somebody makes his first catch, he'll be just the eighth Bengal to have 300 career catches at age 29.
TOP 10 ALL-TIME BENGALS RECEIVERS:
530 - Carl Pickens, 1992-99
462 - Chad Johnson, 2001-2006
417 - Cris Collinsworth, 1981-88
416 - Isaac Curtis, 1973-84
386 - Darnay Scott, 1994-01
363 - Eddie Brown, 1985-91
318 - Rodney Holman, 1982-92
299 - T.J. Houshmandzadeh, 2001-2006
299 - Tony McGee, 1993-01
298 - Bob Trumpy, 1968-77
"I'm just playing hard because I'm being me," Houshmandzadeh says. "I'm not supposed to be here. But I'm good enough. The only reason I went to juco is because my homeboy was going and I didn't want to be at home doing the same old crap."
That would be back in the projects. Rolling dice. Cutting grass. Working the register at a liquor store. He kept coming in to buy Jolly Ranchers and finally the owner gave him a job catching shoplifters before working his way up the register.
"Hustling," Houshmandzadeh says. "When I was 14, people were relying on me. There was my mother, my older sister, my two younger brothers, but I always had the money. I always had $1,500 and that was a lot of money back then for a kid my age."
Pope, who lived with his parents on the other side of Barstow, remembers one dice game where two older guys kept winning and the grousing got louder and louder. But Houshmandzadeh just kept watching them.
"Then we went home and practiced," Pope says. "He watched how they cocked the dice, how they got the feel of the numbers, and then we went back and he won a lot of money."
Now instead of hustling cash, it's catches and yards as one of the NFL's leading route runners. Instead of the corner store, it's faking the corner in the end zone.
"Who's Your Momma?"
That's what the commercial calls him and the answer is his mother was single and worked hard to raise him but he didn't exactly buy in.
"I can't say I didn't have guidance, but I did what I wanted to do," Houshmandzadeh says. "That's the way I play. That's why I didn't play a lot of sports coming up. They always try to tell you what to do. I wasn't big on anybody telling me what to do. I'm not saying I didn't listen to my mother, but I did what I wanted to do. If you did wrong, you stayed out of trouble. Lucky. I can't say smart. Lucky more than anything."
Houshmandzadeh smiles again and agrees. He's still hustling. His first paycheck, he says, is the first one he got from the Bengals after they made him the 204th pick in the seventh round of the 2001 draft.
"We didn't do anything bad; we just hung out," Pope says. "They liked us because the girls liked us and wanted to hang out with us. They only time we really had trouble was over a girl or helping one of our friends."
Friends? Houshmandzadeh likes to say that no one gave him anything. From Barstow High School, where he turns down invites to speak for that very reason, to the pros. He's convinced that if Jackson didn't come along as the receivers coach in 2004, there wouldn't have been three seasons of 237 catches and 2,971 yards after the first three seasons of 62 catches and 720 yards.
"It's funny how they categorize me now," Houshmandzadeh says. "It's my toughness, but before I had a bad attitude. But when you're playing well, you're tough. I've been playing like this forever.
"If Hue had never come here, I would never be where I'm at. Nobody thought I could play. If they did, I would have played sooner. Why did they draft Kelley Washington and automatically put him in front of me? (Peter Warrick) was hurt, but even though I felt I was better than him I knew I wouldn't get a chance because he was the fourth pick in the draft. Hue gave everyone a fair shot outside of Chad."
He never thought he got that fair shot in high school, either. He didn't go to school much and when he did he got into fights. He was expelled from Barstow High his senior year.
"They kicked me out of school and now they want me to go back and talk to the kids," Houshmandzadeh says. "But the faculty didn't like me. There were so few that were cool that I remember them. The assistant principal. My math teacher. My history teacher. But that was about it. My friends tell me they want me to come back and talk to the kids, and I'm thinking about going back there this offseason and talking to some kids, but not because the school asked me."
If Chad Johnson has the "I Am Who I Am" life-sized billboard, then Houshmandzadeh lives his life with an "I'm-just-being-me" bluntness, and you better take cover.
"When Chad plays, he'll shake your hand before and after a game," Houshmandzadeh says. "I don't care. I don't care if you say anything to me, or what. I'm playing and that's it."
Pope now works for "Options for Youth," a company that helps struggling children who have dropped out of high school to get back into school. It's funny, but he may have less anger than the guy that replaced him.
Pope sounds content. The job is good, he's raising a baby, and he thoroughly enjoyed his visit with the Houshmandzadehs when he came out for the Oakland game three weeks ago.
"T.J. is the same," Pope says. "He still makes sure he's got his money. He's not selfish with it. But he just kind of likes to look in the bank and say, 'Look how much money I've got.' "
But not enough for a guy still hustling.