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Interaction guaranteed

Posted: 9 p.m.



Robbie Lamar, who had his head shaved into a mohawk just for this camp, got the DeAngelo Hall treatment.

Instead of the 14-year-old-from-New-Richmond-bit.

"He said he was going to put me into the dirt," said Lamar, recalling what defensive back Chad Johnson told him before he went out for a pass.

Asked if Johnson obliged, Lamar allowed, "Almost."

Welcome to Johnson's youth camp, where all pretense is buried.

Where 80 of the 400 kids ages 7-16 go for free.

Where Marvin Lewis cackled after his Pro Bowl receiver ran away from a bevy of grade schoolers down the sideline, "That's the farthest you ever ran after the catch."

Where Johnson gave out shoes and gloves as well as challenges. Where he called out the kids and they called him out a day after Lewis did, too.

"How come you haven't won the Super Bowl?" a kid asked during a brief Q-and-A to start the day.

Johnson smiled and said to the coaches behind him, "What do you say to that?"

He actually answered it a few hours later during his talk before the Charge of the 400 bolted to a lunch of pizza and not, in an upset, McDonald's.

Johnson admitted the Bengals have to play better late in the season, but they would this year and get to the Super Bowl. Lewis, the special guest for the second straight day, approved.

"He realizes that," Lewis said. "He mentioned it up there. It's something we all have to do."

Lewis and Johnson together in public has to be Bengaldom's version of an appearance by the two surviving Beatles. After all these years. Autographs. Pictures. Handshakes. An occasional shriek.

(Sorry Chad. Lewis is McCartney.)

But Lewis looked more like a proud father Wednesday as he watched the proceedings unfold at Sycamore High School in Cincinnati's northern suburbs.

Johnson's words.

He introduced Lewis to the campers as "The man who has turned it around in Cincinnati and for me. A father figure."

For his part, Lewis shook his head, maybe remembering taking a tentative, uncertain Johnson to one of his first public appearances a few years ago for Special Olympics.



"Just tremendous. Greg Darbyshire runs a lot of these camps," said Lewis of the Cincinnati-based Pro Camps USA. "And I can assure you that no one participates more than Chad Johnson."

Indeed, Johnson is about to become the Cal Ripken Jr., of sports camps, participating in virtually every hour of the three-day event that ends Thursday.

One instant he's in a backpedal with one group. The next he's cutting in line of the group shadowing guys learning how to weave. Then he's playing cornerback for one of the seven-year-old teams, the Cowboys, in a robust seven-on-seven.

If he's not doing that, he's stepping out of a drill and taking the cell phone of Tina Mason. She brought her 14-year-old son an hour from Florence, Ky., to attend the camp. But she had on the line a world away—about midnight his time in Iraq—her husband, Chris Mason, a defense department employee and established member of Bengaldom.

"He called me and I just saw Chad over here and I ran over to him to see if he'd say something," Tina Mason said.

Chris Mason told him to have a good season and Johnson said, "Just come back in one piece, man," and then he dipped back into a backpedal.

When talking about that season, Lewis had said on Sunday, "Our best players have to play well at the end of the year. If you want to be looked upon as one of the great players in the National Football League, it's what you do to finish the season is what people remember you by. It's another lesson. You don't want to let history repeat itself."

That wasn't meant for just Johnson, but he has owned up to it this offseason in the wake of a tough final three games in which he dropped about five balls, had no touchdowns, and 122 yards receiving to end a season he had three games of more than 122.

Yet, the Lewis-Johnson relationship is all about pushing and prodding each other.

Johnson pushed with, "You have to find ways to get your best players open. You know the defense is going to take them away." Lewis prodded after viewing Johnson on the fade route tangle with an early grade-schooler that didn't reach Chad's ACL.

Of course it was purposefully underthrown, but Johnson was still looking for a flag.

"You all got to see the look that I get all the time when the ball doesn't come his way," said a laughing Lewis into the mike. "So this is Chad live here today."

They have thrived on each other this way for the past four seasons and this week is snapshot of why Johnson has become the most prolific NFL receiver over the past three seasons.

He can't get enough of the game or the push from Lewis to get even better. Whether it's asking the group what his number was at Oregon State to win "Shoes or gloves?" or advising campers to "attack the ball at its highest point" on the fade, football might as well be Gatorade to him.

(It was No. 80 and there were groans when the kid picked gloves.)

"Yeah, right. I'm a kid. I love it," Johnson said. "It's all I want to do."

"Do you live in an apartment?" a kid asked.

"No," he said. "At the stadium."

Not only that, a lot of these kids are his kind of kids.

Don Folden, who works 180 degrees away on the hard side of town at the Bush Recreation Center in Walnut Hills for the Cincinnati Recreation Commission, brought five of the 80 children who had the $169 camp fee picked up by sponsors such as i-wireless.

"An at-risk environment" is how Folden, a 30-year rec veteran, put it. "Chad is the guy I think represents what the NFL wants now in the young players. He was an inner city kid at one time. Now he's showing what it really means to be a role model. You can come from one environment and make it in another environment and be successful."

One of Folden's kids is 12 but looks 20 and is bigger than that. But he's never played a snap of football. He comes from a single parent home, a sibling is in a wheelchair, and his mother works.

Folden marveled at the green expanse rolling forever just off Interstate 71 with glittering facilities, a mere figment for city rec centers.

"Never, ever would he have the chance to participate in something like this," Folden said. "Never played. He's been too big. But you expose him to something like this, and you just hope it takes off."

Johnson's grandmother took him to these camps strewn all over Miami. Money wasn't an issue when Jimmy Johnson had a camp.

"That was 1987, 1989. It's not like it is now," said Johnson, who likes the idea that the kids most affected by the camp may be the ones that couldn't have gone on their own.

But you couldn't tell who came for free and who paid. It's like Lewis told the kids. Football is the one team game.

When Johnson stood in front of the camp banner to take his picture with every team, he always put his arm around the kids next to him. Free or paid. Black or white. Fat or thin.

Or just buffed.

He huddled with the last team, and then they all ripped their shirts off before the snap.

James Anthony, a city kid from Covington, Ky., hugged the neck of his new buddy from rustic Harrison, Ohio, Mason Bronner, to show how Johnson put his arm around him in the photo for a team of nine-year-olds.

But Bronner got in a high five.

"He told me, 'Peace,' " said Bronner, flashing the sign. "It was fun."

The last question for "Shoes or Gloves" was a long one.

It was basically, "Name the Bengal with the longest name," and everyone in camp had both arms raised.

When another kid who didn't come up to his left hip emerged, Johnson told him, "You're not getting a thing until you can spell it," and the kid might as well have been trying to outrun T.J. Houshmandzadeh. But he got the shoes anyway.

"If somebody could have spelled it," Johnson said, "that would have been great."

It was anyway.

"I like it. He's starting training camp a week early," said Lewis, still prodding. "He's getting all these reps."

On the camp flyer one of the lures is, "Interaction with Chad Johnson."

As the man himself once said, that's a guarantee.

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