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Out of Cincy, into Africa

Posted: 10:50 p.m.



Chad Johnson's voice is known for its high-pitched, fun-loving boasting cackle that fits so nicely into postgame sound bites.

But soon his more somber tones will be the soundtrack of a film documenting crushing African poverty for which he's the narrator.

Johnson, who can still smell the stench of the Nairobi slums, spent 10 days in Kenya stunned as he recorded shoeless children drinking water out of puddles one minute and running around and laughing and kicking a soccer ball the next.

Now that he's back in the States, he's vowing to help clothe many of the children squeezed hopelessly among a million people churning for life along 300 acres.

"I can't even begin to explain it," he says, still amazed. "We don't know how lucky we are."

Johnson has spent his offseason vacation where everyone and no one knows his name. After traveling to London to watch soccer's Chad, Thierry Henry, play two games for Arsenal, he flew nine more hours to Kenya at the invite of Feed The Children and ended up playing soccer in the mud with barefoot kids.

They know the Riverdance in London. In Nairobi, they only know him as the guy who brought a bunch of soccer balls.

And Billboard Chad and NFL Network Chad and Pro Bowl Chad could care less. The most recognizable Bengal was only worried about the lions when he ventured out of the city slums into a village in the bush.

"I look to my right and there's got to be hundreds of zebras and gazelles and you know the lions have to be right there somewhere," Johnson said. "And I look to my left and, man, there's a dude about 50, 60 yards away from all those animals not even looking and just starting a fire with a stick to cook something.

"I mean, it's just amazing. I told the chief of the village I want to come back and live like them for a week. They need to know a month in advance and they'll build my hut."

Back in the slums, it wasn't only the mud. It was feces and urine and anything else that flowed through the streets of a neighborhood with no plumbing.

"That's all they know. You should have seen how happy they were when I dropped off all those soccer balls," Johnson said. "They were running so fast and I was getting stuck in the mud and I was wearing shoes.

"There's no bathrooms. There's no food. There's no deodorant. There's no water. Nobody can take a shower. There's nothing. It's sad. It's like a (disaster). It's horrible. If there was anything like that here the government would do something about it in a week."

There was the smell and the mud, but it was mostly the kids. The kids that had no idea who he was. The kids in a school of about 380 he hopes to help by hooking up with Reebok and sending them shoes, shirts, shorts, socks.

"They've got clothes but they're two or three years old and they wear it every day. None of it fits. The shirts are too big," he said. "And if they do have shoes, they're not the right size. They have to cut out the toes."

Johnson filmed it all and he says he's got a stack of tapes. Robert Bailey, one of his representatives, plans to get them edited and turned into a film. He may have a sequel sooner than later after talking to the village chief. Johnson was taken with the bush when an 18-year-old man greeted him wearing a lion's mane on his head.

"I asked him how he got it and, hey, he had to kill a lion," Johnson says. "I'm telling you, after we're done working out (in the spring), I'm going back there to live like them. It's amazing what they can do with nothing."

There are 44 huts in the village made out of mud and cow dung and they are veritable cottages at 13 by 13 big compared to the 8 by 8 sardine cans in the city.

"They live with the animals," he said. "They drink cow milk, they drink blood. The chief's son speaks English and I told them when I came back there would be media that wanted to see that. They didn't mind. They said to let them know a month before I come back."

While Johnson's interest in Africa is humanitarian, his interest in British soccer borders on obsession. He traveled to watch his favorite player, Henry, a speedy Frenchman who likes to score.

Sound familiar?

Johnson laughed. He said he could still jump leagues and join Henry in London with the Arsenal.

"They said as long as I can run like I do, they'd have a place for me on the soccer field," Johnson said. "They love their soccer over there. There's more coverage, more interest there than what we get if you can believe it. The fans really get into it. They stand and cheer the whole game."

Johnson says he saw Buckingham Palace, but he didn't go in. For him the royalty is Henry and his teammates and that's with whom he hung while over the pond.

"They knew me. They like what I do on the field. Everyone over there loved the Riverdance," he said of the Irish jig.

But he saved his best camera work and heart for Kenya, and hopes to show some pictures of the trip when he gets back to Cincinnati in a few days for the start of workouts.

"I tell you," he said. "I think it would be hard to complain about anything again."

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