Ochocinco and comrades share a laugh on the Tour bus.
The ChadRide rolls into Day 3 Saturday, but Friday is the last day of Bengals.com's journey with his group of 10 fans that are headed to Miami. From Atlanta's Scottish Rite Children's Hospital to the Atlanta Hawks, take a 12-hour ride with The Ocho and his cross section of NFL fandom in America today. Men and women, black and white, north and south, single, married, and single parents all socially connected.
Never covered Bill Clinton in the '90s or traveled with the Stones in any decade, but I've got to believe I'm getting a little taste of both on Chad Ochocinco's Soldiers For Giving bus tour.
Clinton was notoriously going off schedule because there was always someone else to talk to and while the head coach of this trip has executed her game plan astutely, K'ia Stone of Social Images, Inc., like Marvin Lewis, has to let Ocho be Ocho once in awhile.
And like Tom Green, one of the ChadRiders said this morning after sampling some of the Atlanta nightlife, Ocho style, "I felt like a rock star."
Lines dissolve. Velvet ropes are whisked away. Tables are cleared, doors are opened, kitchens serve an hour later, and no one ever sees a wallet.
"I guess it's his generosity that has surprised me more than anything," says John Ross, another Rider, as he mulls his hotel breakfast buffet.
The Ocho makes sure his fans are having a good time. But for him, as all of Bengaldom knows, he has nothing stronger than cranberry juice and Red Bull. But that won't stop him from leaning back every five minutes or so and exclaiming, "I'm still so drunk."
A stone cold sober Ocho plugs in his iPod at the front of the bus as it begins to roll to the hospital and he's singing to Alicia Keyes, bopping his head while he's Tweeting.
"BUT IT DOESN'T MEAN ANYTHING."
More rock star treatment. The Soldiers see cameras waiting outside the hospital.
"No sir," The Ocho fantasizes they'll say. "This time we want to interview you."
We have to walk up a hill to the entrance and he suggests, "Let's hold hands. Single file." A news reporter introduces herself saying she is also from Miami and names her high school.
"That was you? Remember me?" he asks. "I'm Ocho."
Sure, just playing. But they are quite serious about getting the Soldiers in to see the kids and they want to make sure forms are signed, protocol is followed and everyone is accounted for so they can visit The Zone, a special sports wing. But a new guy has surfaced out of nowhere in the lobby.
Mark Doll, who follows The Ocho on Twitter, greets him with, "Chad, can I go with you?" as the group sweeps past.
Doll is from Atlanta and has just dropped in, but Ochocinco never wants to alienate fans from anywhere. He turns to look at the hospital administrators way up ahead, then turns back to Doll to ask him his name, then turns back to look at the size of the group. Finally he turns back to Doll again, shrugs, and says, "Sure, Mark."
But he doesn't let him into his huddle before they head into "The Zone."
"C'mon, get in closer," he says. "On three, one, two, three, Leave Them With A Smile."
"The Zone" was donated by Troy Aikman and Garth Brooks, but The Ocho owns it today. One of the first patients he sees is Brett Parr, 13, because he's wearing an old school Chad Johnson No. 85 jersey topped off with an Atlanta Braves ballcap. Ochocinco wraps his arms around him with a hug worthy of a touchdown celebration.
He keeps going, but in his wake he's unknowingly leaving Brett in tears.
"He broke down," says Brett's dad, Tim Parr, who just happens to be from the Cincinnati suburb of Madeira and moved to Atlanta about 20 years ago. "The emotion just overcame him."
A year ago Brett was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, but this past week has been his most difficult siege with the disorder that attacks healthy cells with a flawed immune system.
"He's been depressed. He's hardly got out of bed the last couple of days," Tim Parr says. "But when he heard Chad was coming, he walked beyond the end of the hall to come down here. It's the first time I've seen him smile in a long time."
Tim Parr has come prepared. He brings the Halloween *Sports Illustrated *cover of a few years ago. He brings ticket stubs of the Bengals 19-14 win over Cleveland two years ago. The Ocho signs them both.
"I brought my brother to that game for his 50th birthday; it was 17 degrees," Tim Parr says. "My son likes sports. Like his father. He likes the Reds and the Braves, and we always watch the Bengals when we can."
He is now watching Brett sit rather wide-eyed near The Ocho as he plays Madden with 14-year-old Dre Kent, 14, whose sister is in the hospital. By the way, Kent can talk trash as well as T.J. Houshmandzadeh in his prime even though it is 7-7 in a game they are both using the Bengals.
"Yeah, but watch," the kid says, "I'm about to whip him right now."
Tim Parr takes it all in and he is asked about the legion of Ocho bashers out there. He's too selfish. He's too Hollywood. He's too this. He's too that.
"My son is shy. He doesn't say much," Tim Parr says. "But look at him. Just to be around him like that means so much to him. He's going to remember this day for a long time. I'm going to remember this day for a long time.
"Nobody is ever going to rip (Ochocinco) in front of me. I guarantee you that."
A fan has arrived while he's playing Madden with 13-year-old Matt Reid, whose baby brother is in the hospital, and gives him a sombrero, much like the one that got Ochocinco fined $30,000 for wearing it on the sidelines. He puts it on and one of the hospital volunteers talks about the guy who has taken over the remote.
"We have a lot of athletes come through and they're great," she says. "The University of Tennessee football team was just here. But the kids really seem to like (The Ocho). I think that's because he's like a big kid."
Ah, the essence of The Ocho. It does not surprise Nancy Pessler, the 10th fan that missed Thursday's first leg from Cincinnati because she had to go to her job at Convergys. Pessler also moonlights in marketing and is on the Cincinnati promotional scene working among the sports teams and their athletes as well as with political candidates.
"It's a unique idea," says Pessler, who has been an avid Chad follower since the advent of the Ochocinco News Network. "It's a great tie-in to fans and a way of taking advantage of social media. You not only can get involved with people in your community, but across the country and also give attention issues and charities that need more exposure."
The haters will say what they will, but the fact is The Ocho is getting attention for the kids. They and their parents are sitting in a cluster of chairs listening to him introduce the Soldiers and give some background on The Tour.
Here's a new one.
"What was your name before Ochocinco?" someone asks.
There are more portable IV units attached to the patients than questions because they roll right up there to get his autograph. The Soldiers are helping out in arts and crafts and one girl about seven drew Ochocinco a picture of him in his No. 85 that looked like a stained glass window.
A little girl about two, who had been involved in a serious enough accident to render her unable to walk and have little motion in her arms, stares up at Ochocinco with wondering eyes. He bends down, talks to her, asks her how she's doing ... What more can done?
"There's been a buzz around my floor all morning," says her registered nurse, Lisa Robertson, who works in rehab. "It does make a difference. Not only for the patients, but for the people in the hospital."
Lisa Gilley would like to think so. Gilley, the middle school special needs aide, is among the soldiers helping the kids do arts and crafts.
This is tough duty. You are told not to ask them about their illness or how long they've been in the hospital. She's helping a girl about seven years old named Lilly who appears to be battling cancer with a scarf covering her head. Her serious blue eyes say her hair is blonde. Together they made a stained glass window out of paper that featured The Ocho's No. 85 and his helmet.
"I always think my son is going to marry a Lilly so we'd have a Lilly Gilly," she says with a sad laugh. "One of my friends told me I didn't have many Facebook updates today. I told her it's not that kind of a day. It's a sad day."
Back at the hotel, the mood is slowly lightening up. The Ocho takes the Soldiers shopping at the Lenox Mall and buys them Kobe Bryant shoes for Saturday's visit to Disney World. He gets tickets to Friday night's Hawks game. The ChadRide is in full gear.
"Shopping was pretty fun," Erica Barkley says. "He was stopping women saying, 'I'm not good at this dating thing. Can I get a number?' He got a few. One girl asked him who he was and he said, 'Dave Chappelle.' I don't think she believed him."
The People's Choice hits the airwaves on Atlanta's V-103, The People's Station.
The group flanks The Ocho in the studio as interviewer Greg Street lets The Ocho go through the obligatory Ochoness.
He praises the snapper at The Straits, the restaurant that kept its kitchen open past closing time Thursday to accommodate the Soldiers ("I kept the head. It's smelling up the bus," Ochocinco says) and he says next week's Pro Bowl isn't ready for him and he plugs his Super Bowl party he's hosting with Terrell Owens and rapper Ludacris Feb. 3 at Miami's Fountainebleau Hotel.
After Street makes sure he covers the nuts and bolts of The Giving Back Tour, the interview gets a little racy as they discuss Tiger Woods in the context of The Ocho's line of condoms he frequently jokes about, and Street is pushing it for Woods' next endorsement opportunity.
The only Soldier who gets a word in edgewise is Natalie Mahon, a grad student at Atlanta's Mercer University getting her Master's in education. The savvy Street, one of the anchors of the Urban Contemporary radio power that is ranked only behind New York's 107, asks how many of The Ocho's platoon is from Atlanta.
Mahon, 34, who has been researching her class work on her laptop during the trip, is the only one. But that doesn't let her evade Street's sharp wit. When he asks her where she works, she says she pushes paper for the government and when he pushes her for more she says, "It's secretive."
"I didn't know the Feds are on Twitter," he says.
Actually, she works in the social security office four days a week, but the trip is made possible because she only has class Monday and Tuesday. She intersperses her research on the bus by listening to the Atlanta sports talk show "The 2 Live Stews." She admits it: She's a football fanatic.
"That's how I ended up here," she says. "I follow the Falcons, but really, anybody."
That's been the answer so far with this sampling of 10 in this generation's fan base. If you follow the NFL anywhere, you follow The Ocho.
"I guess I'm surprised at just how genuine he is about reaching out to his fans," Mahon says. "He's really interested in making sure we're having a good time."
But while she enjoys seeing a star so real ("He was trying to explain the movie I rented ("Watchman"). I wasn't really getting the concept," she says), she also says the best part of the trip is meeting the other fans and getting to know such a diverse group. It is not only men and women, but black and white, north and south, single, married, and single parents.
Mahon's hotel roommate, Gilley, is probably the oldest. Somewhere in her 40s. Recent college grad Ryan Casey is the youngest. Collette Parris is a 30ish African-American Brooklyn corporate attorney who was on a conference call Friday during the down time. Tom Green is a late 20s white Cincinnati subcontractor who works primarily during the spring and summer on roofs and buildings.
"Everyone is so cool and so nice," she says. "We've really connected."
This is why Street loves getting The Ocho on his show and makes sure he records the promo: "This is Chad Ochocinco. Greg Street. 6 p.m. Child please."
"He's a great guy. He has a lot of character. He likes to have a lot of fun, but he's serious about his business. Serious about football. Serious about training. I think he's a great role model for young boys who want to get into sports," Street says. "Child please."
Street, who will say the word and get them into a club later in the night, hurries the interview along because he knows right now the group is headed to Phillips Arena to witness the NBA Hawks against the Bobcats and that they've already missed the first half.
"I've signed a contract to play the second half for the Hawks," The Ocho says. "I hear Mike Bibby isn't getting it done."
John Ross, the South Beach restaurant owner, tells him, "We've got 15 minutes. You can stretch on the bus."
This was already the Soldiers second radio commitment this evening. Ryan Hart, the 25-year-old recent grad of the University of Cincinnati made his debut on his hometown Sports Animal. Hart, out of Sycamore High School, is already well known to host Mo Egger as the University of Cincinnati Bearcats mascot for the past four years.
"I like Mo's style. He's laid back, so it was an easy interview," Hart says. "It was about two or three minutes, kind of just recapping what we're doing. He had one good line. I told him about Chad buying the Kobes and he said he was a size 11."
But the interviews are few and far between. Much to Stone's chagrin, The Ocho has turned down at least two titans Friday, Jim Rome and Sirius NFL radio.
"I don't know," he says. "I just want do (the charity) without promoting it."
Since The Tour is a product of social networking, it's easy to guess how everyone on the bus spends their time if they're not in their bunks. If they're not tapping on their laptops, they're furiously working their cell phones with the latest texts and pictures. Earlier this afternoon The Ocho did catch a snooze sitting straight up on the couch in the back of the bus coming back from the hospital after he fell asleep talking to Gilley and Latavia Walker, the fellow Miami product he loves to tease about everything.
"Just chilling with Chad in the back," Gilley triumphantly texts to one of her many followers.
But The Ocho is refreshed as he marches his Soldiers through the arena to their seats a few rows back from the basket. More celebrity treatment. Guys like Green and Hart have never been to an NBA game and now they're close enough to get a hand in Charlotte forward Stephen Jackson's face.
"Hey, Ochocinco. Chad. What up man?" yells a group of fans. The Ocho is polite and yells back, "Heeey," but he is also on a mission. He's planning a late dinner after the game, but he's springing for snacks they can take to their seats.
Casey, the recent Syracuse graduate breaking into Wall Street, is a Long Island guy living on Revis Island sunning in the Jets dream season. But he has now been renting space for the last day in Ocho Acres and it has him thinking as he waits in line to get a hot dog and Diet Coke.
"I'd like to give back," he says when asked what he'll take off the bus. "I'm lucky. I went to a good school. I've got a good job. I'm going to look into that when I get back. I'd like to do the stuff we've been doing. Children's hospitals. Shelters. It's a great idea."
The Give Back Tour began for me yesterday in the kitchen of Cincinnati's Freestore Foodbank and my stint is now ending in the line of taxi cabs picking up people from a Hawks win. The bus is headed into a foray of Atlanta's bright lights but it is going to be brief. They have to be on the road by 2 a.m. if they want to be on time for Saturday's 8 a.m. date at the Orlando Rescue Mission Children & Women's Center to serve breakfast. A full day at Disney World with The Ocho hosting looms.
How awake they'll be is anybody's guess, depending on how many velvet ropes will be dropped. But they'll be clean and have their privacy doing it. There are curtains on the bunk beds and that 2010 state of the art shower.
And The Ocho will no doubt break his eight-hour ban on interviews once they arrive in the home of the Magic Kingdom. This is why Nancy Pessler thinks The Tour is such a great idea: For one day the Orlando market is going to be treated to some Ocho goofiness, but it will also find out about the oft-ignored issues facing women and children.
The guy who is going to get them there, Steve Huddleston, the driver The Ocho calls "Boss," is the T.J. Houshmandzadeh of this trip. Solid. Reliable. Always there on third down if you think there's a question. A guy that has seen it all, based out of Nashville who has been driving around celebrities for 20 years. He once told a Beatle to beat it. He commanded Paul McCartney to get the bleep off his bus because that has become a Huddleston staple at the end of a trip and bands have waited with arms folded to get off the bus until he says it.
Huddleston can also say he has now driven The Ocho and The Oz.
Ozzy Osbourne once told Huddleston a story about touring with Motley Crue back in the day and when everybody was grossing out everybody else at the hotel, Ozzy one-upped them all when he saw a line of ants crossing the floor and he promptly snorted it.
"Ozzy is exactly what you'd think," Huddleston says. "Very sweet and very discombobulated."
Some would say that also describes The Ocho, but Huddleston says, "I don't see him snorting insects any time soon."
The Ocho has joined Huddleston a few times up front for some small talk about what was going on with the bus and it got him to thinking.
"He's very cordial," he says. "He could be on the French Riviera right now doing whatever he wanted to do. Instead he chooses to spend his time doing charity work, looking out for kids. A good egg. If anyone asks me, that's what I'll tell them. A good egg."
No doubt that's what they'll be serving in about eight hours and 300 miles.