by Geoff Hobson
It has been nearly 20 years since he pulled off his favorite celebration ("The Marriage Proposal") and a couple of months since he advised Bengals running back Joe Mixon on a post-touchdown routine in the Wild Card Game.
And even as they put him in the Bengals Ring of Honor in a halftime ceremony planned for this season, Chad Johnson is having fun with it. Because that's how he wants to be remembered.
"The guy who made football fun again."
"It hasn't been talked about enough that I'm a better corner than receiver," says Johnson, a receiver good enough to do something not even Jerry Rice did. "I was OK at receiver, but corner is my true passion."
So the social media pioneer for pro athletes vows a comeback at age 45 in the age of TikTok.
"Can you imagine if I was playing now with the way social media is?" Johnson wonders. "It would be ridiculous."
And he likes this idea. Johnson used to train in a ring because he liked how boxing quickened his hands. The fans can put him in The Ring as wide receiver Chad Johnson and then if he's as good as he says he is, they can put him in as cornerback Chad Ochocinco.
"That would be nice," Johnson says.
But one thing is certain. He's entering the ROH as Chad Javon Johnson, the Bengals all-time leading receiver with 10,783 balletic yards.
"He was as quick as anyone we had here," says Bengals president Mike Brown, who has seen them all. "Where it really showed up was as he got downfield, he could break and almost automatically there would be separation and the ball would go into him.
"He ran that in-cut with Carson (Palmer) over the middle where they had great chemistry. They were a great team that moved the ball. Carson was a powerful, accurate passer and once Chad got going full bore, he was hard to stop."
And, if Johnson gets his way, he'll go in with Frank Sinatra singing, "My Way."
"Because that's exactly how I played the game," Johnson says. "I would never change anything. If I could go back again and redo it, I would add some more (bleep) to it."
He may have had a few regrets as a Bengal. For instance, there was that weekly checklist of cornerbacks he posted in his locker one season that once got replaced by head coach Marvin Lewis' own checklist.
But like Francis Albert Sinatra, too few to mention. He doesn't even really care people would rather talk about his latest tweet than the fact he is the first player to lead his conference in receiving yards four straight seasons since the NFL-AFL merger eight years before he was born.
Not The GOAT Rice. Not the last four of his peers who have been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (where he has said he thinks he belongs), Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Isaac Bruce and Calvin Johnson. He doesn't even really care that Julio Jones is the only other receiver to match the feat.
I didn’t care about the Hall of Fame. I didn’t care about the accolades. I wanted to have fun Chad Johnson
"What people who are in positions of power, who control the voting, who control who gets in, need to understand is I was one you weren't going to control in any way or fashion.
"I played the game of football the way I felt it should be played. And that's the same way I played when I was a little kid at the Liberty City Optimists. The same way I played football when I was at Miami Beach High when no one was watching. The fact I made the NFL, I'm not changing or conforming to how you want me to play. I refuse. What you saw every Sunday for ten years, that's the same thing I did in high school. It's the same thing I did in little league. Think about the (University of Miami) Hurricanes of the '90s. I grew up watching them. It's about fun. It's about entertaining. Doing the job to the best of your ability."
Go back to Miami. That's the only place to start. Go back to the hard-as-asphalt patch they call Liberty City, where the grandmother who raised him and he called "Momma," the late Bessie Mae Flowers, once said she drove him to every field in Florida.
That's where they watched the 2001 draft, from that single-story bungalow where he kept flags of every NFL team in his bedroom. To this day, that day is his best Bengals memory. It's the one that flashed in front of his eyes last month when Bengals president Mike Brown called him into his office and gave him the news he was the latest Ring member.
Brown thought he became emotional and Johnson agrees there was a tear. Nothing like when he was drafted. But enough that he could see the circle closing.
"Cincinnati is all I know. When you think of all the years and the work to fulfill that childhood dream. You know how hard it is?" Johnson asks. "You see the draft now. They're crying for a reason. All the years and years and years and the obstacles and ups and down and the almost not making it. It's like winning the damn lotto. It all goes through your heart and flashes in front of your eyes. It's dope as hell. It's really dope."
View the best photos of WR Chad Johnson as he is inducted into the Bengals Ring of Honor.
He remembers sitting with his friends that day at the house where Bessie once scolded him to quit talking to the painters and how his buddies said the Bengals weren't good and then Johnson did what he still does best and started talking.
"I said, 'Give me a year or two and I'm going to do everything I can to put the city and the team back on the map,"' recalls Johnson in what turned out to be an echo of his guarantee of beating the undefeated Chiefs two years later. "I made sure we were in national headlines. Every time I could think of possible. I made it OK to wear Bengals gear outside of Cincinnati. I made it cool to wear our stuff outside of Cincinnati."
He did it with those long catches and big plays from the darting moves and cat feet of a welterweight champion. There were also the guarantees and the name change to Ochocinco and the touchdown celebrations that irked the league office to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars of fines.
Take your pick. "Tiger Hood," T.J. Houshmandzadeh called it when he putted the ball with a pylon. "The Riverdance." "The Cell Phone." Johnson's favorite is when he approached a Ben-Gal cheerleader named Daphne and got on one knee during the 45-37 Palmer-Peyton shootout loss to the Colts in a 2005 Paycor Stadium game.
"Who would expect that at a football game?" Johnson asks. "I want to be known as the one who made football fun again. If you had a work week in Cincinnati and knew there was a home game, I want you excited and happy. 'I don't know what the bleep is going to happen on Sunday, but I know Chad has got something for us."'
Mike Brown admits he found some of "the antics," annoying. He also thought some were funny, but he wonders if they could have obscured Johnson's greatness. Johnson's reaction to the Ring news left an impression.
"He reacted because it meant something to him. It meant he was recognized as a player," Brown says. "He knows he was a good player. He knows he acted up in a way that confused people. They began to think it was the show part and there was that part, but there was also the basic playing ability and performance that was very real."
Brown has always enjoyed talking to Johnson. "He's fun," the boss says, and Brown particularly enjoyed hearing about the career of Cha'iel Johnson, his daughter who has committed to run track at the University of Kentucky.
"He talked more about her than what was going on with him," Brown says.
That's a reunion, too. One of his Bengals strength coaches during his Pro Bowl run, Ray "Rock," Oliver, is the senior associate athletic director at Kentucky.
"To me," Johnson says, "I feel like she's right at home. She's in good hands."
So were the Bengals in Johnson's hands and now they're at home in The Ring, too.