Posted: Thursday June 30, 2011 11:01AM ; Updated: Thursday June 30, 2011 11:58AM
Paul Daugherty
Paul Daugherty>INSIDE THE NFL

In universe of Planet Ocho, it's more about the brand than football

Story Highlights

Football used to be Chad Ochocinco's world, now it's about self-promotion, hype

Ochocinco has danced and romanced on TV and now will wrestle an alligator

He had some terrific years, but now all Ocho will be remembered for is his antics

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Like T.O. (left), Chad Ochocinco seems more interested in his off-field image than football.
Like T.O. (left), Chad Ochocinco seems more interested in his off-field image than football.
Courtesy of Versus

Politely banished from playing professional soccer, rudely bumped from the back of a bull and fully in need of his next attention fix, Chad Ochocinco will be wrestling an alligator now. You could say this is brilliant self-hype, yet again, from Planet Ocho. Or you could say an alligator has lots of teeth.

There was a time way back, pre-Twitter if you can imagine, when Ochocinco was Johnson. He didn't attempt to dance or romance on television. He didn't ride steers or commit soccer. He might have seen an alligator once or twice; he lives in South Florida. He never plotted to wrestle one or capture one or teach one how to communicate in 140 characters.

Chad wasn't a brand.

He was a football player.

I did a book with him after the 2005 season. The Bengals had won the AFC North title and might have gone further in the postseason if Carson Palmer's knee hadn't been obliterated in the team's first playoff game. Chad was fun then. He made lists of defensive backs he boasted couldn't cover him. He was almost always right. They couldn't. After the book came out, he made sure they all got copies.

His end zone celebrations were good-fun hysterical: He borrowed an Irish high-step from Riverdance. He used a pylon as a putter. He proposed to a cheerleader. These were testaments to Johnson's exuberance, not stunts to pump his Q Score.

Chad Johnson loved football. It was his identity and his ticket to fly. He might have clowned with the lists and the dances, but he knew what made them all possible. Nobody cares about Michael Jackson if he can't dance and sing.

I spent several days in Chad's hometown of Miami after the '05 season, researching his past. He hooked me up with one of his Liberty City pals, who guided me around Chad's boyhood haunts. On one, blue-perfect day, I asked Chad to come along. He declined politely. He would be staying at the house where his grandmother raised him.

Watching the NFL Combine on TV.

That Chad went with Palmer to Indianapolis for a Monday night game, so the pair could watch the sweet synergy between Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison. That Chad waited for a free moment with Jerry Rice, after the Bengals played the Raiders in 2003, his third season.

That Chad cried after dropping a crucial would-be touchdown pass in a 28-21 loss at Indy in 2002, then spent years praising the inspiration and wisdom given him after that loss, by then-Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna. Chad Johnson had an ego, but he wasn't maniacal about it.

And now?

Now, you're nothing if you're not a brand.

The Cincinnati Bengals have a $6 million option on Planet Ocho this year. Odds are they'd rather wrestle an alligator than pick it up. Once the face of the franchise, Ochocinco has seen the Bengals take a wideout with the fourth overall pick in the draft (A.J. Green) and give more playing time to younger veterans Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell.

Coach Marvin Lewis, something of a surrogate father to Ochocinco, has gone from encouraging the six-time Pro Bowler, to tolerating him to questioning his commitment to football. Meanwhile, rumors have Ochocinco being dealt to every NFL team with a working area code.

The parallels with his friend and former teammate Terrell Owens are compelling. Each was raised by a single mother and grandmother, the biggest contrast being Chad's mother left Miami when Chad was 5. They share a similar sense of neediness that has spilled into their offseason pursuits.

The difference is, Owens will be a Hall of Famer if he doesn't play another down. He's second alltime in receiving yards, tied for second in TD catches and is seventh is total receptions. He caught nine passes for 122 yards in Super Bowl XXXIX, six weeks after he broke his leg.

Until recently Ochocinco, 33, had a puncher's chance at making the Hall. Between 2003 and 2007, he averaged 93 catches and more than 15 yards a catch. Those averages have plummeted in the last three seasons. Some of it was due to injury. Some of it was Ochocinco's need to empire-build, away from the game.

On the matter of legacy, the pair who last summer called themselves Batman and Robin after Owens joined the Bengals now sit on the same fence: As good as T.O. has been, he will be remembered more for antics than football. Ochocinco's six Pro Bowls lose all perception battles to his need to be noticed.

You might suggest he's smart for carving a niche for himself. Life after football won't be as hard now that Ocho is a brand. He has more than a million followers on Twitter. Every time he unveils a new stunt, we listen. But what's the shelf life on attention-grabbing?

The national media has used him. In early '08, when he wanted out of Cincinnati, ESPN used Chad's rambling, semi-coherent sound bites for laughs and ratings. With every new antic, people recall less of his superb football talents and more of his 1.5-second rodeo ride. If you're a great athlete, is that what you want?

The player who once devoted his life to being a Hall of Fame receiver now works his sideshows and his thumbs. Not everyone can be Evel Knievel.

Paul Daugherty is a columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer.
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