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Enter Charles Collins, the receivers coach at Santa Monica, who in 1998 started putting Johnson through daily, private football workouts while liberally imparting life lessons. After improving his grades and returning to play for Santa Monica in '99, Johnson, with just one season of collegiate eligibility remaining, yearned for a chance to showcase his skills on a bigger stage. He attracted interest from Oregon State, where Dennis Erickson had revived a long-moribund program and was filling out his recruiting class. "If a guy from West L.A. J.C. didn't flunk out of Oregon State in the summer of 2000, Chad would be nowhere," says Jerome Stanley, Johnson's agent until last January, when the receiver signed with Drew Rosenhaus. "He was one tick away from never making it."
Homesick and buried on the depth chart, Johnson called Collins from Corvallis shortly before the start of the season and hinted that he was contemplating quitting. Collins flew into town and got in his former pupil's face, saying, "If you even think about leaving, I'm gonna kick your a--. I worked hard to get you here; don't you dare embarrass me now." Johnson didn't, catching 37 passes for 806 yards and eight touchdowns as the Beavers went 11-1 and finished fourth in the polls, but his success masked his ongoing struggles: Oregon State's other starting wideout, T.J. Houshmanzadeh, remembers having to give hand signals to the confused Johnson across the field as the quarterback called out his cadence. Johnson was projected as a first-round draft pick until his disastrous performance at the 2001 NFL combine. After yelling out jokes during other players' 40-yard dashes, Johnson, wearing a gaudy, all-yellow outfit, slipped at the start and finished in a mediocre 4.57 seconds. He fell to the second round, as the Bengals took him with the 36th pick.
He has been proving his worth ever since, winning over coaches and teammates with his work ethic; during the season he regularly sleeps in the players' lounge of the team's training facility. Yet for all his ebullience, Johnson has his darker moments. "We call Chad 'Bipolar,'" says Houshmanzadeh, now a Bengals starter opposite his college teammate. Lewis, the team's coach, says Johnson is animated and upbeat "98 percent of the time. The other two percent is scary. He acts like someone peed on his cornflakes. He's in another world." As an example Lewis cites an incident during the Bengals' victory over the Dallas Cowboys last November. Johnson (whose distant cousin Keyshawn was playing for the Cowboys) became so flustered after tussling with cornerback Lance Frazier--and miffed over a perceived lack of balls thrown his way--that the coach felt compelled to remove his headset during a drive and counsel his receiver on the sideline. Early in a season-opening loss to the New York Jets, Johnson became visibly peeved at quarterback Carson Palmer, who was making his first NFL start. At halftime Collins dialed the receiver's cellphone and reamed him out as Johnson stood in the locker room, saying, "Don't TO me. You're acting like an idiot."
Johnson may be calculating enough to plan out his next end-zone celebration or to toy with the defenders who try to cover him, but off the field he's impetuous. He has 13 custom-designed automobiles, most of them named after cartoon characters, including a yellow Lamborghini dubbed Big Bird. He also has four children out of wedlock. "I worry about him a lot, more than he worries about himself," Keyshawn Johnson says of his cousin, "but I can't take him by the hand and lead him."
Like Keyshawn, who has long employed Stanley as his agent, Collins tried to talk Chad out of switching to Rosenhaus. Though he signed a five-year, $26 million extension in 2003, Chad believes he is vastly underpaid. Yet he can't tell you how much money he made in '04, and many of those close to him are concerned about his ability to hold onto whatever earnings he commands. "I was very disappointed when he bought that Lamborghini," Collins says. "At the end of the day, I just don't want him to have to need me again."
In the meantime, Johnson revels in his surprising stardom. Having recently taken acting classes, he says he wants to go Hollywood after football, joking, "If I was born any earlier than '78, Denzel would have had a run for his money."
A few minutes later, Johnson summons an Islands waitress and asks, straight-faced, if she could bring him a job application. She sizes up the man with the bling and the loud clothes, disappears, then returns with a one-page form that she places on the table in front of him. Johnson smiles. He often asks for applications at restaurants, going so far as to fill out and return the form.
Perhaps this is a way of staying motivated, of reminding himself how hard he had to work--and how fortunate he had to be--to get to where he is today. Or perhaps it is simply a way to stay in touch with his inner class clown. "Football's a crazy business," he says, picking up the form. "You never know when I might get cut."
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