He is the NFL's accidental All-Pro, a 27-year-old class clown with gaudy jewelry and detachable gold teeth, someone whose rise to the top of his sport required more serendipity than Tom Arnold's film career. Yet here is Cincinnati Bengals wideout Chad Johnson--sitting in an Islands restaurant in L.A.'s Howard Hughes Center, munching on chicken strips on a warm summer night--assuring you with the utmost conviction that he is a man with a plan.
The subject is touchdown celebrations, and Johnson is admiring the work of fellow NFL wide receivers Terrell Owens ( Sharpie, pom-poms), Joe Horn (cellphone) and Randy Moss (fake moon) while vowing to up the ante during the 2005 season. Never mind that such a stunt will likely cost him money, in the form of a league-imposed fine (he has already paid upward of $65,000 for past celebrations), and will probably result in a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. When you regard your presence in the NFL as a miracle, the act of reaching the end zone can be so exhilarating that logic ceases to exist.
More likely, Johnson simply craves the attention--that's the only explanation for a player who once punctuated a score by displaying a sign, which he'd stashed behind a snow bank, reading DEAR NFL: PLEASE DON'T FINE ME AGAIN!!! MERRY CHRISTMAS.
"Fans pay to come to the games, just like when they go to the movies, and I'm determined to give them their money's worth," Johnson says. "I've got all kinds of original material that can top the cellphone and the Sharpie, and I'll probably do something on Sunday night [Oct. 9] when we play at Jacksonville."
So, assuming Johnson can scorch the Jaguars' secondary, go ahead and mark your calendars: In six weeks Paul Tagliabue's face will contort, and countless commentators will rail that Johnson represents all that is wrong with professional sports, and furious defensive backs around the league will privately vow to pummel him the next time he runs a crossing route. Johnson, meanwhile, will keep yapping happily while trying to carry out his master plan--uplifting the NFL's most hapless franchise of the past 15 years and stamping himself as the most compelling performer at a position that has suddenly moved into the spotlight.
With a record seven wideouts selected in the first round of the 2004 draft, and six more taken in that round in April, NFL teams are searching for gamebreaking pass catchers like never before. In an era in which receivers have emerged as the sport's most conspicuous divas, not to mention its most breathtaking playmakers, Johnson is determined to be noticed both on and off the field. "It's a receiver's world," he says, his eyes twinkling under a fancy brown bowler at the casual burger joint. "We stand out more than anybody, and this year I plan to stand out like never before."
Though he has started in consecutive Pro Bowls and attracted headlines for guaranteeing victories (he's 2-0) and sending bottles of Pepto-Bismol to Cleveland Browns defensive backs before a game (he's 0-1: He was held to three catches for 37 yards in an embarrassing loss last year), Johnson has a Q rating that ranks far below those of the flamboyant Owens and Moss, and even below those of lower-key stars Marvin Harrison and Torry Holt. Yet the 6'1", 192-pound Johnson, who last year caught 95 passes for 1,274 yards and nine touchdowns, may be more talented than any of them. "Man, I would argue with anyone that Chad is among the top two receivers in football," says Baltimore Ravens cornerback Deion Sanders, who has become good friends with Johnson. (Prime Time won't name the other member of his top two.) Fast, acrobatic, agile and aggressive, especially when the ball is in the air, Johnson has routinely faced double coverage over the past three seasons, yet he has averaged 1,265 receiving yards during that span largely because of his ability to push past cornerbacks near the line and then nimbly slip underneath safeties. "I like his attitude," says Browns cornerback Gary Baxter. "He tries to prove on every play that he's the best. If he's not the top receiver in football, he's in that top group."
But try as he might to draw attention to himself, Johnson knows there is only one way he can become embedded in the national consciousness. "Now," he says, "I've got to go to the playoffs." The Bengals, who haven't reached the postseason since 1990, the league's longest current drought, have rebounded from poor starts to finish 8--8 in each of coach Marvin Lewis's first two seasons. Might 2005 be the year they break the streak? Johnson considers the question and nods. "It's a guarantee," he says.
Seven years ago Johnson was making far less lofty predictions; the fact that he was making them from a toy store in south-central L.A. may have had something to do with that. "I was working at KB Toys in the Crenshaw Mall, making minimum wage, dreading whenever we'd get a shipment in," he recalls. By then the Miami native had squandered most of his football opportunities. Academic struggles kept him from getting a Division I scholarship out of Miami Beach High, and after enrolling at Division II Langston ( Okla.) University, Johnson got kicked off the team for fighting before he had even played a game. So he could be near his mother, Paula, the self-described "knucklehead" ended up at Santa Monica College. He enjoyed a productive season there in 1997 before flunking out. "At that point," Johnson says, "I had given up, really."
When forecasting his future, Johnson envisioned flashy clothes and fancy cars--with a decidedly unhappy ending. "What would have become of me?" he says, repeating a question. "Let's see, to get the nice things I had to have, I would've had to do something illegal. Truthfully, if football didn't work, I'd have ended up in jail. Or dead."