The last time most of America saw Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson was a low point in his life and also the unfortunate end of his NFL career. It was August 2012. He had been summoned to the office of Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin to be fired. He was by then an aging receiver. Worse, he had just been arrested in a domestic incident.
The “private” meeting with Philbin aired coast to coast on HBO’s Hard Knocks.
“I messed up,” Johnson says now. “Nothing I can do about that except apologize. Apologize and move on.”
Three years later another football season is moving on without Johnson, now 37, but he’s moving on, too, and having too much fun to look back. Turns out he did not require pro football or its spotlight to continue being one of the quirkiest characters that sports in South Florida have ever produced.
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At the moment, as we are speaking, Johnson is driving around Miami-Dade County looking to meet a total stranger and play him in a video soccer game. He does that, just because. He loves soccer and loves people, so he challenges strangers on Twitter and goes to their homes.
He got EA Sports to donate a dozen copies of its new FIFA 16 video game and people who defeat him are given one. It isn’t easy.
“I beat people in their home,” he says. “They Tweet me their address. South Beach. Wynwood. They don’t think I’ll show up but I do. I knock on their door and go straight to their refrigerator.”
Johnson masters social media like he once did cornerbacks. He has 3.6 million Twitter followers. Think about that. That’s enough people to fill 50 or 60 NFL stadiums following a retired player whose Tweets consist mostly of him telling people he loves them — sometimes dozens of times daily. They love him back.
It was through Twitter that Johnson joined a local men’s soccer team that plays in Kendall. Again, just because.
“Someone Tweeted me randomly, out the blue. ‘Hey we got space for one more [player].’ They didn’t think I’d show up. Twenty minutes before game time here I am showing up. That was almost three years ago.”
Johnson uses Twitter to blur the line between celebrity and “regular” folks and make them as close to the same as he can.
It was this unfiltered quality — Chad speaking directly to you — that first intrigued him about Twitter. See, he was always portrayed in the media in a way that didn’t feel right to him. He didn’t see himself like that.
“I understood [Twitter] would allow the public to view me how I really am,” he says. “The perception had always come out negative: the bravado, what most would call arrogance. Now I get to show how Chad really is. I’m just having fun, enjoying myself.”
I was taught to have fun. There’s nothing left to prove. I had a great career. I did the Frank Sinatra. I did it my way.
A long, successful NFL career has afforded him freedom. He enjoys spending time with his five kids. He calls himself “richly unemployed.” He is grateful.
Johnson was born and raised in Liberty City, a tough area of Miami, “in the heart of the ’hood,” he says. “44th Street and 11th Avenue.”
He had a mother and two grandparents strict enough to keep him pointed right.
“With their guidance I wasn’t allowed to stray off track in the midst of the drug-selling and the killing,” he says.
Johnson’s athleticism also helped protect him. It was respected on the street. He was looked after.
“I’d gotten so good at sports that the individuals doing all the wrong, they’d send my [butt] home. It was crazy but in our area it was like that. If you played sports, ‘Man, you ain’t gonna be out there with me.’ It’s really dope they did that. They’d shoo me away.”
If not for sports?
“I’d be dead, maybe in jail,” Johnson says. “No sense in sugarcoating it.”
The numbers from Johnson’s 11-year NFL career (all but one season in Cincinnati) are too easily overlooked or underestimated because of the cartoon distraction of legally changing his surname to Ochocinco (for 85, his number) and the antics of a diva receiver. Playing in an under-radar city, and not earning a Super Bowl ring, didn’t help.
He was legally Chad Ochocinco from August 2008 to July 2012, when he became Johnson again. Still, “Everybody calls me Ocho,” he says. “Nobody says Chad. My mom, that’s about it.”
By any name he was really, really good.
His 766 catches for 11,059 yards and 67 touchdowns, plus six Pro Bowls — that’s a résumé better than many receivers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Consider: Michael Irvin, who’s in Canton, had 750 catches for 11,904 yards and 65 TDs with five Pro Bowls. The main difference is Irvin had the window dressing of “America’s Team” and championship rings.
Yet Johnson never got another NFL look after he blew his fleeting shot with the Dolphins. He briefly spent part of a season in Canada with the Montreal Alouettes before retiring for good.
“I needed a feeling of completion,” he says of Montreal. “After messing up terribly, I wanted to finish the right way.”
Soccer, not football, was Johnson’s first love. Why do you think he’s playing FIFA 16 at strangers’ houses?
“I was the only oddball in Liberty City with a soccer ball and skateboard,” he says. “In Cincinnati I always had a soccer ball in my wide receiver’s bag. I’d juggle it during practices. Used to drive [coach] Marvin Lewis crazy.”
Johnson collects adventures.
Bucket lists run screaming from him. They have no chance.
He once tried out for the Major League Soccer team in Kansas City, and wants to take his amateur men’s team to “El Clasico,” the annual Barcelona-Real Madrid game.
He has rhumba’d on TV’s Dancing With the Stars.
Had a talk show on Versus with Terrell Owens, as well as his own dating reality show on VH1. (Still has his Ochocinco News Network website, and plans to start a podcast.)
Has been a guest host of WWE Raw.
Sparred in the ring with boxers Floyd Mayweather and Adrien Broner.
Rode a bull named Deja Blue in a professional rodeo. (Stayed on it 1.5 seconds).
Appeared naked in a PETA “Ink Not Mink” ad campaign.
Foot-raced a thoroughbred racehorse for charity.
“Oh,” he says, as an afterthought, “I have my own line of Ochocinco Cigars coming out soon.”
Here is a former athlete who seems to understand there is little in life more wonderfully contagious than a smile. It is sort of what he does for a living now.
“I just love everything, man. I don’t hate anybody. I don’t let anything bother me,” he says, still driving, looking for the next stranger’s house, the next challenge. “I was taught to have fun. There’s nothing left to prove. I had a great career. I did the Frank Sinatra. I did it my way.”
As for his next adventure? There is a pause, but not a long one.
“I have yet to swim with orcas in the wild,” says Ocho — meaning killer whales. “But in Norway they have a diving tour where you do that. That might be next.”