More than 50 media types with cameras and tape recorders and notepads shiver on the sideline of Swope Park Training Center in Kansas City, Mo., so they can watch an NFL wide receiver with a jersey number for a last name kick a soccer ball. I'm not sure you could sum up sports and fame in America in one sentence, but that's probably fairly close.
Maybe you don't even need one sentence. Maybe two words are enough: Chad and Ochocinco. Think about his story. Chad Johnson grew up in Liberty City, an often rough section of Miami where Hurricanes football was king. Young Chad was no football prodigy; he loved soccer more. He went to Langston (Okla.) University and was thrown off the football team for fighting. He did not start playing college football until the next year at Santa Monica (Calif.) College. He worked hard at the game, went on to Oregon State and was drafted in the second round by the Bengals in 2001. After a bumpy rookie year, he had six straight seasons with at least 1,100 yards receiving.
Rewind the career and ask: How does Chad Johnson, very good football player, become Chad Ochocinco, national sensation? He is not the best at his position—his numbers are similar to those of at least a dozen other terrific receivers. He plays in one of the NFL's smallest markets and for one of the least successful teams. He has appeared in only two playoff games, both losses.
Then Ochocinco tries out over four days for Sporting Kansas City of Major League Soccer ... and the world watches. He tells his almost two million Twitter followers that his soccer touch is improving. (A research firm called Twitalyzer ranks Ochocinco the second most influential tweeter in the world, behind Brazilian comedian Rafinha Bastos.) Cameras from the Ochocinco News Network, his social media brainchild, follow his every move. Requests for video and comments come from across the country. He has created his own iPhone app, his own dating reality-TV show on VH1 and is on the cover of the video game NFL Street 3. World soccer icons Cristiano Ronaldo and Kakà tell him that if he makes the team, they will come watch him play. How in the crowded world of stars and would-be stars did this happen?
"People always say, Why can't you just shut up and play?" the 33-year-old Ochocinco tells me after practice. "No. I'm not doing that. I won't shut up. This is who I am. I don't care about the rules. I'm not about the rules. I'm going to do what I love to do."
He is speaking truth here. The NFL (unlike the NBA, for instance) strives to iron out the individualism of its players. The NFL can't tame Ocho. He caught football fans' eyes with his touchdown celebrations—from performing the Riverdance to pretending to resuscitate the football—and the NFL started to fine him repeatedly. Once he scored and held up a sign saying, DEAR NFL, PLEASE DON'T FINE ME AGAIN!!!!! The league office fined him again. He caught America's eye by making it all the way to the final four on the 10th season of Dancing with the Stars. "One of the hardest things I've ever done," he says.
He changed his name to Ochocinco (Spanish for 8-5, his jersey number) in 2008. He said in '09 that he would change his name to Hachi Go (Japanese for 8-5). He said earlier this year that he would change his name back to Johnson. He's so famous that people keep up with the soap opera of his ever-changing last name.
"People think I'm just trying to get attention, and they don't get it," he says. "I just do what's fun to me. I'm not going to just do what I'm supposed to do. I'm having fun. When it comes to football, I'm serious, man. You think I could put up my numbers year after year if I was just playing around? No, I'm dead serious about the game. But I'm going to do it all my own way."
This, I think, is the secret. Ochocinco's an original. At a time when athletes blend into the background with carefully managed images, he's out there, being himself, breaking the rules, having the time of his life. And it's irresistible. He says the soccer tryout is something he wants to do, that when the NFL season ends every year, he travels to Europe and watches the world's best f√∫tbol. Reporters ask him if it's all just a publicity stunt—and it makes him laugh. Publicity? From soccer? In America? "People don't get me at all, man," he says.
He's pretty good at soccer—though clearly not in Sporting KC's league. He knows that. "I ate my humble pie before I got off the plane," he says. His speed stands out among the Kansas City players, though he gets winded, and his passing, dribbling and touch are nowhere near professional level. His chances of being invited to join the team are unlikely. As he says, "The only thing I can offer is: I'm fast as hell. Maybe they can do something with that."
Ochocinco has certainly done something with it. He has created a phenomenon—himself. I ask him what would have happened if he had chosen soccer years ago. "I'd be one of the best in the world," he says. "Could you imagine Ochocinco on a soccer pitch? I'd be out of control."
He takes a second to imagine this, and he smiles. Why wouldn't he?
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He is not the NFL's best receiver, and he plays in a small market for one of the least successful teams. Then he tries out for MLS, and the world watches.