Chad Johnson's Comeback: A Year After His Career Imploded, Orcas and Instagram Fill the Void

Chad Johnson's Comeback: A Year After His Career Imploded, Orcas and Instagram Fill the Void

Chad Johnson is damaged. But as he sits on the patio of the Pelican Hotel on a Thursday afternoon, the holes in his life are hidden. It's been nearly two years since Johnson last suited up for the National Football League, but he still looks the part. His muscles bulge. His veins pop. Tucked under a table spread with shrimp and lobster, the long legs that destroyed defenses for more than 11,000 yards are scarred but still intact. The hands that once caught 67 touchdowns now juggle a pair of gold-plated iPhones incessantly buzzing with tweets.

The smile is still there too. Wide and white and razor sharp. The same one that graced Sports Illustrated covers, cereal boxes, and reality TV series. The same one that lured hundreds of women into bed.

But Johnson doesn't flash it like he used to. Not since last summer, when a moment of madness destroyed what should have been the best days of his life.

Johnson kisses his power animal, Lolita the killer whale.
Photo by Michael E. Miller
Johnson kisses his power animal, Lolita the killer whale.
Johnson as a churchgoing kid in Liberty City. Despite a devilish public persona, he remains privately religious.
Photo courtesy of Bessie Mae Flowers
Johnson as a churchgoing kid in Liberty City. Despite a devilish public persona, he remains privately religious.

"I lost the two things I loved most at the same time," he says, his dark eyes suddenly dampening. "Football... and Evelyn."

"The incident," as he calls it, occurred August 11, 2012. That was the night cops arrested him for head-butting his wife, Evelyn Lozada, a beautiful but volatile reality TV star. In a matter of hours, he was released by the Miami Dolphins, dumped by Lozada, and demonized by the media as a domestically violent monster.

See also: Chad Johnson's Comeback Photo Outtakes

So, a year later, Chad Johnson is damaged goods. One of the greatest wide receivers in football history is now apparently unemployable. As his former teammates enter the preseason, he spends his days people-watching on Ocean Drive in South Beach. Johnson might be physically fit enough for an NFL comeback, but his reputation remains in tatters. To most Americans, he is just another spoiled celebrity who blew it all. Or, even worse, a cautionary tale of how the violence of men's professional sports spills over into their private lives.

Yet there is more to Johnson. Long before becoming an NFL bad boy, he was just a kid trying to escape the drugs and death of Liberty City. Once he did make it big, the self-described "weirdo" broke as many rules as records. He danced with the stars, changed his name to Ochocinco, and paid a small fortune in fines for his extravagant touchdown celebrations. He raced a horse on foot, rode a bucking bull, and burned through mountains of money. But he didn't do it all because he's an asshole. He did it because it was fun.

"I never did anything wrong except celebrating," he says of his antics. "Football is a cutthroat business. Why not add a little entertainment?"

Then came the arrest. Johnson has fallen from football grace, but he hasn't been forgotten. Sports may be gone, but the spotlight is still fixed on him. And under its glare, entertainment can quickly become embarrassment, then ignominy. Now that he's been accused of domestic violence, his jokes aren't as funny anymore. Tweets about killer whales and his supposed eight-month celibacy don't sit quite right.

Without football, his online buffoonery has spiraled out of control. But amid the booty tweets and orca Instagram-ming, there are also hints that there's more to what really happened that night last August, when life blindsided Johnson like a strong safety. Hints that he might not be the villain he's been made out to be.


On a tropical Thursday morning in late June, $50 million of NFL talent is packed into tiny Tequesta Trace Park in Weston. Chicago Bears all-star Brandon Marshall grimaces as he sprints through the fetid summer air, his massive feet blurring as they weave in and out of a rope ladder. Behind him wait a half-dozen others, including second-year Bears receiver Alshon Jeffrey and Cleveland Browns cornerback Akeem Auguste. Sweat soaks their shirts. Steam rises from their heads. And growls escape their throats. They are hungry for the season to begin. Chad Johnson, however, isn't here.

"He's not on Twitter yet," says trainer Matt Gates, glancing at his phone. "So he must be asleep still."

Forty minutes later, a cream-colored Cadillac Escalade rolls into the parking lot. Johnson saunters out looking sleepy-eyed and wearing black Cincinnati Bengals sweatpants and rainbow-hued Asics.

As the other athletes take turns pulling gates behind them like a sled, Johnson stretches slowly and painfully on the sidelines. Finally, he takes his place beside Marshall. Two inches taller, 40 pounds of muscle stronger, and six years younger, Marshall is now where Johnson was seven seasons ago: at the top of the league. Looking at them side by side is like staring at the NFL's past and present.

Johnson clips a bungee cord around his waist. He crouches and then bursts into top gear with a snarl like a soda can bursting open. But he gets in only a few sprints before the training session is over. Someone asks why he was so late.

"Too many women in my bed this morning," he says with a mischievous smile before adding, "Nah. It was Bible study."

Neither one is true. Twelve months after Johnson's arrest cut short his contract with the Miami Dolphins, the legendary wide receiver is in limbo. Johnson is 35 years old in a league dominated by men a decade younger. His body is still an obsidian sculpture, but it aches like never before. And even if he can still fly, does he want to anymore?

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