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If there are clues as to why Chad Johnson is the way he is — the women, the wild touchdown celebrations, the orcas, the rocky reality TV relationship and divorce — they are buried inside the mind of Bessie Mae Flowers.
Most days, the 80-year-old can be found sitting on the porch of her pretty but poorly kept house on the corner of NW 44th Street and 11th Avenue. There are only a few hints that her grandson is a famous football player: the BMW in the driveway and the faded black NFL equipment shorts she wears.
It was Flowers who raised Johnson after everyone else abandoned him. His father was a drug dealer who was locked up shortly after Chad was born. His mother had her own demons, which drove her to disappear when he was 5 years old.
Flowers remembers coming home from her job as a Miami Beach elementary school teacher to discover that her daughter had left for Los Angeles. Paula Johnson had taken Chad's younger brother, Chauncy, and would have taken Chad too if James Flowers hadn't intervened. "My husband wasn't going to let him go," Bessie Mae says. "He felt she wasn't going to take care of him."
Instead, Chad grew up calling his grandparents mommy and daddy. To this day, he hardly speaks to his mother. She is the reason a player with a party-boy reputation has never had an alcoholic drink in his life.
"The drugs, the cocaine, the heroin. She's a full-fledged Lindsay Lohan," he says of his mother. "That's why she wasn't able to raise me."
The abandonment left Chad with an insatiable urge to prove himself. It was a blessing on the football field and a curse off of it. His quest for attention drove him to dominate his Optimist League opponents but also landed him in detention. "Some of his teachers thought he was funny," Bessie Mae says. "But I didn't." She spent a good chunk of her salary to put Chad into Temple Beth Sholom and then enrolled him at Nautilus Middle School and Miami Beach Senior High, where she could keep an eye on him, dropping him off each morning and picking him up after practice.
Back in Liberty City, she bought arcade games to put on the porch so he wouldn't venture into a neighborhood rife with crack and crime.
A few of Chad's friends were killed. Many others went to prison for selling drugs. Trent Frazier, who was two years older than Chad and was called Rep, tried to keep his younger friend out of the game. "He was trying to come one way, and I pushed him back the other way," says Rep, who was arrested for selling cocaine in 2003. "I was caught up, but I felt like that life wasn't for him."
But Bessie Mae couldn't keep Chad out of trouble completely. He went looking for it, skipping school and getting arrested for trespassing when he was 18 (the charges were dropped). He starred on Beach High's football team, first as a quarterback and later as a wide receiver, but his grades were terrible.
Nor could the causeway keep the violence of Liberty City at bay. Bessie's husband James was the boy's biggest fan. He never missed a game. So Chad knew something was wrong when his grandpa didn't show up to a playoff against Hialeah-Miami Lakes High. James had been shot and killed at a party.
Between the tragedy and Johnson's general disdain for school, his grades sank so far that he couldn't get into the University of Miami, the University of Florida, or Florida State, all of which had recruited him. Instead, Johnson went to the small, historically black Langston University in Oklahoma. He hated it and returned to Miami without playing a single snap.
Bessie Mae decided to do the only thing she could think of: send him to live with his mom. It was there, in California, at Santa Monica College, that a young coach saved Johnson's career.
"You could see that he was an athlete, but he didn't understand how routes worked, how coverage worked. I had to break him down and build him up," Charlie Collins says. That included Johnson's image.
"When I met Chad, he always had these gold teeth in his mouth," Collins says. "I was trying to clean him up, get him ready for the draft. But for Chad, putting in those gold teeth was like Batman putting on his cape."
So Collins threw them away. Johnson freaked out, but he played better without them. (He later bought some more.) Collins was part father, part coach. Under his guidance, Johnson became a top NFL prospect. After two years, he jumped to Oregon State, where he caught 33 passes for 713 yards and six touchdowns. He showed up at the NFL combine in a banana-yellow tracksuit, but he slipped during his 40-yard-dash and was drafted 36th by the Cincinnati Bengals.
The team was terrible, finishing 4-12 before Johnson arrived. But the brazen rookie would bring a ray of light to the basement of the AFC North. "I made it fun in Cincinnati," he says. "Nobody watched the Bungles, man... I made Cincinnati relevant and fun to watch as a fan."