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In his first full season as a pro, Johnson caught 69 passes for 1,166 yards and five touchdowns. The next year, 2003, he had twice the number of TDs and made the Pro Bowl for the first time.
Suddenly, the boy who wanted attention had more than he could handle. He began planning outlandish touchdown celebrations, from doing an Irish jig to pretending to propose to a cheerleader to tossing presents into the crowd at Christmas. NFL officials fined him thousands, but Johnson didn't care.
"I wasn't doing it for them," he says. "It was for the 9-to-5s who really couldn't afford tickets but were sitting in the stands anyways."
Johnson became the first wide receiver to break 1,000 yards in six straight seasons, but the Bengals kept sucking. The team topped .500 only twice during the decade he played for it and never won a playoff game.
Yet Johnson got caught up in his own hype. He began hitting the clubs (though not drinking), buying half-million-dollar cars, and officially changed his name to Chad Ochocinco (after his jersey number). He also hired mega-agent Drew Rosenhaus in 2005. Three years later, Johnson publicly pushed for a trade out of Cincinnati.
"Sometimes you can have so much success that you think you are invincible," Collins says. "I think the league viewed him as a clown when he changed his name."
But even as Johnson was earning a reputation as a selfish player, he was anything but that off the field. He would hand out sneakers to kids on the streets of Cincinnati or buy everyone in line at Toys "R" Us their Christmas gifts. And he organized and footed the bill for massive dinners for his Twitter fans. He often visited Rep in prison. "When you go away to prison, people forget about you easy," Rep says. "Chad never forgot about me."
After enduring another miserable 4-12 season in 2010, Johnson finally got the trade he wanted. He joined the perennial title favorite New England Patriots. But it was a move that some observers thought made more sense for Rosenhaus than for the wide receiver.
"I think he was manipulated by Drew Rosenhaus," Collins says. (Rosenhaus declined to comment.)
The team went 13-3, but quarterback Tom Brady almost never threw to Johnson. In the Super Bowl against the New York Giants, Johnson caught the one pass that was thrown to him for a 21-yard gain. But after the Patriots lost, they cut him.
Ochocinco was out of a job, but in love.
The sun was setting as Chad Johnson's neighbor turned into the Long Lake Ranches gated community. His son had just finished a little-league football game, and the car smelled sweetly of sweat as he swung into the family's driveway. But the man suddenly stopped short. Caught in his headlights was a female figure standing in front of his house.
He recognized her from television. But now there was blood flowing from the beautiful woman's forehead. He ushered her inside and called 911.
"I have someone here at my house who was in a little domestic dispute," the man told the dispatcher. "Let's not make a big scene when the police get here. We're worried that he's going to get mad, and he's a high-profile person."
Ten minutes later, Davie Police officers arrived and arrested Chad Johnson for battery. Paramedics took Evelyn Lozada to the hospital and stitched up her lacerated forehead, but not before taking photos that would later go viral on the internet.
The explosive end to their short marriage shouldn't have been a surprise. They were a ticking time bomb, lit on Twitter and accelerated by reality TV. But what really happened that night? It's a question that Chad isn't eager to discuss but one whose answer might be more complex than it seems.
Their relationship began via Twitter in late 2010. On November 28, Johnson tweeted, "@Evelynlozada for X-Mas I got you a year supply of four loko, edible panties from Ashley Stewart and a 100 dollar Starbucks card."The buxom 37-year-old Lozada was already on Basketball Wives because of her longtime relationship with NBA player Antoine Walker, but dating Johnson made her the show's undisputed star. Born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, Lozada had a taste for the good life — Walker claims he spent millions on her — but a terrible temper.
"I always say I don't have a medium. When that trigger goes off, it's [full-blown]," Lozada said of her anger in an interview on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
Johnson and Lozada dated for a year, and he became a regular on her reality TV show. When the Patriots cut Johnson in June 2012, Lozada moved to Davie with him so he could play for the Dolphins. They announced plans for a July 4 wedding. But Johnson's family and friends had their doubts.
"I told him: 'You're not going to make it with that girl,'" Bessie Mae says with a sigh. "But men see things in women that other women don't, I guess."
Charlie Collins gave his former player the same warning."I just thought it wasn't love," he says. "It was fiction... It was a reality show, but it wasn't reality."