There were other warning signs: wine bottles that Lozada threw at her rivals on Basketball Wives, internet rumors about affairs on both sides. But the wedding went ahead, with Johnson tweeting from the altar.

Five weeks later, Johnson's arrest shattered what little of the celebrity fairy tale was still intact.

This much they both agree on: The altercation began when Lozada found a receipt for condoms in Johnson's cubicle-size black Smart Car. The two sat inside the minuscule vehicle and argued about their marriage.

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.

"As they were talking, Johnson became upset and without Lozada's permission grabbed her head and head-butted her on the forehead, causing a laceration," according to the Davie Police report. "He began screaming, 'I don't give a fuck! I don't give a fuck about my career!' Lozada then fled on foot to a neighbor's house to get away from Johnson."

Johnson agreed with the bulk of that story in a police interview, with one key difference: Lozada was the one who screamed "Fuck it!" before head-butting him, he said. He then went for a drive "to give her time to calm down," he told the cops.

Lozada pressed charges and went on ABC to tell her side of the story. "I knew that he was lying [about buying the condoms for a friend]," she said. "I told him: 'I'm not sticking by you through this. I don't care if my marriage is the laughingstock of the world.' And then the next thing I know, he head-butted me."

Lozada declined to comment.

Johnson quietly pleaded no contest to domestic battery and escaped with one year of probation. Lozada divorced him three days later.

The breakup crushed Johnson. "I sat with him on his grandma's porch as he cried," Rep says. "The truth is, he loved her. That I can definitely say. Whatever else really happened... I don't know."

Bessie Mae is more blunt. "He had no business head-butting her," she says. "But how are you gonna jump up after the first fight and run and get a divorce? She must not have loved him. But he loved her like crazy. Still does."

Bessie Mae retreats into her dark house and emerges with a painting of Johnson's wedding day. Lozada looks like a princess in her white gown. Johnson wears a tux and what used to be his ever-present smile.

"If it were me, I'd tell her to take seven steps to Hell and leave me alone," Bessie Mae says. "But he can't do that. He'd rather stay right there waiting for her."

"I need to start a new autobiography," Chad Johnson says. Sitting in the kitchen that Lozada redecorated in bright red, he munches on a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. "It would be the perfect time for it. It'd be called The Rise and the Fall and the Climb Back Up or some shit like that."

After the drama, the domestic violence, and the divorce, Johnson wouldn't have any trouble getting a book deal. But an autobiography at this point would be premature. The last few chapters of his climb back up are still under construction. Time is running out on his NFL comeback. And his relationship with Lozada remains more mysterious than ever.

Whether it's orca love, Twitter therapy, or anger management, Johnson's attitude toward the NFL has become a Zen koan. He is both restless and at peace, eager to go out the right way and accepting he is already gone from the game.

"I would like to finish the right way," he says. "But if it doesn't happen, I'm OK because I played the game my way. I didn't play it under their rules or their guidelines. I played the game the same way I was brought up to play it: It's about fun."

Collins, for one, has urged him to ask the Bengals for a tryout. He believes a few more good years might get the player into the Hall of Fame. But Johnson has yet to dial his old coaches. "He's conflicted about the possibility of being told no, of being rejected," Collins says.

Johnson says he couldn't care less about the Hall of Fame. "People say, 'Oh, you're not a Hall of Famer. What about your legacy?' That's not what I played the game for, to appease you and what your definition of greatness is. Greatness was making it the fuck out of Liberty City."

When it comes to his other great loss — Lozada — he is both sad and surprisingly combative.

"Somebody on Twitter asked me yesterday if I still love Evelyn," he says. "My answer was, 'Till I stop breathing.'"

Johnson moves to the back patio. He lights a Montecristo cigar and stretches his legs, one of which still bears the tattoo of Lozada's face he had inked just days after their divorce. Then, for the first time, he talks about that night. What really happened? Why would he head-butt the woman he loves and throw away all he has worked for?

At first he is reluctant. "I don't really want to talk about her too much. It's gone. I've moved on. But cool, man, she went her way; I went mine. She knows how I feel, and I know how she feels. So it's cool."

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