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.
Johnson works out with Seattle Seahawks quarterback Brady Quinn at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale.
Photo by Michael E. Miller
Johnson works out with Seattle Seahawks quarterback Brady Quinn at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale.

"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?

Three decades after he learned the game on the streets of Liberty City, football is still the only structure in Johnson's life. He wakes up every morning at 5 a.m. to lift weights in his million-dollar Davie mansion and then works out again just four hours later. From 2003 to 2009, this dedication helped make him the most explosive player in the NFL. He earned five Pro Bowl selections and nearly $9 million a year.

But by 2010, his final year in Cincinnati, his numbers had begun to drop. A big-money move to the New England Patriots in 2011 turned into a disaster, with the once-great receiver catching just 15 passes all season.

That set the stage for last summer's comeback. Johnson got serious. He ditched the name Ochocinco, married Lozada, and signed with his hometown team, the Miami Dolphins.

Then came the head-butt heard around the world, and Johnson's career screeched to a sudden and scandalous stop. The precise moment was captured on the HBO reality TV program Hard Knocks, when Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin axed a contrite Johnson on air.

"I let you down a little bit — a lot," Johnson began. "I apologize for embarrassing you, this organization, my teammates." But it was too late. Philbin fired him anyway.

A year after his onscreen humiliation, Johnson still believes in his own abilities. It's the league in which he's lost faith.

"The world knows I can still play," he says. "There is nothing wrong with me... They just don't want to deal with what comes along with bringing in Chad."

A few days after showing up late to training, Johnson is burning to get back on the field. He pulls into the parking lot of St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale with Andrea Bocelli echoing inside his Escalade.

Marshall is there, along with Jeffrey, Auguste, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Anthony Fasano, and Seattle Sea­hawks quarterback Brady Quinn.

Quinn, shirtless and absurdly inflated like an action figurine, starts rifling passes. Johnson rises high in the air like a fish breaking water, his body forming an inverted Y as he catches the ball. But he also drops a couple of passes, each accompanied by a scream of "Fuck you, man!" directed more at himself than anyone else.

Lightning begins to ripple on the horizon. Soon, an alarm blares, cutting the workout short. As raindrops fall on the synthetic turf, Johnson tells Quinn he wants him to air one out. They line up near the goal line. With a growl, Johnson takes off downfield. Quinn drops back and heaves the ball into the air.

It spirals through space, arching in front of the aging receiver's outstretched hands, and hits the ground with a thud.


"I've been celibate for eight months," Chad Johnson tells the stranger next to him. She has mocha skin, highlighted brown hair, and dark sunglasses hiding Lisa Turtle-like looks. She is also drunk. Johnson is sober, double-fisting cranberry juice and Red Bull. He doesn't know her name, but then again, it's been only five minutes since he plucked her from the crowd along Ocean Drive and sat her next to him at the Pelican.

"Really? Me, a year," she declares just as implausibly. Johnson sets his iPhone down midtweet and leans in close.

"Would you like to make love to me?" he asks in a low voice.

"Would you like to make love to me?" she shoots back.

"Given that it's been so long, a year, eight months, fuck it, why not?" he says nonchalantly. "I'm warning you, though, I get emotionally attached after that shit."

This is Johnson's life now. Without football, what was once a lazy offseason now stretches year-round. Every afternoon he drives an hour south from his house to the Pelican or David's Café on South Beach. There he sits. For hours. Sometimes until midnight. Tweeting random thoughts to his nearly 4 million followers. (One recent nugget of wisdom: "Pick a big girl to date, the sex is phenomenal.")

Instead of dueling with defensive backs, Johnson now battles boredom. He flirts with thousands of women, all while claiming to be celibate and heartbroken. He tweets nonstop. Most of all, he tries to forget about Evelyn.

Johnson began tweeting during his final season in Cincinnati. "At first he didn't get it," says his younger brother, Chauncy. "Now he's addicted." Women send him scandalous photos. Men seek his advice about sex and videogames. Some days, Johnson tweets more than 200 times.

"They know everything [about me] because I put it all out there," he says of his Twitter followers. Whereas most celebrities are guarded, Johnson is proudly unfiltered. "I tweet it all... I've got nothing to hide."

Without a wife or team to rein Johnson in, his antics often go viral. In April, he was hanging out at David's Café when a homeless man named Pork Chop asked him for change to buy beer. Johnson bought the man a 24-pack but told him he had to sit and have dinner with him. Then he took Pork Chop to Urban Outfitters, South Beach nightclub Cameo, and a strip club. He documented their outing with photos on Twitter and Instagram.

"No wife?" Johnson says half-seriously. "Fuck it. I've got Pork Chop."

The photos exploded on the internet, and Pork Chop became an overnight celebrity. Strangers began giving him money and taking him to clubs.

But some Twitter users took offense. "I hope he's not helping this homeless guy just to get attention," one woman wrote. And like so many of Johnson's adventures, his relationship with Pork Chop hasn't exactly gone according to plan. Pork Chop's new clothes were almost instantly stolen. And the footballer's attempts to find his homeless friend a job and a home were rebuffed.

"To get him a job, I'd have to clean him up, get him teeth, get him to stop drinking... I'm not equipped to do all that," Johnson says.

Besides, Johnson has worries of his own — like staying out of jail. On May 7, Broward judge Kathleen McHugh ordered Johnson's arrest for skipping three months of meetings with his probation officer. His attorney Adam Swickle negotiated a deal to avoid jail time, but when Johnson slapped the lawyer on the ass in celebration, the judge angrily sentenced him to a month behind bars.

"When I had to go do the 30, my first thought was, Shit, if I can sit eight or nine hours in one spot and people-watch, I can do the time," he says.

He didn't have to. The judge let him out after seven days. Johnson sent her flowers and a pair of Louboutins as an apology. "That's not bribery," he explains. "That's just how I am."


There are days when Chad Johnson needs something more than Twitter or a table at David's Café — days when he feels himself slipping beneath the waves. Today is one of those days.

Dancing around the Fit Speed gym in his rainbow Asics, he appears happy. But then he catches sight of the TV set tuned to ESPN. His former Patriots teammate Aaron Hernandez has been arrested for murder. A pall settles over Johnson. A year ago, it was him in the headlines being portrayed as a monster. A New Times reporter asks him about the case, but for once, the voluble Johnson goes quiet. A minute passes. Rihanna croons about finding love in a hopeless place.

"I'm thinking about going to the Seaquarium to see the killer whales," Johnson says suddenly. "I don't give a fuck about the show — I just want to see the motherfuckers."

That afternoon, he cruises up to Miami Seaquarium in a matte black Mercury Marauder. The teenage employees at the front greet him by name.

Johnson walks up to the giant tank, leans over, and stares silently at the monstrous fin slicing the water in front of him. This is his therapy, his Zen. Sometimes he hangs out here three times a week.

He takes a seat in the stadium. The bleachers fill with people, some of whom sheepishly file up to Johnson for a photograph. He obliges. But when the show begins, his eyes return to the tank.

"This is Lolita, the killer whale!" a trainer announces through loudspeakers. Suddenly, the 7,000-pound creature bursts into the air — all 40 feet of her — before crashing back into the water.

"That's fucking..." Johnson says, his voice trailing off in disbelief.

His grandmother, Bessie Mae Flowers, first took him to the Seaquarium. He was a kid from the concrete streets of Liberty City who had never seen wildlife. "She was the first thing I ever saw that was outside the norm of what I was used to," he says of Lolita.

But it's more than nostalgia that pulls him here. It's sympathy. The man and his orca are eerily similar: Fast and powerful, both have spent their lives performing athletic tricks for strangers. Both are too smart for their own good. And both can be dangerous.

"They kill great whites," he says in awe. "Who are their predators, except for man?" In 2010, a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando was killed by an orca. "But that's in captivity," Johnson points out. "There has never been a single orca attack on humans in the wild."

After the show ends and the soaked audience squelches out of the stadium, Johnson asks Lolita's trainer if he can feed the killer whale. Still dripping from the performance, Heather Keenan tells him he can do even better: He can kiss Lolita.

Johnson's eyes widen with excitement. He strips off his blue and red Jordans and clamors onto the tank's narrow walkway. He waits nervously on his knees. Like a stealth submarine, the orca silently emerges from the water headfirst. Her mouth opens a foot from Johnson's face, exposing sharp six-inch teeth.

The animal lifts herself out of the tank toward him, but at the last moment, Johnson pulls back. The trainers burst out laughing. Keenan tosses fish into Lolita's mouth and tells Johnson to try again. This time, he leans in and plants his lips on Lolita's tongue.

Johnson jumps up as if celebrating a touchdown. His smile is back. "I don't need a woman when I'm tonguing a killer whale," he says on his way out of the Seaquarium. "My life is made."


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."

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."

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.

"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."

Asked about the police report, however, Johnson sticks by his story: that his beautiful but hotheaded wife blew up at him after finding out he was cheating, that she filled the tiny Smart Car with her angry screams, and that she head-butted him.

"I never talk about that, you know that? For a reason. Let her tell her side. And my job is to cover the story, no matter what. And that's what I've done, and it's going to stay that way," he says.

Lozada did have a documented history of violent outbursts onscreen. And a Change.org petition demanding that VH1 take her off the air for her "physical assaults, threats, verbal abuse, and harassment" garnered almost 30,000 signatures. Is Johnson really suggesting he took the fall for her?

"I'm supposed to," he says. "She's the wife. That's my job. To cover the story. That's the way I was taught. That's the way I was raised. If I'm your dad and I know you did something wrong, I don't have a choice but to cover the story for you, whether you're right or wrong. So for me, whether right or wrong or indifferent, if that's who I've committed to even though I messed up, I'm covering the story for her no matter what. No matter what. Whether it's my fault or her fault. Whether she antagonized me. Whether she pushed my buttons. You know what? You're right. Period."

It's a hard story to buy — a musclebound athlete getting head-butted by his much smaller, model wife. But Johnson won't be further drawn out on the details. Chad Johnson, the attention seeker, does not want the spotlight on this one — even though it means everyone thinks he's an asshole.

He puffs on his cigar and stares out at a life without Lozada. "Even at my lowest, I'm still winning," he says. Then he lays out his post-NFL plans: television, maybe movies, and definitely a trip to Norway to dive with killer whales in the wild.

"I'm going to own an orca or maybe a whole fucking pod," he says. "I don't know how I'm going to do it, but I'm going to own a private island. And I'm going to own an orca. I'm not going to own it where it's going to be caged. I'm going to own it where they are going to know me and they are going to be lured in by food.

"I have it all figured out," he says. "I have it all figured out."

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