CINCINNATI -- He played his last college football game with chants of "He hits women!" raining down from the stands, so maybe that's why Joe Mixon didn't put much thought into how his new NFL city would receive him. Of course there will be fans who despise him.
His fellow draftees held parties; Mixon instead played basketball in his hometown of Oakley, California, which is about 40 miles from Oakland. He put his cellphone on the loudest possible setting, just so he wouldn't miss any calls, and shot hoops at his mom's house. Midway through the second round of the NFL draft Friday night, the Cincinnati Bengals called and told him he would be the 48th overall pick. Coach Marvin Lewis was the first one to welcome the Oklahoma running back to the team, and Mixon cried.
Within a few hours, he was on a red-eye flight to Cincinnati, where he was whisked away to a news conference and a draft party before retreating to his hotel for dinner. By Sunday morning, he was gone, because that's the way you quietly introduce a player whose most memorable video isn't of him breaking tackles, but rather of him punching a woman in the face.
In a phone interview from his apartment in Oklahoma that lasted nearly 45 minutes late Sunday night, Mixon said he has come to terms with everything -- his NFL future, his past mistakes, and his legal situation with Amelia Molitor, the woman he hit in 2014. He settled a civil lawsuit with her last month. It was, in some ways, cathartic. The two met in Mixon's lawyer's office in Oklahoma City in mid-April, and, according to Mixon, shared a hug. (Molitor could not be reached.)
The way the NFL goes sometimes, if a man scores touchdowns and leads his team to victories, eventually, almost anything can be forgotten. But around 1 o'clock ET on Monday morning, when the conversation wrapped up, Mixon said he wanted to be defined by what happens off the field.
"People try to perpetrate me as some type of bad guy, some monster for one mistake I made three years ago," Mixon said. "I want people to get around me, to come talk to me, to be comfortable. I'm not trying to really prove anything. I just want people to get around me and get a feel for me. If they don't like me then, hey, so be it. I'm sorry they feel like that.
"I want to go out and help kids maybe. I want to help and talk at shelters with women. I hope to make a difference."
Of all the NFL cities where Mixon could have landed, Cincinnati probably most closely resembles a safe haven. The news conference to introduce him was attended by roughly two dozen reporters, a number that will winnow significantly during the day-to-day grind. Small-market teams are often more apt to take on players with huge talent and heavy baggage, as Kansas City did last year when it selected Tyreek Hill in the fifth round. Hill was kicked off the team at Oklahoma State for choking his pregnant girlfriend, but he was a star in his rookie NFL season and made the Pro Bowl.
In Cincinnati, Mixon is going to a franchise that is notorious for opening its doors to questionable characters, most notably Adam "Pacman" Jones. The cornerback has had numerous run-ins with the law over the past decade. When Jones was with the Titans in 2007, the NFL suspended him for the entire season.
A local police officer eating lunch downtown on Sunday mused about how Jones has said he's a changed man in recent years, but then proceeded to get arrested for disorderly conduct in January. Jones reportedly head-butted police and spit on a jailhouse nurse. Mixon has a long way to go before he ventures into that kind of territory. Jones, 33, has shown a pattern of bad behavior. Mixon is 20 years old now. He was charged, reached a plea agreement, sat out the 2014 season at Oklahoma, did his community service and settled the civil suit against him.
The Bengals are run by a man who believes he can save players. Owner Mike Brown is known as "The Great Redeemer." In 2006, Brown's franchise had more players arrested (nine) than wins (eight). The 81-year-old stood by Jones after his latest run-in with the law, and, at the NFL owners meetings in March, he conceded to Bengals.com and the Cincinnati Enquirer that maybe he was "overly tolerant."
Brown was not made available for this story, nor was his daughter Katie Blackburn, the Bengals' executive vice president.
On Friday night, Hall of Fame lineman Anthony Munoz, one of the most revered players in Bengals history, announced the Mixon pick on a stage in Philadelphia, the site of this year's draft. The crowd booed vigorously, and a man in Bengals gear was captured on camera giving a thumbs-down.
Back in Cincinnati, a block or two from the Bengals' draft room, the bar at the Yard House on East Freedom Way erupted in cheers as Mixon's name flashed on the TVs. "It was as if we had scored a touchdown," waiter Josh Drain said.
There were no known protests outside Paul Brown Stadium on an unseasonably warm weekend in Cincinnati, though a local TV station did call for a boycott of the Bengals. The editorial board of ABC affiliate WCPO called the team's pick "disgraceful" and asked fans to take the money they spend on tickets and give it to a nonprofit organization that supports the prevention of violence against women.
"I'm a Bengals fan, but I don't like the pick at all," T.J. Kramer, 31, said as he ate wings with some friends at Knockback Nats, a bar in downtown Cincinnati. "If I would've been the GM or the head coach, he would've been off the board immediately for his morals and what he did."
Kramer, whose family has had season tickets for about as long as he has been alive, thinks about his sister when Mixon's name is mentioned. He thinks about his grandfather, the original owner of the season tickets. One of Kramer's earliest memories is sitting in the stands with his dad and grandpa watching Peter Warrick return a punt for a touchdown. He knows his grandpa would have hated this pick.
Kramer has a friend who has vowed that he's finished with the Bengals now that they have Mixon, but he wonders if he'll feel the same come September. Kramer and his younger brother Jordan say they'll still go to the games. They can't help it.
"I love the Bengals," T.J. said. "I love Cincinnati."
Alexis Kidd was walking near the stadium with some friends Sunday, and the streets of downtown Cincinnati were filled mostly with tourists. Kidd, the executive director of Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses, a social services agency in Cincinnati, never has much of an opinion on the Bengals because she's a Cincinnati transplant and a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. But her boyfriend was watching the draft on Friday night, and she just happened to walk in the room when Mixon was picked and the video of Mixon punching Molitor was shown on TV.
Kidd was horrified. "It was indicative of how I saw the Bengals anyway," she said. "They take those players."
But then she heard that the incident happened in 2014, when Mixon was 18.
"If I was judged by where I was three years ago, four years ago," she said, "I wouldn't have my position now. None of us aren't deserving of [second] chances. I think it's an issue of grace.
"But also, I'm hoping there's help and prevention on this side before anything happens on the other end of it. If it happened [once], there's still a chance anything can happen again."
In the months before the 2017 NFL draft, when Mixon's name reached Ray Rice and Michael Vick levels of toxicity, dozens of public relations gurus reached out to Mixon's agent to offer help.
Peter Schaffer, it should be noted, also represents Pacman Jones. "I call him Adam," Schaffer said.
Mixon appeared to need all the help he could get. He was barred from attending the NFL combine, which meant 32 teams would not be able to interview him or watch him run around cones. But Schaffer said no to the extra PR help. He thought it would make Mixon sound like a robot.
"NFL coaches are smart," Schaffer said. "They can see through that. After getting to know Joe, I believed the best way for him to overcome any of these issues was for people to see him for who he was. A lot of time was spent saying, 'Joe, open up, let them see you.'
"I wasn't trying to turn him into Denzel Washington or Brad Pitt. I just wanted people to know who Joe Mixon is."
Schaffer has known Bengals coach Marvin Lewis for years. He is somewhat effusive in his praise for him. At the combine earlier this spring, Lewis told ESPN that there was one running back in the 2017 class who could be similar in talent to Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott, who led the NFL in rushing this past season as a rookie. Lewis, at the time, wouldn't say who the running back was. Was it Mixon?
By late Saturday, Lewis was apparently tired of all the Mixon questions and didn't want to answer any more, referring reporters to his news conference statements.
Mixon said he had his first in-depth conversation with the Bengals on the Friday after his pro day in early March. He said he felt comfortable with the coaches.
In some ways, Schaffer said, it was an advantage that Mixon didn't go to the combine. Those interviews are brief; Mixon and the coaches had all the time they needed after the combine.
Fifteen teams met with Mixon. Each of them asked the same question: Tell me what happened the day you punched a woman.
It was July 25, 2014, and Mixon was about to enter his first fall camp at Oklahoma when he and some friends saw Molitor outside of a sandwich shop in Norman. Molitor told police that the incident started when she rejected the advances of the group.
Mixon followed her into the restaurant, and he told police that he heard a racial slur from a male friend of Molitor's. Mixon admitted he responded with a gay slur at the friend.
In surveillance video, Molitor is seen pushing Mixon, and he lunges at her. She slaps him, then he punches her, and as she falls, her face slams against a table. She broke four bones in her face. Mixon was charged with a misdemeanor at the time and suspended for his entire freshman season with the Sooners. He accepted a plea deal and received a one-year deferred sentence and was ordered to perform 100 hours of community service and undergo counseling. Molitor later filed a civil suit.
Last month, Molitor and Mixon reached a civil settlement and issued a joint statement saying they both were moving forward. Mixon said he apologized to Molitor in person and was grateful to be able to speak with her privately.
Said Molitor in a statement: "From our private discussions I am satisfied that we are going to put this behind us and work towards helping others who may have found themselves in similar circumstances. I greatly appreciate his apology and I think the feelings he expressed were sincere. We both could have handled things differently. I believe if we had a chance to go back to that moment in time, the situation would not have ended the way it did.
"I'm finished talking about what happened that night with Joe. It's time to move on from that. I wish Joe the best of luck in his future."
Mixon said one of his biggest role models is his mother, Alisa. He said one of the toughest things was seeing her face-to-face after the incident.
"It's my mama," he said. "At end of the day, she wouldn't turn her back on me even a day in her life."
A Bengals spokesperson said they handled PR for Mixon the same way they did for Washington receiver John Ross and Kansas State defensive end Jordan Willis, the other two players who were selected in the first three rounds of the draft.
A decision-maker for another NFL team, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described how he has seen players with character issues handled after they joined a team.
"They've got to put together a plan where he's got to go out in the community," the source said. "It's going to be rough at first, but you've got to go out in the community and you've got to make him look good."
Rookie camp starts this week. Mixon's position coach at OU, Cale Gundy, doesn't foresee any problems. Gundy insists that Mixon has never drunk alcohol or smoked in his life. He swears by Mixon like he's protecting one of his own children. He doesn't care if people grimace when he calls Mixon a good person. Every time they get off the phone, Gundy said, the men close their conversation by saying they love each other.
He has seen Mixon visit children's centers and hospitals and not say a word about it, even on social media.
"I don't know anything, but I'm an educated man," Gundy said. "I know he's very, very sorry for what he did. I know what kind of life he's lived ever since that time."
Shortly after he was drafted, Mixon took to Twitter. He wanted to post something that captured his emotions, his relief. He thought about it for a while, then asked his agent to look at it before he hit the button. "Thanks to my family @OU_Football and everyone who helped me get here! Let's get to work @Bengals ..." And then he left, for the land of second chances.