That Tuesday morning in September 2009, I didn't know the self-promotional artist formerly known as Chad Johnson. I knew only that he had challenged me via Twitter to bring "First Take" to Cincinnati and say to his face on live TV what I'd been saying about him ...
That clownishly changing his name to Ochocinco and presumptuously wearing a "Future Hall of Fame" jacket on the sideline during a Monday night game and that spending so much football time choreographing TD dances and midweek skits to taunt opponents and fan-interaction stunts on Twitter would speed the end of his NFL career.
So on the Bengals' day off, we set up a makeshift debate table in a deserted locker room. As the show opened at 10 a.m., I sat across from Chad and unleashed. I expected him to fire back with a vengeance -- he had tweeted he'd like to punch me in the mouth. Instead, I was stunned to see tears welling in his eyes.
He knew deep down I was right. But at the time, I didn't know WHY I was right.
Chad eventually regained his composure and defended himself. But when the show ended and I walked around that table to offer a handshake, he jumped up and stunned me again by hugging me. Over the last three years, as I got to know what I believe to be the real Chad -- not his alter ego Ochocinco -- I came to this conclusion ...
That day in '09, he was losing his battle to insecurity, which haunted him like Revis. Even after all he had accomplished as a receiver, he still did not trust that he could play another six or eight great years for the Bengals and wear a real Hall of Fame jacket. The real Chad -- the shy, lonely showman who's as creatively gifted as he is fragile and flawed -- never believed he was anywhere near as good as he kept telling us he was. Some players fear career-ending injury; Chad feared waking up one morning and not being able to get open anymore. His NFL success had come as such a shock to him that he feared the end could be equally improbable. So he began focusing more on his fallback career -- promoting the entertainer Ochocinco -- than he did on football.
Chad wasn't just good at being Ochocino, he was Hall of Fame great. He began dominating social media and sports media coverage the way few athletes have. Ochocinco had a rare instinct for making himself an almost daily story.
That, in my view, was because he was afraid a director would soon yell, "Cut!" on the reality show that had become his football life.
"What do I ever do that's private?" he asked last week under cross-examination from me and Stephen A. Smith at the "First Take" debate desk in Bristol.
That, Chad, was precisely my point from the start.
His second career, in which he will continue to get famous mostly for just being famous, hastened the end of the football career he wanted most. He turned himself into Chad Kardashian, self-promoting his way right out of the NFL at age 34, becoming too Twitter-big for his own good (3.7 million followers, most in the NFL) at the expense of his football dedication. Now if I have my guess, the NFL has permanently stamped Chad Johnson "more trouble than worth" ... especially after the domestic violence incident that ended his five-week marriage and even shorter Miami Dolphins career.
As he said on air last week, "I lost my way ... I lost my edge when my focus went away from the game of football."
Here's the saddest part: All the A!T!T!E!N!T!I!O!N! Chad created -- the reality shows, books, bull riding, soccer-playing stunts, the OchoCinco News Network, "Dancing With the Stars," Twitter wars and controversies real or contrived -- eventually distracted fans from just how great Chad Johnson was as a receiver.
For six seasons (2002-07) there was not a better receiver in the NFL. Five straight Pro Bowls. First-team All-Pro in '05 and '06. Over those six years, Chad ranked second in the NFL in catches, second in catches for first downs and second in receiving yards, and he tied for first (with Marvin Harrison) with 64 catches of 25 or more yards.
You'd forgotten just how great he was, hadn't you? Thank Chad Kardashian.
No receiver video-gamed out of his breaks quicker or found a sixth or seventh gear going after deep balls any better than Chad did. And no diva receiver had a better ego-feeding circumstance. Over those six years, Chad was also second in the NFL in passes thrown his way. Coach Marvin Lewis treated him like a son and patiently answered his many soul-searching 3 a.m. phone calls. Bengals fans were increasingly amazed and amused by the can-he-top-this TD celebrations, from the obviously rehearsed Riverdance (my favorite) ... to using the pylon and football to stage Tiger Woods making a fist-pumping putt ... to the "Dear NFL: Please don't fine me again." sign.
Chad has promotional genius. Heck, without prompting he created and designed the red-heart-on-black "I Love @RealSkipBayless" T-shirts that became a staple of our show. I first saw one when Chad wore it on his Twitter avatar.
But Chad couldn't trust that he could continue living up to being the Man in Cincinnati. Remember, he didn't even PLAY football his first year in college, at little Langston in rural Oklahoma. Chad was lucky to hook on at Santa Monica College, then he shocked himself by getting better and better at Oregon State. This late bloomer found himself being drafted high in the second round, 36th overall, then becoming an NFL star!
Chad can be a complex mix of humble egomaniac, introverted hotdog, unassuming superstar. That's part of his appeal to Twitter followers: He can be as moody, as needy, as crazy as any of them. His in-person presence is small. He often cares far too much what the least important person thinks of him. You want to shake him and say, "You are CHAD JOHNSON."
Before the 2010 season, Chad campaigned for the Bengals to sign his BFF and TD celebration rival, Terrell Owens. Chad tried to tell me he just wanted to maximize the Bengals' chances of winning a Super Bowl. But Chad also wanted 1.) T.O. to take some go-to pressure off him and 2.) T.O. to help expand Chad's off-field stage, starting with the "T.Ocho Show" on Versus.
This colossal coupling prompted people to view Owens and Ocho as two peas in a pod. But I did not. I boil down people to "good heart" or "bad heart" -- meaning they're basically good or basically not. Chad has a good heart, Owens not so much. I nicknamed T.O. "Team Obliterator" because he tore apart the 49ers, Eagles and Cowboys, turning on quarterbacks and coaches. Chad was never a divisive force. He just lived in Chad's World and had no interest in leading or uniting the Bengals.
Significantly, Chad never seemed to mind that Carson Palmer aimed 135 passes at Owens that season to 120 for Chad. And predictably, the "T.Ocho Show" produced a 4-12 record and was canceled in Cincinnati. Chad was traded to New England.
That offseason I ran into Chad at ESPN The Weekend and offered this advice: Leave the self-promotional beast that was Ochocinco behind. Lock back into football. Become the deep threat Tom Brady didn't have. Hope Bill Belichick's brilliance carries you to the validation your sometimes clownish career desperately needs -- a ring.
But Bengals owner/GM Mike Brown had traded Chad to the one place he knew Chad would fail -- to Belichick, who requires every receiver to learn every other receiver's routes, including the slot and tight end. After the lockout ate up most of camp, Chad never caught up. In 15 games he caught a grand total of 15 passes. In the Super Bowl, Brady threw him a parting gift, a 21-yard completion, almost certainly the last pass Chad will catch in the NFL. But again the Giants denied Brady/Belichick another ring. Chad remained ringless -- on the field.
But of course, Chad met "Basketball Wives" star Evelyn Lozada on Twitter, soon married her in front of TV cameras and soon cheated on her, igniting the fight that ended in domestic violence. Chad takes complete blame, says he's undergoing counseling, says he wants Evelyn back, even claims he signed the wrong name to the divorce papers.
Now that Chad's life has become one big, cleverly scripted reality show, I'm not sure how much of this to believe.
It almost seemed as if new Dolphins coach Joe Philbin scripted the signing and cutting of Chad to drive the plot of HBO's "Hard Knocks," which took you inside Dolphins camp last August. What a fitting end for Chad the reality-TV star, being fired for real on reality TV. Chad suspects this soon would have happened regardless of the Evelyn incident -- that Philbin just wanted to send a message to his new team that he was in charge by cold-bloodedly cutting a famous receiver.
"I lost it all," Chad said on air last week. Wife and football. Many in our audience surely felt sorry for him. I couldn't.
Chad brought all this on himself. And now, I believe, a big part of Chad is relieved he no longer has to live up to the pressure to perform on the field or to dread football's end. It's upon him. And it isn't as if he doesn't have a second career. It has been in full swing for far too long.
I would never bet against Chad the entertainer. Commentating, acting, directing, creating, scripting, innovating -- the sky is no limit for this man's mind.
Before Chad left our studio last week, he came up behind me, hugged me around the neck, kissed me on the cheek and told me he loved me. I love you too, man. I'm sorry I was so tough on you that first morning in Cincinnati. Now I understand you.