Fan, friends connected with Ochocinco

Kirk Stivers was tired, cold and grieving. It was the last Saturday in November and he had just returned from the funeral of one of his oldest friends, Chris Kernich. Stivers sat on the couch of his mother's home in Beavercreek, Ohio, opened his laptop and logged on to Twitter. He needed to send a message to Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco.

"I knew that was the way I could really connect to him," Stivers says.

That night, nearly 60 miles away, Ochocinco was in Cincinnati on the eve of the Bengals' game against the Browns. It was just after 6 p.m. when he, too, logged on to Twitter.

Ochocinco has more than a half-million followers on the social-networking Web site, which has helped him build a brand beyond being an NFL wide receiver. While scanning his Twitter feed, Ochocinco spotted a message from Stivers that read: @ogochocinco @the_man_CK was buried today with your jersey! A great person was laid to rest today. His memory will always be alive! RIP CK

Less than five minutes after Stivers posted the message, he saw a return message that made his jaw drop and tears start to stream. Ochocinco had a message for Chris Kernich: @the_man_CK bruh I love you man, RIP, you'll never be forgotten, I'm playing for you tomorrow

Before Facebook, Twitter and e-mail, if a fan wanted to reach a professional athlete, there generally were two routes: either some personal connection or a pen and paper. You'd stuff the paper in an envelope, stamp it, ship it, wait and hope. The letter probably would sit in a tub on the ground in the athlete's locker room. If the athlete was a superstar, it likely was wedged between thousands of others.

Technology has allowed social-networking sites to change the dynamic between player and fan. In particular, the emergence of smart phones has brought fans and athletes even closer. But there are no guarantees with this evolving mode of communication, either. Ochocinco, who has more than 700,000 people following him on Twitter, can be besieged with hundreds of messages in a matter of minutes, so there is no guarantee he will see a specific message; it could be wedged in the pile -- just like that piece of snail mail.

A few years ago, Stivers and Kernich's friends had no direct path to communicate with or make any connection to their friend's favorite NFL player. Ochocinco wouldn't have had the tool to instantly reply. It was a unique moment in blending the old and new; a little bit of luck was still needed for Ochocinco to see the Twitter messages among the hundreds of others about one of his fans. And the human connection also came via old-fashioned networking, but with a twist: via Facebook. That coveted connection would bring Ochocinco directly to the family of Chris Kernich.

@OGOchoCinco what a game today!! Way to step it up and do your thing chad..WHO DEY!! -- Oct. 26, 2009: Twitter message from Chris Kernich to Ochocinco after Bengals' 45-10 win against Chicago

Chris Kernich grew up in Fairborn, Ohio, 55 miles northeast of Cincinnati. His parents, John and Sherry, loved sports and took their son to games. After John and Sherry divorced in 1999, they remained friends, and even into Chris's adult life, John, Sherry and Chris would attend games together. Chris rooted for the Bengals and Ohio State, but he especially rooted for Chad Ochocinco -- then Chad Johnson.

"Chris always was the kind of kid who picked the people who others didn't like," Sherry says. "Chris loved Chad."

Kernich attended Fairborn High, where he participated in sports. Friends say he was kind, inclusive and embraced people who had struggles or who were different, including helping a student with special needs. Kernich befriended him, made him an honorary member of the football team. The student, Joel Minton, would later speak at Kernich's funeral.

Stivers and Kernich, who met when they were 7, ended up playing wide receiver at rival high schools. Stivers remembered that soon after Chad Ochocinco -- then Chad Johnson -- joined the Bengals in 2001 as a second-round pick, he quickly became Kernich's favorite player.

"He fell in love with him," Stivers says. "We'd both play receiver and Chris would tell me what Chad did in the games and try and do the same."

Kernich admired Ochocinco's ability to separate himself from the corner, loving that he was a deep threat, Stivers says. By the time Kernich graduated from Fairborn High in 2005, he was one of the state's leaders in receiving touchdowns.

A serious girlfriend kept Kernich close to home at community college the first year after high school, but soon he transferred to Kent State University, a three-hour drive across the state. Once there, in Browns country, he happily proclaimed his affinity for the Bengals and Ochocinco, wearing his custom-made jerseys. Over the years, he bolstered his fanaticism by purchasing Ochocinco's iPhone application and T-shirts with his slogans, and brought him up in just about every other conversation, say his friends and family. Both of the Bengals jerseys Kernich ordered had No. 85 on them; one said "C. Kernich" on the back, while the other read "Cantstop 85."

"If my brother could be reincarnated," says Stephanie Paynter, Chris's sister, "he would probably come back as Chad."

@OGOchoCinco good game today! Best ive ever been too for sure! Keep it up and get em next week! Who dey! -- Oct. 5, 2009: Kernich's Twitter message to Ochocinco after the Bengals' 23-20 win against the Browns

Known as "CK," Kernich was a 23-year-old college student. He was close with his family -- his Twitter photo was of Kernich and his mom -- and he'd often tweet about how much he missed her. He took his dad, John, tailgating along with all of his friends to Ohio State games. When he'd come home for holidays or vacation, he'd always stay at home with his mother.

Last spring, Kernich created an account on Twitter, in large part, his friends say, to keep tabs on Ochocinco. He used the handle "the_man_CK." Friends and family saw the name as typical of Kernich's confidence and sense of humor, saying he was more self-deprecating than self-absorbed.

Kernich didn't work last summer, finding it difficult to get a job, and instead stayed at Kent State. He majored in business management, was scheduled to graduate in 2010 and, friends say, had hopes of one day becoming an athletic director.

He also was a big fan of technology and social media, especially Facebook. Sherry gave him an iPhone and an Apple laptop as an early birthday present in September, and he'd often chat online with friends, post messages on their pages and incessantly write status updates about the Bengals. He made videos, often boasting about how the Bengals and Ochocinco were going to crush an opponent, while frequently dropping famous sayings by the famous wide receiver.

Chris had opened his Twitter account just a few months after his mother Sherry left for Iraq. A General Motors employee, she lost her job during a wave of layoffs. Looking for work and wanting to finish paying off her son's tuition, she signed a one-year contract and headed into a war zone.

Just after Sherry arrived in Iraq, working for a contracted company as a housekeeping supervisor at the U.S. embassy, Kernich convinced his mother to open a Facebook account so they could communicate better with each other.

Sherry was in Baghdad when she received a phone call from her sister, Joy, who told her Chris had been in an accident but was alive and in the hospital. What Joy didn't tell Sherry was that her only son was on life support after allegedly being beaten by two men while walking home from a night out.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!!!!! -- Nov. 11, 2009: Kernich's last Twitter message

Kernich had finished his birthday week ready to go out. According to Chris Pataky, his friend and neighbor, the two spent the night of Nov. 14 out at the bars. Kernich had turned 23 earlier in the week, posting notes about it on Twitter and looking forward to attending the Bengals-Steelers game on Sunday.

Pataky says Kernich spent most of the night talking about going to Pittsburgh the next day for the game. Early on the morning of Nov. 15, they met two of Kernich's roommates for some food, Pataky says..

After eating gyros, they started walking home. Their night was typical up to that point, Pataky tells ESPN.com in his first interview since the incident. The men were walking back to Kernich's apartment when, according to Kent Police, at 2:22 a.m., a car driving by nearly hit Kernich and his friends.

According to news accounts, someone from Kernich's group reportedly yelled at the car, which had stopped. Kent police say men got out of the car, confronted Kernich and his friends, and attacked three of them. When police arrived, they found Kernich unconscious and lying on the ground. Police have called it an "unprovoked assault."

Adrian Barker, 21, and Ronald Kelly, 20, both students at the University of Akron, eventually were charged with murder and felonious assault in connection with Kernich's death. The driver, Glenn Jefferson, 21, also a University of Akron student, was charged with two counts of obstructing justice. The three men are being tried separately and are expected to go on trial in the spring. Attorneys for Barker and Kelly could not be reached for comment. Portage County prosecutor Connie Lewandowski declined comment on the case.

Pataky and the other students there that night are still enrolled at Kent. Pataky declined to talk specifically about what happened, but he says it's something he thinks about "every single day, especially seeing it happen."

Kernich arrived at the hospital in a coma. Sherry got a call in Baghdad: Get home.

@OGOchoCinco URGENT!! -- we are asking for some of your support to help @the_man_CK survive this hard time. This would mean so much! PLZRESPOND -- Nov. 19, 2009: Twitter message from Kernich's friend Katrina Polansky

@OGOchoCinco Chad please come visit my friend Chris Kernich at Akron City Hospital. He suffered a bad head injury and he is your #1 Fan!! -- Nov. 19, 2009: Twitter message from Kernich's friend Zack Siegrist

Sherry arrived at the hospital Tuesday. It had been more than two days since Chris had lapsed into a coma. Friends started a Facebook support page for him that grew to include more than 3,000 people. Doctors told Kernich's parents that he could hear them, so Sherry and John tried to think of anything that might prompt him to awaken.

"We were all at the hospital, thinking of different ways to help Chris," says Sara Syroka, a friend from Kent State who moderated the Facebook support page.

Friends went to the Internet determined to help. They sent tweets to Ochocinco from the waiting room on their laptops. They reached out on Facebook asking if anyone knew a way of getting through to Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel.

They looked for anyone with a connection to the Bengals. Word spread, especially through Facebook, and Syroka, a Kent State student, found a connection to Emily Cornett, also a student at Kent State whose brother went to high school with Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes' son. Emily didn't know Kernich, but her friend Chelsea Groom did. Chelsea sent an e-mail pleading for help. Emily had her brother forward it to Coach Hayes. It read, in part:

To Whom It May Concern:

One of my very close friends, Christopher Kernich, is at the Akron City SUMMA Hospital in Akron, OH in critical condition in the ICU. Sunday around 2 am he was … attacked in Kent by two guys … for no apparent reason. He is currently still on a ventilator and is not responding to anything.

A few days before the accident it was Chris's 23rd birthday and all he was saying was "I'm so excited to go to that game." You hear everyone say "hey I'm the Bengals number 1 fan!!!," But Chris is honestly the biggest fan I have ever heard of. He had tickets to go the Bengals vs. Steelers game this past weekend but obviously was unable to attend. He follows OchoCinco all day everyday. He even pays for his app on his phone to get updates about Cinco constantly. There is never a day that goes by when I don't hear something about him. WHO DEY!!!! is his favorite saying and he always has something to say about the Bengals. We all see Chad as kind of a role model for Chris, he plays the same position and Chris follows his every move.

… Now we're asking you to help us out. Maybe a phone call from the head coach or even Cinco himself would be amazing. We know if Chris heard either voices that it's going to help. There is nothing further we can do right now except pray for a miracle. We are asking from the bottom of our hearts for you guys to help us out. -- Chelsea Groom

Hayes read the e-mail and went straight to the locker room. Hayes had coached Ochocinco in the Senior Bowl when Ochocinco was at Oregon State. The two are close; Hayes says Ochocinco will do just about anything he asks.

"Even if he's having a bad day," Hayes says, "I can always go up to him."

It was Friday, Nov. 20, when Hayes passed Ochocinco the note and asked him to call. The news was not a surprise to Ochocinco. He had remembered seeing tweets about a fan in trouble, but he didn't fully know the situation.

"Someone reached out on Twitter," he says. "You know, on Twitter you can only write so much. So when my coach explained it to me, I called the next day."

The team flew to Oakland on Friday and the following day, around 6 p.m. PT, Ochocinco picked up his phone and dialed the number Hayes had given him. Stephanie Paynter, Chris's sister, was sitting in the nurse's station at the hospital when she saw an unfamiliar number appear on her brother's cell phone. She answered and the man asked for Chris. Stephanie at first thought maybe it was a friend who hadn't heard Chris was in the hospital.

She asked who was calling, and how did he know her brother?

"It's Chad," the man said.

Stephanie was perplexed.

"Chad, Ochocinco Johnson," he said. "I'm looking for Chris."

It took a few seconds to register. She was talking to her brother's favorite player.

"Chad I'm so sorry, but my brother just died," she told him.

There was silence, then the sound of Stephanie crying. She handed the phone to Sherry as Ochocinco kept apologizing. "I am so sorry. I am so sorry," he said over and over. He explained he had just gotten the message and finished prepping for the game.

"I was sad," Ochocinco says. "I was really sad. All I remember is saying, 'I'm sorry.' There's not much I can say in a situation like that."

Sherry was grateful that a Pro Bowl player would take the time to call. She had thought Ochocinco was unnecessarily flashy. That all changed when he called.

After surviving nearly seven days after the alleged beating, Kernich died on Saturday, Nov. 21. He was buried with an Ochocinco jersey.

I just wanna be forever young! -- Sept. 15, 2009: Twitter message by Kernich

Stephanie returned home after her brother's funeral when she got a text message telling her about Ochocinco's tweet. Stephanie and her family already were grateful that Ochocinco had called the hospital, but to see him publicly remember her brother, whom he had never met, made her heart swell.

During the two weeks that spanned Chris first going into the hospital to his death and the planning of his funeral, Stephanie had not turned on her television once. The next morning, knowing Ochocinco said he was playing for her brother, she sat alone in her living room and flipped on the TV.

She watched the Bengals beat the Browns, and every time she saw Ochocinco catch a pass, chills ran up her spine.

Ochocinco says for him, Twitter is just a way to connect with fans like Kernich, his friends and family.

"It's just something that happened," he says. "I reached out the best way I can. Their son was a fan of mine. I always try to reach out to everybody as much as I can. I can't please everybody. But in a situation like that I can take the time out to talk to them, and that's what I did."

Sherry recently decided she wasn't going back to Iraq. It's been too difficult, and the trials of the men accused in connection with Kernich's death are scheduled to begin this spring. Sherry, John and Stephanie attended the Bengals' playoff game thanks to tickets from Ochocinco.

"My mom needed that," Stephanie says, "To offer that experience to us was unreal. It was the best experience that I've had. The only person missing was Chris.

"It was his love for the game and his love for that man that brought us there. He was the only one missing from it."

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. You can reach her at amy.k.nelson@espn3.com.