Chad Johnson OchoCinco is a clown on the football field, on Twitter, on Facebook, and on TV. In person he is quiet and shy and reserved. He is fascinating nowadays because he is constantly reinventing himself. NFL lockout? No problem. He already has a spot on a Kansas City pro soccer team. He’s flashy, he’s quiet, he’s flashy he’s quiet, he’s flashy, he’s quiet. He’s like a neon sign that blinks in the window.
At his first book signing in September 2006 at Jo-Beth in Cincinnati he wore jewelry that could be seen from outer space. It could have bought my car, my house, and my superficial side. It was a bracelet made of hundreds of canary yellow diamonds and it was the size of a wrist band. Our intern Erika and I had visions of him bestowing it upon us after the event if it went well. The bookstore was packed, and we sold hundreds of books. He was cordial to everyone and even had someone in the audience run out and get him a sandwich from McDonald’s. The book signing was a huge success. When it was over, he said thank you, bolted to his truck and left us and our dreams of instant riches at the door. We did, however, snap some photos of me wearing his sweatshirt when no one was looking. He left with the sweatshirt, too.
When he came to Wilmington for a book signing, we had him come to the office a bit early to sign copies of his book, Chad: I Can’t Be Stopped and just hang out before the chaos ensued (which is what happens in a small town with the arrival of a huge celebrity). He overheard me calling the publisher “Mom” since she is my mother. So from that point on, he called her Mom, too. It was silly and endearing.
At one event in Newport, Kentucky, star-struck fans brought him gifts of all sorts. A pumpkin with his name painted upon it in bright letters, birthday cards (it wasn’t even his birthday), a sandwich he did not eat, jewelry that he kept and candy. He graciously accepted each gift and set it in a pile next to his chair. After everyone was gone, he said, “Here, Sarah, you take this stuff.” I threw out the sandwich but noticed the candy, a full bag of Runts that someone had gotten from one of those large dispensers. I ate a piece. Erika said, “Don’t eat that. It could be poisoned!” I told her I’d call her if I ended up in the hospital. I ate the whole bag. The next day, I went to the gym.
What I’ve learned about celebrities is that they like to hang out with other celebrities. Chad called me once—by mistake. I was out for a walk when my cell phone rang.
“What are you doing?” he asked in a very seductive way.
“Um, out walking,” I replied.
“Walking? Why are you doing that?”
“Well, it’s what I like to do when it’s hot out,” I said.
“Wait a minute. Is this Sarah?” he asked.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I dialed the wrong number. Enjoy your walk.”
He cares. He doesn’t care. Neon sign.
Chad’s mother left him when he was very young. He must have been so frightened as he peered through the screen door watching her go as he stayed behind with his grandma. What was to become of him? His mom needed to move away from Florida, to get her life back together. So she took Chad’s younger brother, Chauncey, and left for California, giving Chad the gift of abandonment, wrapped tightly in a bow of longing and sealed with grief. He was five. Sometimes I wonder if all of his antics are really a message to his mother, saying, “Look at me, Mom. I was worth keeping.”
After the book promotion ended, I didn’t see Chad for quite some time. It wasn’t until August of 2010 when my dad and I went to the Bengals training camp in Georgetown, Kentucky. Before the team’s evening practice began, he was sitting on the bleachers surrounded by fans. They were trying to talk to him, snapping pictures of him with their phones, and he was interacting with them and kind of not. It was as if he were a live museum display. I watched the scene for a few minutes and then said to my dad, “I think I’m going to go down there and just say hi.” So down the stairs I went. I was nervous. What if he doesn’t remember me? He could totally blow me off in front of all those people and make me feel like a complete ass. But I kept walking because I’m always up for an adventure.
I sat down in the same row as he and there were a few people separating us. I leaned forward and caught his eye. He saw me and his face lit up like a Christmas tree. “Oh my god, how are you?” He remembered. So I sat down next to him, gave him a big hug, and we talked for several minutes about his stint on Dancing with the Stars, and the passing of his best friend, Chris Henry. People were taking our picture now. I felt like an ass. So I got up to leave and he said, “Do you still have my number?” I didn’t. “Um, no.” I said meekly. “I have changed phones several times since we last spoke.” He looked dejected. So I handed him my phone and he programmed his number back into it. I gave him one more hug and told him to have a great season. He didn’t. The Bengals finished 4-12.
He didn’t call me either.
I follow Chad on Facebook and Twitter. He sends out random messages to his followers that say, “Pepe (his nickname for himself) loves you” or “I’m thinking of y’all today.” He barely engages in any dialogue with his followers. He just likes to see if they are listening, to see if they respond. Being abandoned can be a chasm of a wound. Maybe one million followers on Facebook and Twitter, a successful career in the NFL, major endorsements, dancing with stars, and two published books aren’t enough.
Maybe sometimes he just has to yell out, “Chad loves you. Don’t go.”