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Hefferon: Johnson embodies Twitter era (Feb. 27)

Jack Hefferon | Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Editor’s note: This is the third in a 12-part series discussing the defining sportsman (or woman) of this century. In this installment, Jack Hefferon argues for Chad Johnson. Join the discussion on Twitter by using #DefiningSportsman.

Over the course of two weeks you will see several columns in this space about some of the greatest athletes of our time, sportsmen and women who have distinguished themselves as true legends in their sport.

This is not one of those columns.

Certainly the talents of LeBron James, Lionel Messi or Roger Federer are the best of this young century. And athletes like Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds have been some of the biggest stories of the last 13 years, both inside and outside of the lines.

But have they led their respective teams while also starring in reality shows, demanding trades, commanding social media and changing their name not once but twice (and almost three times)?

No, there’s only one of those type of athletes. And while he’ll never be considered the best athlete of his generation, the personality that is Chad Johnson (or at one time, “Chad Ochocinco”) has come to define exactly what it means to be an athlete in the 21st century.

Johnson was nothing special early in his career but busted onto the scene in 2003, when he broke Cincinnati’s franchise record with 1,355 receiving yards in his third season in the NFL. That campaign was Johnson’s arrival as an elite wide receiver, as it proved to be his first of four straight years leading the AFC in receiving yards and the first of five straight Pro Bowl seasons.

Johnson’s true essence never showed itself in his on-field accomplishments but instead came during what happened afterward. His touchdown celebrations became legendary, ranging from the impressive (Riverdancing, pylon-putting) to the outlandish (proposing to a Bengals cheerleader, trying to bribe referees with dollar bills), with a hefty league fine following every one. He also introduced props to the realm of celebration, including a fake Hall of Fame jacket, a blank check (for paying the aforementioned fines) and countless, hilarious others.

After making those five straight Pro Bowls, Johnson made another revolutionary move in 2008 when he legally changed his last name to “Ochocinco” in honor of his jersey number, 85. He planned to make a similar change to the Japanese “Hachi Go” in 2010, but eventually backed out.

But since the change to Ochocinco, Chad has been muy terrible. He averaged just over 500 yards receiving over his last two seasons in the league and was cut by the Dolphins during the 2012 preseason.

Maybe that’s because he’s been too busy off the field. By an unofficial count, over the last five years Ochocinco starred in five reality shows, released one iTunes app, wrote one autobiography and sent roughly 42,000 tweets. He tried out for Sporting Kansas City of Major League Soccer, rode a bull (for less than two seconds) at a Pro Bull Riders event and raced against a thoroughbred racehorse for charity.

It took him less than two years to go from married to divorced after headbutting his wife, whom he proposed to while playing Call of Duty.

How far has Ochocinco fallen? He actually changed his name back to Johnson last year in hopes of “reconnecting with his former self.” It seems at this point that making the case for Johnson as a defining sportsman would be a foolish pursuit.

However, that’s exactly what makes Johnson the perfect definition for the modern American athlete. Over the last 13 years, America has embraced athletes for their personalities on and off the field, while increased media exposure and personal branding have thrown their off-field lives – and troubles – to the forefront. Lasting superstars are becoming an endangered species, as players may be everywhere for a week or year, then gone the next (looking at you, Tebowmania and Linsanity).

There are hundreds of athletes that have accomplished more on the field than Johnson in the past 13 years. But as he showed us, it’s not just about that anymore.

Contact Jack Hefferon at wheffero@nd.edu
The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.