CINCINNATI — Chad Johnson sits behind the wheel of an average working stiff's 2002 white Buick Regal. The tinted windows aren't the only sign of the emerging superstar within.

Chad Johnson loves the camera and the camera loves him back.
By Tom DiPace, USA TODAY Sports Weekly

The cellphone sitting in the center console rings every few minutes. There's a picture of Johnson and his girl on the dashboard. In the back seat are a couple of taped-up footballs marked with the score, date and opponent — including one Johnson simply calls "The Riverdance ball."

That ball commemorates Johnson's Michael Flatley-inspired, Lord of the End Zone Dance after his 18-yard touchdown catch in the Bengals' 24-7 win Sept. 25 against the Bears.

In Johnson's version of NFL lore, "The Drive" and "The Catch" are now accompanied in immortality by "The Riverdance." His touchdown jig cemented the NFL's indomitable showman as the game's most compelling entertainer.

Johnson stops by a downtown hotel to pick up a passenger on his way to record a couple of endorsement spots for a local radio station.

Where's the flashy sports car or tricked-out sport-utility vehicle?

"This is my everyday car," says Johnson, who also has a 1975 pink Chevrolet Caprice, yellow Lamborghini and blue Hummer at home in South Florida. "The only extra is the limo tinted windows."

Johnson, 27, is driven to live up to his self-induced hype. The fifth-year Bengals receiver plays the game's swagger position with telegenic flare, acrobatic passion and an impish desire to make others smile. The commissioner of fun is on a mission to bring an old-school league into the reality-show age, the way he's helped coach Marvin Lewis change Cincinnati's culture of losing.

"(Commissioner Paul) Tagliabue and most of the suits in this league are all old school, and I really don't think they're for the end-zone celebrations," Johnson says. "But I know in the back of their minds they are laughing. They can't wait to see what No. 85 is going to do next.

"Even though it's something they don't like, I guarantee they think what I'm doing is entertaining. I know they have to like it because nothing I do is mischievous.

"You can't be old school 24/7. That would be a miserable life. There has to be some type of entertainment in football."

What will No. 85 do next?

Johnson has made the answer to that weekly question must-see TV.

But for all his flamboyance, Johnson is still the anti-Terrell Owens and anti-Randy Moss.

He doesn't hurt his team by being disruptive. He's not about taunting, mooning or rubbing anything in anybody's face — or against anybody's goal post. You don't see Johnson pretending to moon Packers fans, or knocking down a traffic cop with his SUV, as now-Raider Moss did as a Viking. You don't see Johnson wearing a retro Cowboys jersey, as Owens did on the team flight after the Eagles' crushing loss Oct. 9 at Dallas.

Johnson not only walks the talk, he dances it.

"Nothing is done with bad intent," Johnson says. "Thinking of that next end-zone celebration drives me. There has to be some type of entertainment in what I do.

"The outside world doesn't know Chad. The outside world only sees a cocky, arrogant, trash-talking receiver that's very, very good.

"But I want people to understand the hard work I put in each week; the hours of watching film; the hours of going over the game plan and sitting in on meetings with coaches. No other player sits up there and goes over the game plan with their coaches on their off days. I wish people would understand I'm not just talk.

"My foundation is right. The thing that's made me successful is all the hard work."

He hasn't been fined for a celebration since pulling a sign from a snow bank during a 2003 game that read, "Dear NFL, please don't fine me again! Merry Christmas."

Consider that $10,000 fine his entrance fee to entertainer school.

Johnson insists the game has to make the kind of dramatic change that takes place in The Wizard of Oz when the film transitions from the black-and-white Kansas sequences to the vivid Technicolor of Emerald City.

"New-school football is all energy," Johnson says. "New-school entertainment is what is right now. It's like technology. People are watching plasma color TV on big screens now. ...Old school is like you're still watching black-and-white TV.

"New school brings different personalities and excitement to the game. As times have changed, what people want to see out of this game has changed."

There's the laminated cornerback checklist — "Who Can Cover 85 in 2005?" — hanging inside his Paul Brown Stadium locker. Asked during a recent conference call if anyone can cover him, Johnson cracked: "The IRS. They've been on me for quite a while."

His "all-no" cornerback list is Johnson's way of pumping himself up.

"The guys I line up against every week understand," Johnson says. "They know my personality. It's, 'OK, let me step my game up. I've got to play 85.' It makes the game fun and challenging. We're talking trash. Everybody's on the edge of their seat. What's going to happen?"

Lewis tolerates Johnson's antics and occasional phone calls in the early morning hours because Johnson is the hardest working Bengal. He'll call to talk strategy, even at 2 a.m.

"Marvin is a father figure to Chad and calms him down," HBO analyst and former Bengals receiver Cris Collinsworth says. "Chad's funny. Even doing CPR on the football (against Jacksonville), I was laughing.

"When he did the Riverdance, he saw Michael Flatley during a TV commercial the night before the game. He learned it practicing for a few minutes in the bathroom mirror. It would take me a year of Arthur Murray dance lessons to learn that.

"He got mad at me one time. He was ranting and raving on the sideline. I said: 'Hey, that's not the Chad Johnson I know. The guy I know wants to entertain and put on a show. He's not the dark side of receivers, a T.O. or Randy Moss.'

"I told him: 'Don't lose people. They want to be entertained.' He gets it."

After back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons, Johnson is among the league's top five with 39 receptions, 561 yards and five touchdowns during the Bengals' 5-1 start. That includes eight catches for 135 yards and a TD in a 31-23 victory Sunday at Tennessee. With his 4.3 speed, he's in the fast company of Owens, Moss, Indianapolis' Marvin Harrison and St. Louis' Torry Holt as the best receivers.

"He's a phenomenal talent who's made plays flipping upside down in the air," Collinsworth says. "I love watching him play. He's a real star-quality NFL player.

"There's a really fine line that's hard to distinguish between, 'I want the ball because it's going to make me rich and famous,' and 'I want the ball because I can help our team win.' I really believe Chad Johnson is on the team's side. In Chad's mind, when he's complaining, it's because he thinks it's in the team's best interest.

"The only thing he has to worry about is learning to keep it under control."

For instance, there was that sideline exchange with quarterback Carson Palmer during a 23-20 loss Oct. 9 against Jacksonville when Johnson lobbied for the ball.

"They're fine," Lewis says of receiver and quarterback. "He's a very sincere person. He has a big heart and wants to be great."

Johnson fought back tears after the loss.

"This is the reason we don't get Sunday, Monday night games," he said afterward, his voice cracking.

"He wears his emotions on his sleeve sometimes," Palmer told reporters. "He's an emotional player. He's very competitive, and he wants the ball."

Palmer and Johnson have a strong relationship forged by all the work they've done to enhance timing and chemistry.

"Chad really is harmless," Palmer says. "He's a little kid at heart and does a lot of things that make you laugh. He just loosens the mood and makes you realize, we're still playing a game."

Collinsworth nails it when he says Johnson is Cincinnati's Muhammad Ali.

The 6-1, 192-pound Johnson has talent, charisma and the desire to be great. That hunger is born of poor beginnings growing up in the Liberty City section of Miami.

Johnson says that where he comes from, a baby's first words aren't "mommy" or "daddy." They're some form of trash talk.

"It's Miami," Johnson says. "Everything is competition. Everything."

Home to at least 30 NFL players, if you aren't talking more trash than a sanitation worker in Miami, you aren't a big-time player.

"The trash talking starts early down there," Johnson says. "It's just the way we were brought up —Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Samari Rolle, Clinton Portis— it's why so many stars that dominate the NFL are from down that way.

"Everything is a trash talking competition at every age group."

A cousin of Cowboys receiver Keyshawn Johnson and Ravens cornerback Rolle, Johnson's desire to be the next Jerry Rice probably saved him.

"He was almost one of those great athletes who remained a playground legend," Collinsworth says. "He'll freely admit. He tried to flunk his way out of college because all he had passion for was playing ball."

Johnson was raised by his grandmother and grandfather, Betsy and the late James Flowers.

"I lost friends to drugs and jail," Johnson says. "Everyone has a route when you're young. Once you veer off that path it's tough to come back. I veered off a couple of times. But when it counted, I was able to get myself right. I wanted to play this game so bad, it's what got me to where I am. I wasn't good in school. All I wanted to do was play ball.

"I was cocky even then. I knew I was going to make it. I didn't care what anybody said. I was going to be one of the best to play this game. As I got older and got better at my craft, my trash talking got worse."

Johnson hasn't arrived the way he truly wants — as the game's best receiver.

His 1,274 receiving yards in 2004 led the AFC for the second straight season, including a career-high 95 receptions.

Where is he among Owens, Moss, Harrison and Holt?

"I'm not in their category yet simply because I haven't achieved what they've achieved," Johnson says. "They are there consistently year after year. OK, my numbers are in the same category. I've been in the Pro Bowl. Is that where I want to leave my mark as being one of the best? No.

"I want to help turn this organization around — do it being exciting, being entertaining and being a good guy. When I've taken my team to the playoffs, and, hopefully, this year, help take us to the Super Bowl — when I've done those things, then I'll consider myself one of the best."

Johnson pulls into the parking lot outside the WLW-AM radio studios. Everyone inside is drawn to the Bengals receiver like iron filings to a magnet. Like former NBA star Earvin Johnson, there's a certain magic to this Johnson's persona.

A young woman sees Johnson walk by her cubicle, gets wide-eyed and asks, "Are you going to Riverdance?"

"Not today," Johnson smiles.

Shirt-and-tie guy says he's a Steelers fan.

"The Steelers suck," Johnson says with such a disarming smile the guy can't help but laugh.

Johnson is dressed in a red soccer shirt, red- and black-striped shorts that droop well beyond his knees, capped with a pair of black suede slippers. Slippers?

Hey, it's his off day. He enters a sound room and tapes a couple of local commercials.

"In all my years growing up in Cincinnati, I've never experienced a personality like Chad Johnson," says WLW account executive Brian Hopton, 32. "People absolutely love him. He's changed the Bengals' personality. We had Corey Dillon and Carl Pickens, and that was a bad vibe. Chad's positive and entertaining. Everybody wants to see what he's going to do next.

"Thank God we have him."

He does a commercial, as Holt and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger do. But Johnson doesn't worry that his national endorsement profile is still under the radar.

"Everything right now for me is football," he says. "It's my life. I play this game for my kids. I play this game for my friends and for all those I grew up with who didn't make it. And I play this game for all those who coached me. I play this game because I can't let down my grandmother and my mom. I can't let down coach Lewis.

"I have to set my kids up for the future. And people wonder where my drive comes from. There's not much difference I can make in this world by what I do, except just smile all the time and have fun.

"I love what I do. And that rubs off on people."