A world apart
T.J. Houshmandzadeh was OK with finally talking to the father he never knew and who lives in Iran. But make no mistake - the Bengals wide receiver and devoted dad is his own man.
BY MARK CURNUTTE | MCURNUTTE@ENQUIRER.COM
About a week after Father's Day, Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh picked up the phone in his Los Angeles home, dialed overseas to Iran and spoke for the first time to his own dad.
"I called him and said, 'Can I speak to Touraj?'
"He said, 'This is him.'
"I said, 'This is T.J.'
"He said, 'Oh, my God.' And he just started crying."
T.J. Houshmandzadeh did not weep, though, nearing 30 years of age, he had not heard his father's voice before.
The conversation was guarded, formal. There were moments of awkward silence. Touraj said he had looked for T.J. since 1990. He explained that the political situation in Iran, coupled with his inability to find T.J.'s mother, prevented him from contacting his son sooner. He told T.J. that he was married and working as a mechanical engineer, and that T.J. had a half-brother and half-sister in Tehran. T.J. said he was married and had two young daughters and that he and his mother, Deborah Johnson, harbored no hard feelings toward him.
"He asked if he could continue to call me, and I said, 'It doesn't matter. If that's what you like, it doesn't bother me either way,' " T.J. said.
They have talked two more times on the phone, each time for about 15 minutes.
There are no immediate plans for them to meet in person. Logistics are a problem. Touraj Houshmandzadeh lives in Tehran and his work takes him throughout the country. T.J. lives part of the year in Los Angeles and spends the football season in Cincinnati. He is in his seventh year as a Bengals wide receiver.
In late May, Touraj Houshmandzadeh contacted The Enquirer via e-mail, and it was forwarded by a reporter to T.J. The e-mail included three phone numbers in Iran and attachments of photographs - Touraj and his children: son Ali Houshmandzadeh, 26; and daughter Ati Houshmandzadeh, 24.
Curiosity, T.J. said, not anger or longing for a father-son relationship, was his motivation for calling.
First, he asked his wife and his mother what he should do.
"Yes? No?" he said. "I didn't care at all. But I was curious. So then I told my mamma, and she was like, 'Curious, boy?'
"So I forwarded (the e-mail) to her, and she looked at the picture and said, 'That's him.' "
LOVE AND REVOLUTION
Touraj Houshmandzadeh was a foreign-exchange student who met Deborah Johnson in the mid-1970s in California. He earned a bachelor's degree (1977) and then a master's ('79) in engineering from San Diego State University. Their relationship lasted two years but ended before the birth of their son on Sept. 26, 1977.
She named her son after his father because "I wanted to," Deborah, 51, said from her home in Victorville, Calif.
He is Touraj Jr. From it, Deborah came up with the nickname T.J.
Touraj was living just down the West Coast in San Diego, yet he never contacted Deborah or sent money while he was there.
"I really don't know why he didn't try to come see him," she said.
Almost 30 years after the fact, she will admit she was upset then. "But time does heal wounds," she said.
Touraj said he was called home to Iran by his parents. He wanted to return to California, but the Iranian Revolution began to unfold in 1978 and hit stride in '79. U.S.-Iranian relations, once friendly, turned volatile and remain tense to this day. On Nov. 4, 1979, Islamic students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 66 hostages, most of them Americans; 14 would be released by the end of that month, but 52 would be held until January 1981.
"I was not allowed to leave," Touraj Houshmandzadeh said by phone from the western Iranian city of Ilam, where he was on a job site. He is now 58 and works for a privately owned petroleum-chemical company.
"I could not send money for six or seven years," he said. "I promised Deborah I would send money. After the revolution, I wasn't able to keep my promises. I want T.J. to understand that I was not able to do my duties."
Touraj, his wife, Nasrin, and their two children are aware of T.J.'s athletic success. Ali is a fan of American football, Touraj said, and was the one who found out via the Internet that his half-brother was a college football star at Oregon State and would go on to play professionally in Cincinnati. He follows T.J.'s football career on the computer.
"Unfortunately," Ali said, "we don't have sports on television."
Touraj played soccer.
"I understand what American football is; I don't know the rules," he said. "When I see that he is a good football player, I feel very good inside. I am very proud of him."
For whatever the reasons - political or personal - T.J. grew up without his father.
As a teenager in Barstow, Calif., T.J. got into some trouble. Neither he nor his mother would elaborate.
"All teenagers get in trouble," Deborah said. "We were always close; we went through it together. But he was no angel at times. He came back down to earth."
T.J. never connected any of his problems growing up to the fact he did not have a father in his life.
"A lot of people growing up in my generation didn't have fathers," he said.
T.J.'s grandmother would tell him about his father and say he was a good man. Deborah would answer any question T.J. had about Touraj, but he didn't ask many.
When T.J. called her about receiving the e-mail from his father and forwarded it to her, Deborah did not discourage him from contacting Touraj. The decision was her son's to make.
Although T.J. decided to call Touraj, he's not ready to view him as a family member.
"I mean, he is my biological father, but I don't want to be associated with him," T.J. said.
Deborah is African-American, and in the past T.J. has said he considers himself part of that culture. He identifies with his mother religiously as well - they are Christian; Touraj is Muslim.
Deborah said T.J. does resemble his father. He has the same physical build and intelligence.
Thinking back to her struggles to support a family as a single mother, Deborah said determination got her through. She moved to San Antonio, Texas, for some time. She wasn't hiding from Touraj, who said he would try to contact her.
"He probably couldn't find us even if he tried," she said.
She said T.J. has the same type of determination. It is what has lifted him to an NFL career.
"He has come a mighty long way," she said.
T.J. AND CHAD
T.J. graduated from Barstow High School. His senior season, he played running back and rushed for 868 yards, with a whopping 10.1-yard average per carry, and led his team to a 10-1 record.
But his grades prevented him from attending an NCAA Division I school. He attended Cerritos Junior College in California for two years and played wide receiver. Then he played two seasons at Oregon State, where, in fall 2000, he played opposite fellow Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson.
Johnson said he never heard Houshmandzadeh complain about not knowing his father. Johnson understood: Raised by his grandmother in Miami, Johnson would not meet his father until 2005.
"He is very strong," Johnson said of Houshmandzadeh. "At the point where you haven't had a certain individual in your life for that amount of time, you really aren't worried about it. But you are curious."
Johnson's grandmother did not like that Chad met his father.
"Her favorite line was, 'He didn't give you a quarter your whole life. Now that you are successful, here they come.' "
Touraj Houshmandzadeh knows the stereotype of the long-lost father appearing when his son makes good.
T.J. is in the third of a four-year contract with the Bengals that's worth more than $12.5 million.
Touraj said money is not his motivation for wanting a relationship with his son.
"No father can take from his son," Touraj said. "I am doing fine. I do not want anything I do not have. I want to know him."
• Photos: T.J’s global family
SON NOW A FATHER
The man who grew up without a father is himself an attentive one to daughters Karrington, 7, and Kennedi, 5.
"He is the world's greatest dad," Kaci Houshmandzadeh said of her husband. "He is really into our kids."
T.J. has given his children their baths. He has changed their diapers. T.J. would get up overnight to give the babies a bottle so his wife could sleep.
Now he and the girls wrestle in the house. They play ball outside and ride bikes.
"I do appreciate it," Kaci said. "I know a lot of women who have to do everything by themselves. I look at T.J. and see the joy in his eyes when he's with the girls.
"But I don't know if it's because he didn't have a father."
T.J. does wonder what effect not having a father has on his own parenting style, but he doesn't pause long on that question. No reason to. It's not as if he can change his past.
"I discipline them," he said of his daughters. "I don't like to be mean to my kids, but I have and I will because I need them to know right from wrong and that not everything is going to be given to you, things of that nature. ... I do the best I can. I'm not perfect."
Kaci grew up without a father. But she was brought up by her grandparents, so she had a father figure.
T.J. said he had no adult male role models, except for one or two of his mother's brothers. Still, his contact with his uncles was limited because they did not live nearby.
"I was my own father figure, if you ask me," T.J. said. "I grew up fast. My mom would tell you that. Everybody in the house, when I was 13 or 14, came to me for money. I was never angry."
Any frustration he had was a result of growing up in a low-income family in Barstow. Deborah would have two more sons with another man a few years after T.J. was born, but that man died, T.J. said.
"It never bothered me," he said. "If it did, it might have been when I was younger, before my teenage years: 'I wish I could get these shoes or those shoes or go eat here.' But that's how it was."
FATHER AND SON TALK
During one of their phone calls, Touraj invited T.J. and his family to visit him in Tehran.
"I wanted him to come to see his family," Touraj said.
"My brothers are my mom's kids," T.J. said.
Besides, there was the matter of taking his wife and daughters with him on the trip.
"I couldn't put my wife and kids in a situation where I was going to be nervous because if I'm nervous, I know they're going to be nervous," he said.
T.J. did say he would meet Touraj if he came to the United States.
"I will try to do that in the next one or two years," said Touraj, who fervently wants to meet his son and establish a relationship.
There is indifference about T.J. regarding all things other than his family and job, his wife said.
Such an attitude was displayed when T.J. was asked whether he felt sad or happy about speaking to Touraj.
"I don't think it made me feel either way," T.J. said. "My wife tells me all the time that I have no emotions. My emotional side, when it comes to softer things, it's non-existent. It's like I don't have it in my body, unless it's my kids."
Where the fledgling father-son relationship goes from here is up to T.J.
"He said, 'Deborah knew how much you meant to me. I don't understand why she didn't try to find me,' " T.J. said when asked what they discussed. "But when you (his mother) don't have any money, you can't do anything. So it was just one of those (situations where he said), 'I'm sorry,' and I said, 'I'm cool.' "
The two did not talk about football.
"I don't know what we would have in common," T.J. said. "When I was talking to him, my wife said, she caught me: 'You're talking to him like he's one of your friends.' I had to stop saying it's OK. He was crying. I was just trying to be nice to him."
In Iran, Touraj Houshmandzadeh, now that he has established communication with his American son, has one fear.
"I don't think he wants to pursue this," Touraj said. "This is a new situation for T.J. That is why I will not try (to contact T.J.) again. He can call me if he wants to know me. This is something I hated, that some people would say I want his money. I do not care anything about his money. All I want is to know him."