It was one of those typically incestuous Tinseltown celebrity convergences, an impromptu conversation between an athlete who changed his name to enhance his fame and an actor who need only drop his first name to receive the red-carpet treatment.
Yet when Cincinnati Bengals wideout Chad Ochocinco met Denzel Washington at a Los Angeles Lakers game this past spring, it wasn’t the mutual fawning session you might expect. Rather than compliment the receiver formerly known as Johnson for his athletic excellence, Washington called him out, portraying Ochocinco’s lost 2008 season as a self-inflicted nightmare.
Photo Washington, left, and Ochocinco during the NBA’s Western Conference finals.
“He got on me about the way I handled myself last offseason,” Ochocinco recalled in a phone conversation last week. “He wasn’t being gentle. He said, ‘You know what? You need to straighten up and stop fussin’ about something you have no control over. Make it fun again because it sure looks better when you do it that way.’ That’s all I needed to hear, especially from somebody like him.”
Is it possible that the NFL’s presumptive 2009 comeback player of the year could owe an assist to a man who owns two Oscars? We’re getting ahead of ourselves, but two things are clear as what’s left of the offseason melts away: 1) Ochocinco, 31, believes he’s headed for a monster season; and 2) Washington successfully imparted a stop-being-a-knucklehead sentiment that so many people shared last year as the formerly ebullient Pro Bowler devolved into the NFL’s de-facto grumpy old man.
From 2004 to 2007, Ochocinco (or, to be accurate, Johnson) thrived on the field – he led the NFL in receiving yards (5,515) and was second in catches (372) over that four-year span – while doing his best to remind us that football isn’t war. He proposed to a cheerleader in the end zone, gave CPR to a football after another touchdown and kept a conspicuous checklist in his locker featuring the cornerbacks he planned to burn each week.
When I profiled him for Sports Illustrated before the ’05 season, Ochocinco guaranteed that the Bengals would make the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, a prediction that proved to be accurate. But after a pair of disappointing follow-up campaigns, Ochocinco decided he wanted out of Cincinnati – a time-honored tradition of disgruntled Bengals skill players (Carl Pickens, Corey Dillon(notes)).
Predictably, he was not subtle in expressing his wishes.
In the days leading up to Super Bowl XLII in Arizona, Ochocinco did a series of interviews in which he openly campaigned to be traded to various teams. He skipped all of the team’s offseason workouts and, in April of ’08, reiterated that “I don’t want to play for the Bengals.”
Bengals owner Mike Brown was adamant that the team would not give in to the receiver’s wishes, and Ochocinco was clearly perturbed upon reporting for training camp. He separated his left shoulder in a preseason game and, with star quarterback Carson Palmer(notes) out most of the season with a torn elbow ligament, caught just 53 passes for 540 yards in a 4-11-1 season.
A heart-to-heart conversation with Brown in January put Ochocinco’s mind at peace, he says, and he began an ambitious offseason training program that included regular boxing workouts. The dressing-down from Washington – think head coach Herman Boone in “Remember The Titans” – convinced him to start channeling his inner Muhammad Ali.
“My checklist is going back up this year,” Ochocinco says. “The bottom line is that football is fun. A lot of people, they forget about that. This is a business, a harsh business. We’re all one play away from having our careers cut short. The one thing I do is, I play the game like a kid. Last year, I let the business side get the better of me. This year, I’m bringing the fun back.”
His comical Twitter feud with San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman(notes) (inadvertently instigated by Y! Sports’ Charles Robinson, though he’s too shy to admit it) was a taste of the old Ocho with a new catchphrase: “Child, please.” You’re going to be hearing it quite a bit over the next few months, especially on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.”
Few athletes express themselves so creatively. After skipping most of the Bengals’ offseason program, Ochocinco surprisingly showed up in early June for several OTA sessions in advance of a mandatory minicamp. Asked by reporters about his relationship with Palmer – which has had its share of tension – Ochocinco insisted all was well, saying, “We’re like Brokeback Mountain.”
Before the minicamp, Ochocinco got an unexpected phone call from Washington.
“He was in Europe, filming a movie, yet he took the time to reach out,” Ochocinco marvels. “He wanted to make sure my mind was clear. He is the coolest individual I’ve ever met. Seriously.”
Ochocinco plans to repay Washington by having a great year and smiling all the way to the finish.
“The good thing is, he says he’s gonna come watch me play, and I can’t wait,” Ochocinco says. “That might be the game where I get 500 yards. There’s no doubt that I’ll be back this season. It’s common sense. When I’m running my mouth and I’m happy, good stuff happens.
“I didn’t want to play last year; I didn’t want to be there. I was forced to stay. That’s behind me now. This will be a record-breaking year – I’m ready to rock and roll.”
Can advice from a rock star be far behind?