Chad Johnson Jr. Wants to Be Flashy Like Dad—but Knows He Has to Earn It First

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterJuly 18, 2018


MIAMI — Twenty-two floors up, Chad Johnson Jr. eases his left foot onto the balcony rail that stands between him and the idyllic scenery of Biscayne Bay. A half-smoked cigar rests idle in an ashtray to his right—the work of his father, Chad Johnson Sr., the former NFL star who once legally changed his name to Chad Ochocinco and, during an actual game, gave a football CPR.

In a few hours, the 16-year-old will join his father and Antonio Brown (the best wide receiver on the planet) for a workout.      

Flash is in his blood. Flash surrounds him. But right now, as he overlooks the South Beach shoreline in a red beanie and a white and green Adidas pullover, he seems quiet. Nervous, even. Careful not to say something that might sound too much like his father, who knows of no such verbal governor. His sentences are barely audible over the parade of smooth-humming luxury-car engines that fly by below.

That flair is inside him, but he's not ready to unleash it yet. Not here, at least.

"I want to be flashy, but I also have to make sure I can back it up," Johnson Jr. says. "Like he did."

Photo by Adam Kramer

Part of the reluctance might be that this isn't his home turf. Johnson lives with his mother in Venice, California, where he will soon be a junior at Venice High School. He visits his father a few weeks each summer, and most of that time is spent at his Miami Beach mansion, with only occasional stays here at his father's condo—a space filled floor-to-ceiling with colorful Adidas shoes and shoeboxes, an Xbox and more half-smoked cigars abandoned in ashtrays.

For Johnson Jr., this yearly dose of unconventional extravagance is routine. So is the luxury of training with two of the greatest route-runners to ever play the position he was born into.

"There are no excuses," Johnson Jr. says. "I have all the resources to be great."

As scholarship offers and recruiting interest from Lane Kiffin, Nick Saban and others trickle in, the spotlight has grown larger. Not just because he is the size of a collegiate wide receiver right now, with some of the best hands of any high school wide receiver in the country, but because it's hard to see beyond where he comes from first.

"I love sharing the same name as my dad—until people tell me I'm being recruited simply because of it," Johnson Jr. says. "They believe that everything is because of him and what he has done.

"But they don't know how hard I am working to get out of his shadow."

Twenty-two floors below, Chad Johnson Sr. sits alone at a small bar underneath his condo wearing a bright peach Adidas hoodie. His eyes are fixed on a television mounted on the ceiling in front of him.

He places his order as he waits for the Peru-Denmark World Cup game to begin: chocolate pound cake (warmed) and a Coke served in a can. Not long after his son sits down across from him, a woman sheepishly approaches.

"Girl, I love you," he says as he rises from his chair. "Let me get a hug."

As his father rises for his greeting, Johnson Jr. checks his phone. He's used to this by now: the pictures and the autographs and the hugs and the reality of sitting sidecar while his father is in public.

Over the next 30 minutes, Johnson Sr. makes time for every person who approaches.

"The persona that I put on, people see me as an asshole or a diva," Johnson Sr. says. "But nobody truly knows me personally. This is me."

For 11 seasons, Johnson was one of the most productive wide receivers in the NFL while playing almost exclusively for the Bengals—finishing his career with 11,059 yards, 766 receptions and 67 touchdowns. He was named to six Pro Bowls.

But his personality seemed to leave an even larger impression than the staggering production. Like when he performed his version of Riverdance. Or threw on a Hall of Fame jacket. Or proposed to a cheerleader.

These days, Johnson, now 40 years old, has adapted to a simplified lifestyle: "Working out, smoking cigars and playing FIFA," he says.

Football, however, is still very much a part of his life, especially as his son inches closer to college. As of now, though, he refuses to immerse himself in his son's recruitment.

"I still think it's too early," Johnson Sr. says. "I don't want to hear about those f--king offers right now. If you take care of your business on that green grass, the offers will handle themselves.

"I am just being honest. They preach all this craziness. A bunch of bulls--t."

His son currently holds verbal scholarship offers from Arizona State, Florida Atlantic and Oregon State—the last program that gave Johnson Sr. a chance when few others would.

For now, though, Johnson Sr. says the nuances of playing the position are more important than the big picture—"slow feet don't eat," he likes to say—which is why he's aligning his son with All-Pro talents.

"I want to allow him to grow into his own," Sr. says. "He has his own DNA, makeup and build. But he can get an idea of what it should look like at the highest level."

Football unquestionably has brought the two closer. Before big games, Johnson Jr. will reach out to his father for advice. "I don't have long f--king speeches," Johnson Sr. says. "If you're serious about the craft and where you want to go, it will show."

Last fall, Chad Sr. attended his son's first game. Now, he's taken on a new role in his development: defensive back.

After torturing and trash-talking those who played the position for more than a decade, he has found comfort on the other side of the ball when he goes against his son. As one would expect, neither does so quietly.

"His hands are real good right now," Johnson Sr. says. "Everything else has a long f--king way to go. I'll be playing against him later today, and I am going to lock his ass up."

"That's why you're running from it," Johnson Jr. interrupts. "I got cleats this time."

The resemblance of father and son is striking.

Not just the size. At 6'2" and 185 pounds, Chad Johnson Jr. already stands eye-to-eye with his father. Johnson Jr. also gives off the impression of being much older than he is. Outside of the lack of facial hair, one might assume they are just two friends having lunch.

Photo by Adam Kramer

"I'm going to take him to the strip club. We're the same height, and no one will ask because he's with me," Johnson says without breaking rhythm, making it hard to know whether he's serious. "No, seriously."

As the two rib each other, they flash the same smile and mannerisms. The similarities go far beyond appearances.

"When we watched him on television, he would be trying to mimic what his father did from a very early age," LaRhonda Covington, Johnson Jr.'s mother and Johnson Sr.'s ex-wife says. "He talks like his father. He walks like his father. It's crazy."

Johnson Jr. began playing football at the age of five. Shortly thereafter, he was studying videos of his father on YouTube, trying to emulate his footwork.

As his father's post-touchdown routines became more prominent, Johnson Jr. had a front-row seat to the show. "The celebrations were a blast," he recalls. "I think I probably had the same reactions as everyone else because I had no idea what he was going to do next."

Playing wide receiver was assumed from an early age. And playing wide receiver at Oregon State, just like his father, remains his ideal situation.

The flashes are there—a long, rangy wideout with a remarkable catch radius and hands so good even his father approves.

As a sophomore, Johnson finished the year with 342 receiving yards and four touchdowns. He averaged more than 17 yards per catch even with the team's starting quarterback, highly touted prospect Luca Diamont, out due to injury.

Diamont, who has played with Johnson Jr. since the Venice Bulldogs in fourth grade, has had more reps with his friend than anyone.

"I feel like the sky is the limit for him," Diamont says. "Some of the bad throws I make, he makes them look good. Anything you throw his way, he'll catch."

To Diamont, the fact that one of his best friends just so happens to have a celebrity father—a celebrity father whose Fathead used to hang on his wall inside his bedroom—has never gotten in the way of their relationship.

But it is unquestionably where most others begin. During high school games, opposing defensive backs will hound Johnson Jr. relentlessly about his dad. At recruiting camps, he'll often be picked out not as Chad Johnson Jr. but as Chad Johnson's son.

"For those who really watch, he's not just a big name because of his name," Rivals' national recruiting analyst Adam Gorney says of Johnson Jr., who he's seen play on multiple occasions. "He's established himself as a really skilled football player and a really big target. Downfield, he can still go up and catch the ball against just about anyone."

The No. 25-ranked wide receiver in the 2020 class, according to 247 Sports, Johnson still has a long way to go—as most soon-to-be juniors do. Even with that being the case, though, he should have more offers than he has.

Johnson Jr. is being recruited by Alabama, Penn State, Miami and many more, but the lack of offers, at least according to the player himself, can be traced to the fact that Johnson Jr. is mirroring his father's unorthodox path to NFL stardom a little too closely.

Before Johnson Sr. landed at Oregon State, he spent time at Langston University and Santa Monica College—not by design or choice but because he had no other options. "I was a knucklehead coming out of high school," Johnson Sr. says.

It was never a matter of talent but rather everything else that seemed to get in the way—starting with his academics.

Thus far, his son is facing a similar situation, although he's already well on his way to addressing it.

"I think I would honestly have an offer from just about every school in the country if my GPA was where it was supposed to be," Johnson Jr. says. "My grades have to and will get better."

This spring, Johnson Jr., also a standout center fielder, sat out the high school baseball season to focus on school—a decision made by his mother. While baseball will still be a significant part of her son's life moving forward, a change had to be made.

Photo courtesy of LaRhonda Covington

"I want him to learn from his father's mistakes," Covington says. "His education is his No. 1 priority, and if that is not together, then sports won't happen. Chad's upbringing was a lot more difficult. But CJ (Johnson Jr.) has a team of people supporting him. There is no reason or excuse to fail at all. Period."

He no longer wears No. 85. Instead, Johnson Jr. wears No. 18.

Although he wore his father's number for much of his life, he traded it in for No. 18 in large part because current Bengal A.J. Green, a long, rangy wideout whose skill set is similar to his own, wears it.

"I also like being unique," he adds. "No one really likes or wears the No. 18, so I had to have it."

For all the perks of being the son of a famous football player—and there are plenty—it's also a burden for him to follow up such a productive and loud football legacy.

No matter what Johnson Jr. says or does, eyes will be on him because of who he is. Like his father, he doesn't mind the attention—as long as it's for what he's doing, not for where he comes from.

It's in his DNA to play football and the position his father excelled at. It's also in his DNA to display the individuality and creativity his father helped make that position known for.

You can see it at times, but then he'll catch himself being goofy like his father and stop from taking it any further.

I want to be flashy, but I want to make sure I can back it up, like he did.

"He was flashy, but he could play," Johnson Jr. says. 

He'll take it to the appropriate next level when the time is right.

But not as Chad Johnson's son. As Chad Johnson Jr.


Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.