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Open receiver

Ochocinco goes deep about past, new situation with Patriots

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / September 11, 2011

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WALPOLE - It was the call Chad Ochocinco had been longing to receive for at least three years.

When it finally came, it brought him to tears.

It was early on the morning of July 26 when agent Drew Rosenhaus rustled Ochocinco from his sleep with the news that he had been traded.

To New England.

“The tears went to flowing,’’ said Ochocinco. “I was free. I was free. And on top of that, look at where I’m going.’’

The receiver was leaving Cincinnati, the only NFL home he’d known. It was a situation that had grown toxic in many ways. The organization long ago had shown that it wasn’t truly committed to putting the best team on the field; Ochocinco wasn’t always giving his best effort; and his relationship with coach Marvin Lewis had soured to the point where Lewis took to bashing him on a conference call with San Diego reporters before the Bengals played the Chargers late last year.

He was coming to New England, to play for a coach he long ago had befriended and with a quarterback considered one of the best the game ever has seen.

Ochocinco called Foxborough “heaven’’ - fitting, since he just had been in something akin to NFL hell.

He arrives at Starbucks in his now-famous Toyota Prius, in a navy blue Red Sox hat, gray hooded sweatshirt, camo-patterned cargo shorts, and brightly colored old-school Asics trainers.

Over the course of a two-hour conversation - an interview that winds from his upbringing in the hardscrabble Liberty City section of Miami to his admiration for soccer superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to an aspiring gospel singer he recently saw on television - Ochocinco is at times every bit the boastful man who has drawn fines and the dislike of old-school football fans for his choreographed touchdown celebrations.

But for the most part, he is nothing at all like the image most people have of him - an image he knows he helped cultivate.

Ochocinco, born Chad Javon Johnson, was raised primarily by his grandmother, Bessie Mae Flowers, who was strict and had him in church weekly. Despite working as a teacher and counselor, she couldn’t get him to focus on schoolwork. Flowers’s now-deceased second husband, James, whom Ochocinco calls “granddaddy,’’ was one of the few male influences he had growing up.

When asked how he ended up being raised by his grandmother, Ochocinco initially elects not to discuss it. But he later offers that his mother, Paula, moved to Los Angeles with his younger brother, Chauncey, when he was young. She did not take him with her.

His father was in prison for almost all of his childhood; Ochocinco didn’t meet him until he was out of high school, and he was excited to do so, though Flowers wasn’t in favor of it. He wanted to know something of this man, learn a little of what he was about.

His father still lives in Liberty City, but Ochocinco keeps him at arm’s length.

Flowers kept him busy with soccer, football, basketball, tee-ball - anything to try to keep him out of trouble. He jokes that he stole a Snickers bar once when he was around 9 (“I was hungry and I didn’t have a dollar’’) but Flowers quickly found out.

“I got my [butt] whupped, too,’’ he said.

As he’s telling the story, a car rolls through the lot. The driver sees the newest Patriots receiver sitting on the patio outside the coffeehouse and waves.

“Who was that?’’ Ochocinco asks, surprised.

He is reminded that he is a bit of a celebrity.

Growing pains The man who now has 2.7 million Twitter followers (many of them gained through his successful run on “Dancing with the Stars’’), who has been featured in commercials for Reebok shoes and pistachios, who has his own iPhone application and video game, almost wasn’t.

“Soccer was the first love,’’ he said. “When I got to high school, ninth grade, you start thinking career-wise, because you go from high school to college and after college it’s time to rock and roll, and soccer wasn’t the deal. Not in the States, especially not back when I was in school in ’92, ’93, ’94.

“So I had that talk with Grandma, and she was like, ‘If this is what you want to do, if this is what you really want to do and you’re thinking about doing it professionally, I think football’s the route you need to go.’ And football it was.’’

But his path to the NFL was a circuitous one. He admits that he blew off his own classes at Miami Beach High School to take part in friends’ physical education classes, especially if they were playing football.

He got by, barely, needing summer school after his senior year to graduate. He went to Langston University, a small, historically black school in Oklahoma, but he was thrown out for fighting before he ever played in a game.

When he returned to Miami, Flowers did not welcome him back with open arms.

“Grandma said, ‘I wash my hands.’ That’s her favorite thing. She said, ‘Boo-boo, I wash my hands. I can’t do no more,’ ’’ he recalled.

He went to Los Angeles, reuniting with his mother and Chauncey, and enrolled at Santa Monica College, a junior college. That’s where he met Charles Collins, the coach who turned the high school quarterback into a receiver. Collins remains a mentor and father figure, someone who will tell Ochocinco what he needs to be told, not what he wants to be told.

“He was a typical young guy who thought he knew it all,’’ Collins said. “He of course had talent but he was one of those different kids - playful, a clown, funny, but he had his energy channeled all over.

“He thought he was better than what he was. He had never played wide receiver until he met me. I had to teach him to play how his talent would let him. He had to just be refined and taught, and that was a job in itself - it was a challenge.’’

It took Ochocinco three years to graduate from Santa Monica, tripped up by that pesky classwork again. He needed a year to get his academics in order, but Collins estimates he spent about 300 days of that year around the coach, and that’s when he began listening when Collins told him to stop being so immature. Be accountable. Become a young man.

He was back in uniform for Santa Monica in ’99, and Dennis Erickson, then at Oregon State, gave him the chance to spend his final season of eligibility with the Beavers in 2000.

He starred and was drafted in the second round by the Bengals, 36th overall, in 2001.

“He was a dreamer, and I held his hand and he got lucky,’’ said Collins. “I was able to point him to his dream. I guess timing is everything. He met me at the right time.’’

During the pre-draft process, he was worked out by Bill Belichick. An unlikely friendship was born.

Showtime in the pros In the NFL, he finally blossomed, as a receiver and as a personality.

That’s when the gold teeth, the blond Mohawk, the touchdown celebrations, and “The List’’ started. He went to five straight Pro Bowls and recorded six straight seasons with at least 1,100 receiving yards.

The generation of kids raised on the highlight-happy “SportsCenter’’ loved him. The NFL altered its rules to try to stop him from being so showy.

And then: Ochocinco.

Collins calls it a “persona’’ and refuses to call him by that name. He also believes Ochocinco is tiring of the moniker, but is sticking with it because he created it.

Ever the pragmatist, Ochocinco amped things up during the lockout, trying his hand at bull riding (he lasted 1.5 seconds at an event in Georgia), filming a guest spot on the television show “Blue Mountain State,’’ and working out with the Kansas City Wizards of Major League Soccer and European teams Barcelona and Real Madrid.

He talks excitedly about watching Messi and Ronaldo up close, marveling at their ability to run so fast while controlling the ball.

All the while, he kept up his football training, posting video of his workouts on his personal website. He gets defensive at the idea that he might not be in top shape after dealing with so many distractions during the offseason.

As with most father-son relationships, Collins said, Ochocinco listens to him but sometimes listens too late.

Collins backs up Ochocinco’s claim that he’s incredibly friendly and will strike up a conversation with anyone, but he is also a homebody who simply loves having fun and in some ways is even a bit shy.

A woman approaches and asks to take her picture with him to send to her son, who just returned to college the day before.

Loosening up Ochocinco admits that he tried to force his way out of Cincinnati during the 2008 season because he saw that things weren’t going to get any better. The Bengals wouldn’t let him go.

Even Collins, who was the Bengals’ receivers coach that year (he’s currently with the UFL’s Sacramento franchise), says it was past time for the sides to part ways. It affected Ochocinco’s play; it affected his passion.

It’s no coincidence that Collins says his star pupil wasn’t playing the way he had taught him.

“The attention to the details of the position and the craft, playing with more of a sense of fundamentals, [being] technical, sound, not compromising routes, not compromising techniques, not relying on talent,’’ Collins lists. “Talent is so overrated. It’s in the details of how you do things.’’

As both were busy with their respective preseasons, they haven’t talked in about a month, since Ochocinco was traded to New England. They very likely will talk again this weekend, before Ochocinco plays his first regular-season game with his new team.

The 33-year-old feels “born again, rejuvenated, like a weight off my shoulders’’ since coming to the Patriots. “Just . . . it’s a good feeling.’’

He got off to a rough start, dropping passes in training camp and catching just three in three preseason appearances. He came to the team with a preconceived idea of what the “Patriot Way’’ meant, and trying to be buttoned-down while learning a playbook vastly different from the one he had down cold in Cincinnati stifled him.

But he has learned that he can be himself. Not the over-the-top guy from a couple of years ago; he has mellowed, that much is evident, and there is a limit to what Belichick will allow. Still, loosening up has liberated him, and he’s back to talking trash on the practice field, something that no doubt will carry over to games once he gets to that next level with Tom Brady, the one that has them communicating with just a look.

He won’t be the focal point of the offense, and he insists that’s fine by him. Make no mistake, he wants Brady to look his way - “every receiver in the NFL is a diva’’ - but he relishes the opportunity he’s been given.

“Here it should be a lot easier,’’ he said. “You got so many weapons that means the defense is going to have to pick and choose what you’re going to do.

“I’m not even worried about that, man. The ball gets spread around. I’m playing with one of the best. He knows what he’s doing.’’

Can’t please everyone He is wrapping up his dinner, a term that in this case is used loosely: three slices of lemon loaf and two tall caramel macchiatos.

His struggles already have been talk-radio fodder. He says he’s already at a comfort level of 7 out of 10 and rising; him at 7 is good, but him at 10, with Brady, can be great.

He’s asked how he wants Patriots fans to see him.

“How they see me doesn’t matter,’’ he said. “They’re going to make their judgments, and they’re going to stick with those judgments regardless.

“You’re going to have people that care and that love me no matter what, I can do no wrong, and then people that really don’t give a you-know-what. I’m only worried about those that care.

“I’m not trying to win anybody over. Either you love me, if you don’t, oh well - I love you anyway.’’

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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