Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Smile In Your Face

Chad Johnson is the most consistent entertainer in the NFL. Week after week, year after year, Johnson works the cameras better than anybody else in his business, all excitement and smiles. He perpetually exudes joy, as if to tell anyone who would ask, “of course things are great; I’m still Chad Johnson, aren’t I?” So it is with an incredible degree of respect for his constancy that I say the following: I feel nothing watching Chad Johnson celebrate. I love him on the field (where his off field showmanship melts away to reveal a more sinister, less playful ego underneath), but his off-field interviews, his touchdown dances, and his elaborate performances for television fail to register with my sensibilities. They feel monotonous, the products of just another, albeit more prolific, machine in a greater system designed purely for mass consumption.

Contrast that with my feelings watching the post-game shows after Dallas’s sound defeat of the Bears, where I watched a press conference that was, as so few are, personally satisfying. Terrell Owens took the podium, and he answered questions from reporters that ranged from his own performance (which was very good, as usual), to Tony Romo (who he backed wholeheartedly), to the chances of seeing him line up in other unconventional formations as he had that night (Owens’s subsequent self-mockery regarding how he looked behind the line of scrimmage drew laughs). My response was nothing like it is when Johnson performs similarly with the media; I found myself smiling. Indeed, for all of his famous celebrations, none of Ocho-Cinco’s antics made me laugh as much as Terrell Owens’s lampoon of Patriotgate earlier this season. At the end of the day, that’s just where I stand: Somewhat inexplicably, despite the fact that I’m sure Johnson is a much more pleasant person, I prefer Terrell Owens.

I’m sure that’s blasphemy to anybody who loves football. After all, Owens has come to represent so many things that are wrong with professional sports as a whole. The entitlement, the showboating, the flare-ups against teammates, all are marks of a generally dislikable person. Truth be told, I agreed with mainstream sentiment for a long time. That all changed when Owens returned to football after a suspension to play for the Dallas Cowboys. Something had changed about him. He still talked a lot, but now it all seemed to flow through a different filter. Before, Owens’s behavior seemed to radiate the naïve “I’m invincible” entitlement that is universally loathed. Now, it seemed to come with no filter whatsoever. Much of his sense of invincibility had fallen away over the course of his suspension the previous year, and over the course of his tenure in Dallas, it crumbled further as we watched him go through neglect from Bill Parcells, injuries to his hand, and even a (alleged) suicide attempt. While all of this certainly stirred up the trademark controversy that always had surrounded Owens, prompting pundits to declare him unchanged and a negative influence on his team, there was something different that you could only see if you looked closer. Even if the antics were there, they were no longer the product of naïve obnoxiousness, as they had been before. Sans this filter of “blissful” ignorance, they became real, and it’s this genuine nature that I’ve come to embrace.

I wish I lived in the world of Chad Johnson. Really, I do. It seems like a wonderful place, where there’s always a reason to celebrate, always a reason to have a party. I don’t live in that world. My perspective is probably more similar to what I see in T.O.’s demeanor. There’s a sense of desperation that comes from being thrown away by fans and teammates alike, pushed into a last chance situation. There are underlying scars that come with being abandoned by your parents as a child and raised by a drunk or having your own tragically self destructive pain become a joke to mainstream America. But through it all there is a freedom, a sense of whimsy that comes with the knowledge that there is nothing that your audience, the media, the coaches, the fans, or ANY audience for that matter, can do to hurt you more than you’ve already been hurt. It’s sadness, but it’s freedom, and that combination gives Owens his grizzle, a quality I look for in my heroes. More importantly, it’s this sadness that makes me enjoy Owens’s celebrations more than anyone else’s in the league. It’s easy to be happy when you’re happy all the time; that’s happiness outside of reality, and that’s why I roll my eyes when Chad Johnson parties on the sidelines. When you understand pain, then your happiness matters; it’s happiness in spite of reality, which is why T.O.’s smile makes me smile.


Anonymous said...

You too can live in Chad Johnson's world, Zac. It's a little cocktail of Zoloft and E I like to call the EZ-Pass.

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