The Chad "Ochocinco" Johnson experience has certainly livened up the CFL so far, with the former NFL star training with Cris Carter, impressing enough at a tryout to earn a contract, surviving training camp thus far despite steep odds and entertaining fans and the media with his Canada-embracing Twitter commentary. Johnson took his ever-quotable nature to new heights ahead of his first game appearance Friday. (The Alouettes already took part in a preseason game last week against Hamilton, but Johnson missed it thanks to injury.) Montreal's preseason clash with Ottawa Friday night (7 p.m. Eastern, TSN/ESPN3) will mark Johnson's first CFL game, and he told Herb Zurkowsky of The Montreal Gazette that preparing for his first live CFL action recalled a very different experience:
“It’s similar to the feeling before I lost my virginity. There’s a certain level of excitement ... anticipation ... not knowing what’s going to happen or what I’m going to get,” Johnson said on Thursday, after he and his Alouettes teammates and coaching staff were introduced to several hundred noon-hour onlookers at Place Ville Marie.
That's quite the comment, but it's also quite accurate; while Johnson may not be sure what he's going to get, neither are CFL or Alouettes fans. Johnson is far from the first former NFLer to make an appearance in the CFL, of course, and Montreal in particular has brought in lots of famous players over the years. Some, like Billy "White Shoes" Johnson and Lawrence Phillips impressed at least briefly, but many others, including Ahman Green and Buster Davis, didn't last long north of the border. Still, Johnson had such a high profile in the NFL (six Pro Bowl and three All-Pro nods) and was so famous on and off the field that he's easily the most-discussed CFL addition in quite some time. Heck, the Alouettes' starting quarterback is former Heisman Trophy winner who started in the NFL (Troy Smith), and no one's talking about him all that much. It's all about Ochocinco, so it's going to be very interesting to see how he does. (He'll be miked up for this one, too, adding another layer of intrigue.)
What does bode well for him is that unlike some others who came to Canada after high-profile American careers (paging Bart Andrus and Dan Hawkins), Johnson seems to recognize the vastly different nature of the CFL game and have a lot of respect for it. Here's what he told The Toronto Sun's Terry Koshan about it last week:
This ain’t no backyard football,” Johnson said on Friday over a coffee at Starbucks, a few minutes after the Montreal Alouettes’ bus pulled up to their downtown hotel.
“I knew about some of guys who played here, the Doug Fluties, the Warren Moons, but I had no knowledge of the meat and potatoes of the CFL.
“I went into mini-camp (in Florida in April) not knowing what to expect, and on the first play I get locked up. My first route. And that just set the tone right then and let me know, this ain’t no joke. Period. It has been that way since.”
Johnson's apparently loving Montreal and loving his role as CFL ambassador, too. Here's what he told Zurkowsky on that front:
He claims to not realize the social phenomenon he has created, stating it’s a humble feeling to be recognized on the streets of Montreal.
“It’s a good thing to bring attention to the city of Montreal and the Alouettes,” he said. “More importantly, to bring attention to the CFL. With my eyes and knowledge of the NFL game ... this isn’t foo-foo football over here. These boys can play ball. In all seriousness, there’s really not that big a difference.
“Yes, there’s a difference. But not that much. Some of these boys down here belong at the next level. For whatever reason, they’re not there. This ain’t a joke. If I have to be the voice of reason to let the States know ... man, there’s nothing wrong to coming up here.”
There's nothing wrong with the Alouettes bringing in Johnson, either, especially with him having that attitude. He's also reportedly been a great teammate in camp, and some of his fellow receivers (including Duron Carter, Cris' son and a CFL star in his own right) have fervently praised him:
“Growing up Chad Johnson was one of the guys you wanted to be,” admitted second-year Alouette receiver Duron Carter.
“He was out there talking trash, scoring touchdowns, doing the dance. I always looked up to ‘Ocho’.” ...
“I always looked up to Ocho, and just having a chance to be on his team and get advice from him in football and in life is amazing,” gushed Carter.
Now, we get to see how this will play out on the field. Yes, it's unlikely that Johnson's going to dominate this league, especially given the Alouettes' deep receiver corps. He's also 36, has been out of serious football for several years and has no CFL experience. That doesn't mean he can't contribute, though. Keep in mind that the Alouettes got 851 receiving yards out of a guy the same age (Arland Bruce III) last season. Oddly enough, it was likely Bruce's homophobic comments on social media that got him axed, opening up a spot in that receiving corps, and Johnson's massive social media presence may be part of why he got a shot to fill that role. In the end, though, whether he sticks in the CFL or not will be all about if he can produce on the field, and Friday's preseason game may provide the first indication of that. There is plenty of excitement and anticipation, and we don't quite know yet what we're going to get.