Chris Johnson craves attention.
For many, that desire would be satisfied by the 16 Sundays a year when 70,000 or so people cram into stadiums around the country to watch him score touchdowns.
Not so for the 24-year-old Tennessee Titans running back, whose play — particularly last season — has, in fact, garnered him plenty of national acclaim. Confident he has surpassed the accomplishments of peers such as Adrian Peterson and Reggie Bush, Johnson has his sights set on the likes of Snooki, the Kardashians or Gene Simmons.
“I need my own reality show,” Johnson said. “So if anybody that’s in charge of that can help me with that or anything, I need that reality show.”
He made that declaration in August, after midnight, in a MetroCenter hotel room not far the team’s training facility, speaking into the web cam of his computer.
Rather than wait around for someone to surround him with cameras, Johnson has gone ahead and put his life on display for all who choose to tune in to the steady barrage of tweets and appearances on Ustream.
Perhaps as satisfying to fans as it is to him, it seems nothing is off limits when Johnson goes online. From his choice of drinks to his social calendar to his thoughts on the latest with his contract, music, the NFL … you name it, it’s all there. In the throes of the information age, he is willing to share as much — and as often — as anyone.
Writer Will Brinson, in fact, cited Johnson along with Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco in a March report at uproxx.com as among the more capable and interesting athletes on Twitter. The report offered advice to athletes on how to use social media and served up cautionary tales, such as that of former Chiefs running back Larry Johnson, who was suspended when he posted remarks critical of his coaches on Twitter.
The NFL has rules against the use of social media during and immediately after games but places no limit on content when its players do engage in such practices. Titans coach Jeff Fisher took the next step and cautioned his team about revealing too much about themselves on Facebook, Twitter and the like in his address to the team at the start of the 2009 training camp. That was a first for Fisher, the team’s full-time coach since 1995, yet Johnson appeared at least nine times on Ustream between Aug. 3 and Sept. 5; one session lasted nearly two hours.
From the combination of Twitter’s staccato and the digital stream of consciousness that flows through Ustream, which melds the old-school chat room with a user operating live on his or her web cam, what emerges is a portrait of a young man who views his body as a temple, rarely stays in one place for very long, and takes great pride in his physical gifts and on-field accomplishments. He also has a keen understanding of his professional responsibilities, even as he attempts to buck the system under which he works.
Man on the go
Young, single and with money in the bank, Johnson moves around the country in the spring and summer almost as deftly as he cruises through opposing defenses.
Almost every week, in fact, he turns up somewhere else. Yet nowhere is he a stranger.
He keeps friends and fans abreast of his comings and goings with a steady run of tweets. A recent sampling:
• Looks like I’m headed to toledo tomorrow 30mins from detroit to go support nate washington event everybody come thru (12:40 p.m., May 7)
• Headed to memphis right now where my memphis love at (10:15 a.m., May 14)
• On the plane headed to vegas (6:53 a.m., May 28)
• On the plane early flight who up going to NYC last min didn’t even know I was going (6:57 a.m., June 2)
• Just landed in LA to film the @THE_REAL_SHAQ show this will be fun where u at shaq (3:51 p.m., June 18)
Some places he clearly prefers over others. A visit to Houston last month, for example, produced this tweet: “I’m in the city what ittt isssss I might make dis my new city.”
Then again back in March, he conducted a Ustream chat that killed 28 minutes of a flight to Atlanta.
“Atlanta is like my second home,” he said. “It’s Orlando and then Atlanta. You know, I work in Tennessee but … .”
Lest anyone mistake all that hopping on and off planes as an indication that Johnson is easing his way through the offseason, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.
Recent tweets have detailed his approach to workouts, which he has conducted away from the Titans’ training facility. Many of them take place early in the morning, around 8 a.m. or so.
On April 28, he sent this update: “Today was suppose to be my day off but I felt like working out so I did a quick 10 180yard sprints with 1min rest.”
A day earlier, he offered the following assessment: “Man dis workout feeling good I feel another 2k I’m telling you.”
His devotion to his body goes well beyond running and lifting weights. Based on his vast body of Internet content, Johnson eschews the typical vices that have gotten many other professional athletes in trouble — namely, promiscuity and alcohol. For instance, he declined the opportunity to “rate Nashville booty” in one of the many Ustream sessions he conducted in his down time at 2009 training camp.
“I don’t be focused on all that,” was his response. “I’m just focused on football. I’m not really focused on booty and girls and all that.”
Instead, it seems clear that he lives out relationships vicariously through — what else? — reality TV. He says in one video chat that his favorite show is The X Effect, in which a current couple is put to the test when the ex-boyfriend or girlfriend of one is brought back into the mix. In another, he mentions that Cheaters is on the television as he chats.
That focus extends to what he puts into his body as well.
During that flight to Atlanta, he pondered aloud what he might like to drink when he, upon arrival, met up with some folks. The debate was between cranberry juice and water. “I think ice water will do,” he finally concluded.
This was not an isolated moment.
Abstinence is a constant for Johnson, who in one video indulged himself with a can of ginger ale, “my favorite soda.”
“I don’t drink at all,” he said. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. … Drinking is bad for you. So everybody, don’t do that.”
It’s cleat that, in a way, Johnson sees no offseason.
Football is more than a vocation for him. It is a constant state of being, a full-time devotion to self. It requires the same type of focus needed to see a hole in the defense just to get through a typical day without in some way diminishing himself or his skills.
“ppl dont understand ths is my life & my body so I know wht I deserve, I wnt a super bowl but when u dont wnt 2 do wht it takes 2 get 1 its not gonna happen,” he tweeted on May 20.
From this full-time pursuit of football excellence springs a supreme confidence, and none of the results surprise him.
As far as he’s concerned, everything from his eye-popping 40-yard dash time at the NFL scouting combine (4.24 seconds) to his 2,000 rushing yards and NFL record, to total yards from scrimmage last season were to be expected. That doesn’t mean they ought not be celebrated as well.
“Shout out to Seattle Seahawks for being the team that I made the 2,000 yards on, and shout out to all my opponents last year who helped me get to 2,000 yards,” his said via Ustream. “Shout out Adrian Peterson, my favorite running back in the league, but he’s still No. 2 in my book.”
His expectations, however, extend beyond performance. As he’s made perfectly clear in the last several months, he expects a raise in pay that he considers commensurate with his level of play.
He obviously understands the rules that go along with being in the NFL (“No alcohol on the camera. The NFL got rules,” he told a friend on Ustream), he just doesn’t necessarily agree with them, particularly one that allows teams to terminate a player’s contract at any time.
“How do u wnt player 2 honor their contract but the team dont have 2 honor it,” he tweeted on June 15. “If u dont wnt 2 pay a player early dont cut a player early.”
Also that day he served up: “Its like how u expect ur players to give they all and put their bodies on the line when you not willing to give them what they deserve”
So it is that he has decided to stay away from all team activities this offseason in an attempt to get a new contract from the Titans, despite the fact that three years remain on the deal he signed as a rookie.
He does understand the basics of a contract. That much was obvious on Ustream last summer, when he was asked about another player.
“He’s trying to get his money,” Johnson said. “Once you sign that deal, you’re stuck for some years. So you got to get that right money coming in. That’s why I held out for two or three days coming in [my rookie season], because I wanted to make sure the money was right before I signed anything.”
Now he’s faced with the reality that he’s stuck with that deal.