Off-Mic
March 22, 2011

Chad Johnson: a two-sport star?

Posted by Nat Coombs on 22/03/2011

News that Chad Johnson, arguably the NFL’s most flamboyant superstar, is trying his hand in the MLS should come as no surprise. You think Mario Balotelli is eccentric? Couple of years back Johnson legally changed his name to Ocho Cinco – his shirt number, 85, in Spanish. He was prolifically tweeting & appearing live on Ustream talking about Lady Ga-Ga and his love of cigars whilst other athletes were still getting to grips with MySpace or Facebook. Even Middle America fell in love with him when he foxtrotted his way around Dancing With The Stars - their version of Strictly Come Dancing. And now he’s announced, mid labour disputes in his primary sport which means players are, effectively, on enforced holiday, that he’s having a five-day trial with Sporting Kansas City.

It’s unlikely that this is anything more than another stunt in a career full of more colourful manoeuvres than a Miro retrospective at Tate Modern. But it did get me considering a few things. Firstly, is it even possible for an athlete to capably switch sports to a suitable level in 2011? Sure, there are examples of it happening historically : CB Fry knocked up 30,000 first class runs in Cricket and simultaneously was a capable defender for Southampton & England. “Neon” Deion Sanders played his way to a Hall of Fame career in the NFL whilst turning out for the New York Yankees and others as a professional baseball player. The great Michael Jordan – in many people’s eyes the finest athlete of all - switched from basketball to baseball too – but never made the Major Leagues.

Closer to home we had former West Ham hardman Julian Dicks on our chat show Talk of the Terrace (Mondays 6.30PM ESPN) last week and he discussed how he tried his hand at becoming a pro golfer when injury forced him out of the Premier League - but despite coming close, wasn’t quite able to join the elite.

The thing that connects all these stories is that there hasn’t been a recent example of a player pulling it off. It just hasn’t happened in the last 20 years. Presumably there are lots of reasons for this. The dramatic increase in pace that we’ve seen in football is representative of all major sports – and the levels of conditioning, positional focus and training, plus the fact that so many leagues are now truly global, thus subject to a higher level of competition – and so not only is the transition between one to another that much harder, but barely considered by an athlete whose main focus is the protection of his standing within his primary sport.

Factor in tactical savvy and an understanding of the game that is only developed with repetitive experience, and the difference between looking good in training – or over a five-day trial - and putting in a capable performance over 90 minutes in a system that relies on all 11 players knowing what their individual role is continuously, and the scale of the challenge is magnified. Johnson – a pacy Wide Receiver – is a huge football fan (he’s reputedly good mates with Thierry Henry) and played the game when he was younger. He’s clearly on a par with many, if not all, of the MLS players in terms of physical attributes and instinctive athletic ability. But his speed and agility will only carry him so far – even if the level of competition he’d be going into is more akin to the Championship than the PL.

When the Johnson story broke I tweeted for suggestions of which Premier League players could make it in the NFL and in what position. Around all the jokey suggestions – Berbatov, Michael Owen & Nani being my favourite three – the overwhelming winner was Micah Richards, presumably because he quite visibly posseses the physicality required for most positions. And arguably, whilst the strategic complexity of the NFL, certain positions, and the short, sharp explosive involvement lend themselves far more to a player making the transition between sports, because they can rely on physicality and natural ability more than anything else.
Will we ever see a two-sport star in our lifetime? I doubt it. Ocho must rank among the hot favourites to ever do it simply due to his remarkable and chutzpah but even if he does get picked up by Kansas City, you can bet your house that when the NFL finally gets its act together and the lockout is recinded he’ll be back in Cincinatti faster than you can say “$6 million” – the amount he’s due to earn this year.

Follow me on Twitter @natcoombs

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