What Ochocinco was thinking
ST. LOUIS - The showman known to savor the spotlight spoke without ego. Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco had reintroduced himself to soccer - his No. 1 love, he called it - and learned what it meant to be a novice among players grounded in the game. He was humbled. He was eager to learn. He had much to do.
The experience reunited him with his passion. On March 23, Ochocinco worked out with Major League Soccer's Sporting Kansas City for the first time. Earlier that month, he had accepted a Twitter invitation to train with the club. For the six-time Pro Bowler, the NFL lockout gave him a chance to reinvigorate himself by playing the sport of his youth. He was a striker in Miami until he dropped the sport to focus on football after the 10th grade. He stressed the experiment was sincere.
After the first practice, Ochocinco stared into the cameras before him. He said with a straight face that playing soccer was a boyhood dream. He had lived it.
"There's an art to it," Ochocinco said at Kansas City's Swope Park Training Center. "There's a skill to it. That skill takes a long time to perfect and master. That's why they call it a beautiful game, and I've missed all that time."
The rebirth of Ochocinco's soccer career is a fascinating insight into an elite athlete's drive. What about his psyche draws him back to the game? Why risk injury and embarrassment for a sport that he abandoned to pursue football?
On March 29, after a few rough outings, Ochocinco was named a Sporting Kansas City honorary member. As part of the reserve team, he will not be paid or earn a contract. Still, his dream lives on.
"With the lockout here, this is something I have always wanted to do," Ochocinco said.
"Now I have the opportunity."
Ochocinco is evolving. His NFL career makes the transition to soccer smoother than one might expect.
Usually, someone experiencing a career change has transferable skills. Ochocinco's competitive drive is inseparable from the person he has become. His speed, intensity, motivation, hand-eye coordination and a familiarity working within a team construct are attributes he can draw from his football experience. He has learned to be a competitor.
"In this case, he's already an athlete," said Hallie Crawford, a career coach based in Atlanta. "That's a good thing. And he already knows the industry. Identifying transferable skills are the things he can use and capitalize on when he goes into his new profession."
Curiosity makes experimentation possible. Dale Jasinski, executive director of the Professional Athlete Transition Institute at Quinnipiac University, has seen stars express interest in a wider competitive world. In October 2007, LeBron James wore a New York Yankees hat to a Cleveland Indians playoff game. Last February, Alex Rodriguez watched the Super Bowl from a luxury box at Cowboys Stadium. Elite athletes relate to one another. They relate to the fishbowl existences that connect their lives. Sometimes interest turns to action.
There are pitfalls. Transferable skills do not guarantee an athlete will become the next Deion Sanders. Sometimes megastars in one sport struggle to adapt to another, as Michael Jordan proved in his short stint with the Chicago White Sox organization starting in 1994.
"They are always curious about the life of the other," Jasinski said.
"It wouldn't surprise that part of that curiosity is to say, ‘What is it like to be an elite athlete in other sports?'"
An internal drive makes players like Ochocinco turn what-if scenarios into reality. He creates his own motivation. He does not care what his coach, Marvin Lewis, or other NFL players think about his chase. (Lewis and others have been critical.) Ochocinco has as much to prove to himself as he does to doubters.
"He doesn't care," said Sherri Thomas, a career coach based in Phoenix. "He has an internal drive to reach the goal and get results. That's a very special quality."
Patience is another special quality. In his time with Sporting Kansas City, Ochocinco has struggled to keep pace with his teammates. He has looked fatigued in drills. His shots have sailed over the goal. He has looked green. He has looked lost. Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes considered Ochocinco "from the very beginning to be a long shot."
"The speed of professional soccer is very fast compared to other leagues around the world," Vermes said.
Yet, Ochocinco continues to play.
On March 23, Ochocinco continued to explain himself after the first practice.
"There's no way I can make up this ground with the years I have been away from the game, but I do have a love for it," he said.
"There's no way I belong after not playing in so long."
"I'm trying to make the transition from football to futbol," he continued. "To come in here and take someone's job is pretty far-fetched."
A final question: Had he planned a goal celebration?
Ochocinco paused. He said if he ever scores - an unlikely scenario - he would mimic a scene from "Talladega Nights" where Will Ferrell sprints around a racetrack in his underwear. Laughter lifted from the group. The moment revealed Ochocinco's playful streak that made some question whether his workout was nothing more than a stunt.
Soon he stood and walked away, ready to prepare for Day 2. The rebirth of Ochocinco's soccer career lives on.