Some universities are notorious for producing NFL players. It’s relatively uncommon, however, for pro football players to start at a community college. It’s even more unusual when two NFL stars play at a community college together. However, in 1997, retired NFL standouts Steve Smith and Chad Johnson (formerly Chad Ochocinco, from 2008-12) did exactly this.
The two wide receivers attended Santa Monica Community College, a little-known school 15 minutes away from the football powerhouse, the University of Southern California. They played just one season together under the late coach Robert Taylor. But this was plenty of time for him to get a healthy dose of Smith’s and Johnson’s personalities and bigger talents.
Steven Smith, Sr. wasn’t recruited out of high school because his 5-foot-9 height was perceived as too short. Never mind that there are several shorter football greats. At both SMC and the University of Utah, Smith quickly laid those doubts to rest.
According to Utah Utes Football, he was an All-American at SMC before leading the Mountain West Conference in all-purpose yards per game in his rookie year at Utah. At the end of his career as a Ute, Smith was the school’s all-time leader in yards per catch with an average of 20.55.
The Carolina Panthers drafted Smith in the third round in 2001. His electrifying field performance carried over to the NFL immediately. In his first play as a pro, he famously returned the Minnesota Vikings’ opening kickoff for a touchdown. He is still the Panthers’ all-time leader in receiving yards (12,197), receptions (836), and touchdowns (67), and is one of the most productive wideouts in NFL history.
Ultimately, Smith played 13 seasons in Carolina and three in Baltimore before retiring in 2017. He went to the Pro Bowl five times and was a three-time All-Pro, and earned a reputation as a formidable opponent on the field and a well-respected leader in the locker room.
When Johnson arrived at SMC in 1997, he had an enormous chip on his shoulder. The troubled teen from Miami had been kicked out of Langston University in Oklahoma for fighting. He’d moved to LA and wanted to play Division I football. But his poor grades made him ineligible. Johnson told Sports Illustrated in 2006, “If you’re good at football, you don’t have to go to class. I have to admit, though: Even if I wasn’t good, I still wouldn’t have gone to class.”
Although he didn’t love school, Johnson has always had a strong work ethic (and an incredible talent for trash-talking). He fought his way through both SMC and Oregon State University before the Cincinnati Bengals drafted him in the second round of the 2001 NFL draft. Johnson played in the NFL for 11 seasons and change; 10 with the Bengals, one with the New England Patriots. With New England, he played in Super Bowl XLVI against the Giants. He played one preseason game with the Miami Dolphins before being released.
Despite the disappointing way his time in the NFL ended, Johnson had an incredible career. He made four All-Pro teams, was a six-time Pro Bowler, and holds numerous receiving records. According to Pro Football Reference, Johnson was the league’s reception leader in 2006 with 1,369. He’s the Bengals’ all-time receiving leader with 751 receptions for 10,783 yards and 66 touchdowns.
Steve Smith and Chad Johnson: a talented twosome
Smith and Johnson each became tremendously successful in the NFL. But neither was a lead receiver while playing at SMC in 1997. That title belonged to teammate Eugene Sykes, who went on to play in the Arena Football League.
Ironic, yes, but even more so is the fact that Coach Taylor reportedly advised his players not to do any sort of touchdown celebrations. Anyone who’s familiar with 2000s football remembers that Johnson and Smith were just as notorious for their showmanship in the end zone as for their ball-handling talent.
Coach Taylor changed the lives of many of his players in his 15 years as a head coach. Smith and Johnson are perhaps the most stellar examples of that.