This was another way to make me feel old. WR Keyshawn Johnson retired Wednesday.
It seemed like only a year ago, even though it was a year and a decade ago, that Hurricane Key blew in from Southern California and whipped up the Green & White in more ways than one. It was 1996 and the Richie Kotite Jets, as their reward for going 3-13, had the first pick of the draft. They went with Johnson and the fun began.
As he held out after that draft, there was confusion between his two agents about which media people would be involved in a conference call (or was it a conference call?) with their new star. Some writers, including myself, were left off the invite list, leading to a minor uproar even before he had signed his first NFL deal.
Johnson showed up for training camp, and I remember he was on fairly good behavior — until after his first game as a Jet, the season-opening debacle at Denver, when he complained that he couldn’t do anything if his new team wasn’t going to complete passes to him. A week later, Keyshawn speculated loudly about why he should be starting ahead of a certain No. 80.
Key had a decent rookie season — 63 catches, 844 yards, eight TDs — then filled up his off-season after the Jets’ 1-15 meltdown with his first major commercial venture, "Just Give Me The Damn Ball," which promised to keep the pot boiling until after Al Groh insulted him by likening him to a kid who can’t get an allowance increase from his father and the Jets traded him to Tampa Bay before the 2000 draft.
The most uncomfortable part about the Keyshawn persona was his relationship with Chrebet, which seemed forever on the verge of breaking out into a scene from West Side Story. In large part that was because the proud wideouts maintained their lockers next to each other for all four years of their stay together as Jets.
But while the two were never going to leave practice arm in arm for a couple of Bluepoints at Bogart’s, both admitted a grudging respect developed between them. As a Jets beat writer and a correspondent with Sports Illustrated in 1997, I asked Johnson in the bowels of the Meadowlands after a game about his relationship with Chrebet, and he surprised me with his response.
"When I first came into the league, it was kind of weird to see Wayne playing in the positions where the Jets drafted a bunch of guys and signed guys as free agents,” he said. ”But after you look a year later and you see he’s doing the same things he did a year ago, with a different staff, you’ve got to admire some of those things he does."
Even though Johnson mellowed some over the years, his outspokenness (not to mention his winning smile) led him inexorably to ESPN, which has hired him after his critically acclaimed on-air work during this year’s draft. But we must not remember him as just another talking head. He was one heck of a tough, clutch receiver, and he did his best NFL work in the New York phase of his career. Here are the top nine four-season reception totals by wide receivers in franchise history:
|Jets Wide Receiver||Seasons||Games||Receptions|
What’s more, Johnson was a voracious reader, often of stories about him. He would grab a copy of the daily clips package intended for the beatwriters, and during the media’s locker room session, he’d address each reporter by name and critique that day’s critique of him, thumbs up or thumbs down, it didn’t matter.
An unsolicited first name. There aren’t many shorter paths to an ink-stained wretch’s heart, other than a free golfclub or a free meal. I was not one of the Jets writers who remained close with Key after he moved on to Tampa Bay, Dallas and Carolina. Yet in Tokyo for the Jets-Bucs American Bowl game in August 2003, 3½ years after we last talked, he greeted me by name.
I didn’t always love Keyshawn the person, but I respected Keyshawn the player. And I suspect I’ll feel the same about Keyshawn the broadcaster.
Tags: Keyshawn Johnson, Wayne Chrebet
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