I never expected that my babysitter would become a Heisman Trophy
candidate. A prom-queen candidate, maybe, but Heisman? Heck no.
I've learned the hard way, though, that when you're a single
working mother who travels for your job, you grab any reliable,
responsible and available baby-sitter you can find.
In the summer of 1992 my daughter, Dylann, was five when current
USC star wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson was just a skinny,
obnoxious teenager who had just graduated from high school and
was still trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his
life. I met him and his trusty sidekick, Reynaldo (Skeats)
Spalding, now a defensive end at Iowa, when I spent three months
reporting and writing a story about Dorsey High in Los Angeles,
where they had both played football. Almost every day the two of
them ribbed me. "Hey, Sports Illustrated," they'd yell from
their perch alongside the Dorsey practice field, where they hung
out that summer. "When are you going to make us famous?"
"Soon," I would yell back. "Soon. No doubt about it."
During my reporting, Keyshawn regaled me with stories about what
a great football player he had been in high school (page 40) and
predicted that someday I'd write about him in the SI college
football issue. Everyone who knew Keyshawn told me not to take
him seriously, that he had a lively imagination.
"I'll show you someday," Keyshawn insisted.
Later that year both Keyshawn and Reynaldo enrolled at West Los
Angeles Junior College, and they called me one afternoon in
search of work. I told them that I would ask around. Soon
afterward I heard about a film company that was working on a
high school basketball documentary in South Central L.A., near
the neighborhood in which they both were raised. The producer
wanted a couple of people who knew the area and who could
provide security for the camera equipment. "I have two experts
for you," I said.
Later, I hooked up Keyshawn and Skeats with writers who came to
Los Angeles to cover everything from the post-riot mood of the
city to fashion among inner-city teens. They were
naturals--courteous, respectful, friendly, reliable and what they
didn't know, they faked. I liked that. I liked that a lot.
So when my ex-husband, Mike Tharp, was sent to cover the famine
in Somalia for U.S. News & World Report and I was sent to cover
Charles Barkley's first games with the Phoenix Suns and my then
current babysitter had a new baby of her own to take care of, I
called on my experts to stay with Dylann. It wasn't long before
it became a semiregular gig--regular enough that Dylann would
wake up, walk into the kitchen where I was reading the newspaper
and say, "Wassup?"
Keyshawn and Skeats used to pick her up at school too. They
became such familiar--albeit unlikely--parts of the scenery at
Dylann's school that it was hardly surprising when I found a
note from Skeats on the wall this spring. It read, TO THE ST.
PETER'S 6TH GRADE--GOOD LUCK--SKEATS, NO. 97 IOWA.
Last fall a sports agent I know called and asked if I was aware
that Keyshawn was driving a new gold Honda Accord.
"Yeah," I said. "It's mine."
Neither Keyshawn nor Skeats had a car, so I often let them use
mine. Maybe they wanted it for dates, but they cleaned it all
the time and even changed the oil on occasion. And when the
brakes began to squeak one day, I was relieved that Keyshawn
took the car to Midas.
Many people don't understand the relationship between Keyshawn
and me. When he signed with USC, the sports information director
suspected I was using Keyshawn to get inside information about
the team and told Keyshawn he should end our friendship.
Keyshawn set him straight.
Dylann, who's now nine, wore Keyshawn's number on her soccer
uniform last fall. We went to his games at the Coliseum.
Keyshawn and Skeats come over for Thanksgiving and Christmas
dinners, or any other time I'm home and decide to cook and
they're in town and want to eat. The three of us talk on the
phone just about every day. When Skeats was unhappy last fall at
Iowa and wanted to transfer, we talked twice a day. When
Keyshawn was considering turning pro in January, we talked every
hour. After UCLA beat USC 31-19 last season, the three of us
went out. Keyshawn's only smile that night came when Dylann
crawled onto his lap and gave him a hug. "Don't worry," she
said, "We lost our soccer game today, too."
Last fall, after Keyshawn scored his first touchdown as a
Trojan, he ran into the parking lot following the game to find
us. "See," he said, flashing a smile, "I told you I was good."
As good as his word. He not only made it into SI, he's even on
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Johnson went from Dylann's backup to No. 1. [Keyshawn Johnson and Shelley Smith's daughter, Dylann]