Publish date:

Muddied But Unbowed This was the season he was going to ascend to the cosmology of one-name stars. This was the year his team was going to The Big Show. This was the year it all fell apart...yet Keyshawn Johnson continues to shine

First, the man points. Then, five seconds later, as fluid and
practiced as a mime, he fans his hand up into a curt wave, the
pale palm arcing back and forth from the wrist. Once, twice,
thrice. Pause. The arm doesn't move. One. Two. Three. Not
frantic, like your mom trying to hail a cab, but slow, stately,
like a man buffing the dashboard of a Bentley, the better to see
his reflection there. This is the measured celebrity howdy that
begs reciprocity--especially when accompanied (as this one is)
by a great Jaggering of the fiendish eyebrows and a sly
semi-wink. Let us now wave at famous men. This is the wave that
Charlton Heston undoubtedly uses to greet Kirk Douglas from
across the street at the Hollywood Christmas Parade. It is a
wave that says, "It's me! But then you knew that, didn't you?"

Without pause the famous fingertips are brought quickly to the
palm. The fabulous thumb alone remains erect. Thumbs up! The
universal benediction of the okey-dokey! The thumb points
heavenward, speaks volumes. "Here we are," it says, "and we're
both rich and famous! Keep up the good work!" Attached to that
happy thumb is billionaire nut-job Donald Trump. On the
receiving end of the thumb's well-wishes is Keyshawn Johnson.

On a damp New York night in September, amid the crudites and
snack baskets of a Women's Tennis Association President's Suite
at the U.S. Open, Keyshawn acknowledges Le Donald's
acknowledgment with a brusque wave and a polite smile. Number 19
came here to watch Serena Williams run Monica Seles ragged in
the quarterfinals, as is now happening, not work the crowd. He
offers no love, no thumb, in return.

Three presidential boxes over, though--50 feet, give or
take--the improbably coiffed plutocrat isn't quite finished. No,
no. Keyshawn is, after all, the most famous Jet since Uncle
Vanya Namath. With that in mind, Trump spins one of his
girlfriends around so hard it looks as if he's trying to start a
balky outboard. He whispers to her. Then he gestures to a point
in space that may include large parts of Keyshawn Johnson. The
double-dizzy spokesmodel does her best to raise a buxom thumb in
that direction. She may mistakenly be thumbing Harry Connick Jr.
and his wife, Jill Goodacre, who are seated close by. She may be
thumbing total strangers for that matter, but she's game, by
god, and full of bright prospects and blender drinks, and that
thumb remains proudly suspended until an entire quadrant of the
U.S Tennis Center has been well and truly thumbed. Keyshawn
politely flags a hand back at her.

A minute later John McEnroe enters the Trump box. Trump whispers
in his shell-like ear. Johnny Mac turns. Points. Waves. Then
launches a thumb Keyward and smiles. This is what it means to be
famous in America. You become Fonzie.

Keyshawn again volleys back a small wave, smiling. To the
reporter standing behind him trying to conceal a smirk and a
fistful of free shrimp he says, laughing, "You're loving this,
aren't you?"

Follow Keyshawn long enough and you'll see single fingers raised
in several familiar configurations.

Keyshawn Johnson has to stick his head up over the knot of
reporters in front of his locker and yell to the clubhouse guy
for a jockstrap. This happens almost every day before practice.
Then, still talking--seamless, uninterruptible--he goes back to
the questions. Can you? Will you? Did you? Mini-camp, training
camp, preseason, real season; this is New York, so there are
always questions.

For the past three years he's had answers, too, answers that are
by turns funny and incendiary and smart, audacious or elusive or
self-congratulatory, right, wrong, contradictory, contentious,
sweet, sour, true and false. He is a 72-point banner headline
waiting to happen. His relationship with the press is as vivid a
part of his life as the game itself. Sometimes it is the game.

He'll crack you up. He'll piss you off. He'll ask better
questions than you do. If he doesn't think a question makes any
sense, he'll repeat it. Slowly. Like he's doing a lab at
Berlitz. He'll stand there holding his practice pants--so small
they look as if they came from Baby Gap but threaded with that
long, swashbuckler's belt--and repeat the question. Eventually
it makes sense to no one, not even the blushing knucklehead who
asked it. Sometimes he ignores the question and answers a
question nobody thought to ask. Sometimes he asks and answers
the questions. Man!

He is as brash and self-referential as the young Ali, minus the
poetry; as irritating and engaging and confounding to
conventional wisdom as Ali before he leveled Liston. Is he
really as good as he says he is? "I can hurt you all over the
field." Who can be that good? "I can carry this team." Nobody's
that good! "Reinvent the position?" Who would even say this kind
of stuff!

If Keyshawn Johnson didn't exist, the press would have to create
him. The way he created himself.

He is 6'3". He weighs 212 pounds. He trains year-round for his
day job as a wide receiver for the New York Jets: weights,
plyometrics, running. Off-season he runs in the California hills.
Or he runs those stairs that lead down to the sand at Santa
Monica beach. There are hundreds of them. This might take a
couple of hours. He runs until he's ready to puke. Matinee-idol
jock millionaire, and he's about to puke in front of tourists on
their way to the Santa Monica pier. This is when James Strom, his
strength coach, tells him to run some more. That way, when
reporters call Strom to ask what sort of shape Keyshawn is in, he
can answer in simple declarative sentences: "Nobody works any
harder. Pound for pound he's up there with the strongest guys in
the league."

The dietary secrets at Keyshawn's training table? No soda,
alcohol only on special occasions, don't mess with supplements,
eat lots of Popeye's fried chicken.

He is 27 years old. Married to Shikiri Hightower. They have two
children, doll-perfect Maia, 4, and chubby-handsome KiKi
(Keyshawn Jr.), 15 months. He grew up in South-Central Los
Angeles. He is the youngest of six kids. Didn't know his dad.
Still doesn't. He and his mother moved around a lot, never
settled for long in one house, one apartment. His brothers and
sisters often stayed with relatives. He showed up one afternoon
at a USC football practice and started hanging around as a ball
boy. He was nine.

Street kid. Smart. Supported the family. Hustled, scammed,
scalped tickets. Did time at two juvenile camps. Moved around,
played for three high schools. Sold dope, carried a gun. Got
shot. Went to a couple of junior colleges after he realized he
couldn't talk his way past the SATs. Finally got into USC. Played
two years, as a junior and a senior, but finished second alltime
in receptions (176) and receiving yardage (2,940). Two-time
All-America. Was the 1996 Rose Bowl MVP, with 12 catches for 216
yards. Went first in the NFL draft that spring. Held out. Missed
three weeks of camp. Got a six-year deal with the Jets worth a
reported $15 million.

He is not dead and he is not in prison because he created in his
imagination something called Keyshawn Johnson. He carries this
invention out into the world and talks about it. That makes it

This was their year. Seven bookies out of 10 made the Jets the
favorites to go all the way. All the pain and the practice add
up to this moment, this season, right here, right now.

Week 1. Jets versus New England. Quarterback Vinny Testaverde
goes down with a ruptured Achilles tendon while stepping forward
no more quickly than he might have if he were opening a door for
his wife. Vinny T., earnest as a priest, the physical and
spiritual foundation upon which the Jets' hopes rest, is out for
the season.

Still, Keyshawn has eight catches for a career-high 194 yards,
and one touchdown, against cornerback Ty Law, his co-MVP from the
1998 Pro Bowl. But at the press conference a few hours later he
breaks a cardinal rule of the NFL: Never show any genuine emotion
on the podium. Speak only in upbeat cliches. Soldier on. Cry only
if you're retiring. "We're f---ed" won't sell many tickets.

Some papers the next day said he "[came] unglued in a stream of
profanity." Someone wrote that he panicked, threw a "temper
tantrum." It is no longer their year, their time. But the first
half of the first game? This wasn't supposed to happen. In a
roomful of sports reporters, with all the cameras and the lights
and those eyes looking up at you for answers, how do you say you
have a broken heart?

His book, Just Give Me the Damn Ball, a scathing recapitulation
of his '96 rookie season with the 1-15 Jets, was as popular
inside the football establishment as a persistent urinary tract
infection. The NFL didn't like it, the Jets didn't like it, the
sporting press didn't like it, The New York Times Book Review
didn't like it. The language used to scald it was as
inflammatory as anything written inside it. "I have no regrets,"
Keyshawn says.

That he batted about .750 with his contumely was largely
unremarked upon. As John Robinson, Keyshawn's coach at USC says,
"Nobody should write a book till they're 70." The book is
dedicated to, among others, "The Lord Savior Jesus Christ."

According to Jets coach Bill Parcells, Keyshawn has the best
receiver's straight-arm in the game. He is one of the best
blocking receivers too, and he's fast enough and has good hands
and knows how to use his great size against defensive backs.
Parcells goes on to say that he'll only get better. Parcells is
not given to exaggeration. He has whitewall tires on his family
sedan, for goodness' sake!

In three seasons with the Jets, Keyshawn has caught 216 passes
for 2,938 yards and 23 touchdowns. In the divisional playoffs
last year he tore up Jacksonville--caught nine passes for 121
yards and a touchdown, ran a reverse for a touchdown,
intercepted a pass and recovered a fumble. After that game the
radio sports guys who'd called him a bust started using phrases
like "Hall of Fame numbers." Those numbers get better every year.

Can Keyshawn make it to the Hall of Fame? John Robinson says yes.
Murphy Ruffin thinks so, too. Murphy Ruffin was Keyshawn's
probation officer at Camp Miraloma.

He is a state-of-the-art postmodern cross-promotional platform.
A well-spoken, Gable-handsome, user-friendly content provider at
the confluence of the great American data streams of sports and
commerce and entertainment. He had the book and shoe deals
before he caught a ball in the NFL. Sitcoms, movies, magazines;
he's everywhere you are and every place you want to be. Works
with Adidas, Coca-Cola. You can't watch one of those
nitrous-giddy pregame shows without hearing about him, hearing
from him. He is a year away, maybe two, from transcending
football, from becoming the kind of first-name franchise that
crackles and hums through the American ether like background
radiation. Tiger, Magic, Michael. Keyshawn. He attracts Day of
the Locust crowds now; mothers lean out of the stands in Green
Bay (Green Bay!) to snap his picture for the kiddies--Sign for
me, Keyshawn, sign for me!

In the preseason these Jets were a relaxed and confident bunch.
Then, laid low Greek-tragedy-style by a wounded Achilles, they
collapsed--they were stunned instead of stunning. What bled from
this team in those first few weeks was that confidence.

And for all his bumptious talk about taking this team on his
back, what could number 19--or anyone, for that matter--do?
Until journeyman backup quarterback Rick Mirer learned a few
more pages from the Jets' playbook, not much. But against Denver
on Oct. 3, with New York looking down the barrel of a possible
0-4 start, Mirer, cribbing from a teensy playlist taped to his
wristband, got Keyshawn the accursed ball. Thus did he catch
eight passes for 98 yards and a touchdown from his seventh
quarterback in three-plus seasons. He also drew 45 yards' worth
of pass interference calls on the game-winning drive. Man!

Since then, though, the Jets have come apart like a cardboard
suitcase in a hard rain, losing inventively to Jacksonville,
Indianapolis and Oakland. They stagger punch-drunk into their
bye week at 1-6, a record roughly the reverse of preseason
expectations. Crazy strange too is this: After those first seven
games, with little discernible help from his quarterbacks,
Keyshawn's numbers are better than they were at this time last

The psychology of losing is an elusive thing. There are more
ways to shoot yourself in the foot than Barney Fife ever dreamed
possible, and the Jets seem determined to explore every variant.
Blown coverages or ill-timed interceptions or missed tackles or
the wrong play called at the wrong time--failure has many faces;
pick one. They've choked up four fourth-quarter leads in seven
games. Are their lapses physical? Mental? Spiritual? "I have no
idea," answers Keyshawn, genuinely baffled by the high-octane
knack this team has shown for self-immolation.

"If we had Vinny, we'd be rollin'," he asserts. "We could be 7
and 0, as close as these games have been." And he's probably
right. Even with a quarterback whose ratings read like
premature-birth weights, the Jets have moved the ball. Keyshawn
has 40 catches for 577 yards, was tied for fourth in the NFL for
receptions and was fifth in yards gained after Week 7; and
running back Curtis Martin led the NFL with 615 rushing yards.
But each has only two touchdowns, evidence of the Jets' bad
habits in the red zone.

Keyshawn talks about all this with a tired kind of equanimity,
makes it clear that he still has fun playing the game, still
thinks the Jets can rise above their injuries and insults. "I
just believe different than other people, I guess." There isn't
any bluster behind his optimism, though, and he knows this season
may play out as a long, slow-motion disaster.

Keyshawn, on his several appearances with the President of the
United States on national panels discussing the role of race in
athletics: "I'm really proud of that. How many people get to chop
it up with the top dog?"

Like its owner, the restaurant defies most of your expectations.
Situated on a quiet, tree-lined street at the moneyed frontier
between West Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, Reign is not a sports
restaurant. ("Reign," by the way, is a name no one on the
Keyshawn, Inc. flowchart takes sole credit for, but it suits the
ambitious iconography of the athlete in question.)

Historically, eateries owned and operated by the jockocracy fall
into one of three evolutionary epochs. The ancient (e.g., Jack
Dempsey's place, the kind of Runyonesque steak house where a man
could ogle DiMaggio and live large on redheads, red meat and red
liquor in the company of other Broadway swells and touts); the
modern (an all-star-style museum and memorabilia outlet, where
everything has a price on it and the sweat-stained sanitary
socks of Charlie Hustle's youth hang framed and certified just
inches from your souvenir minicrock of congealing beer-cheese
soup); and the postmodern (a multimedia "themed environment"
like the ESPNZone in Times Square, which has nothing to do with
eating but, thanks to TV monitors numbering in the dozens,
everything to do with the reeducation scene from A Clockwork

Reign, though, is just a very nice restaurant in a neighborhood
that's flush with very nice restaurants. No framed jerseys or
commemorative balls are on display, no buzzing neon beer signs
or blaring video games. Rather, it is a model of expensively
designed restraint, done up in the chic urban signifiers of
blond wood with stainless-steel trim and earth-tone fabrics.

The menu is best described as haute Southern, mostly upscale
renderings of classic down-home comfort food. Fried chicken,
smothered pork chops and red beans and rice are the mainstays,
but there's enough arugula and Chilean sea bass on the bill to
soothe the local foodies.

The recipes have come in most cases from his mom's kitchen.
Before the place opened in May, Keyshawn took the chefs up to
her Tarzana home and under his mother's supervision ran them
through two-a-days on the remoulade and gumbo.

On a night not long after it opened, the restaurant was
bustling, three-quarters filled, loud with people enjoying
themselves and the food. Keyshawn was working the room, greeting
customers and politely turning away those who didn't meet his
dress code, fussing over the details and kibitzing in the
kitchen, pinching more file into the gumbo pot, all the while
giving one interview to a television crew in the party room and
another to a writer in the dining room. From the decor to the
mortgage, from the menu to the personnel to the little gondolas
of calamari, he takes responsibility for everything here. It
wears you out just watching him.

Weirdly, even more than football, this restaurant may be the
truest manifestation of his character. Food and beverage
management is something for which he has no formal training, but
he had always wanted to own a restaurant, so he simply willed
himself to master it.

During the football season he checks in with his boyhood pal
Skeats Spalding (one of Reign's managers) by phone two or three
times a day--turnover, receipts, breakage. Off-season, if you
don't see him out front, stick your head in the kitchen; he's
probably showing his dishwashers the most efficient way to
scrape a plate.

But the restaurant business is cutthroat, and the common wisdom
is that you either make a million or lose a million. There's
nothing in between. "I've never failed at anything, and I don't
expect to fail at this," Keyshawn says. Making sportswriters
with expense accounts pay for their own dinners is a thrifty
step in the right direction. [Note to editor: Receipt to follow
under separate cover.]

If for some reason keeping wolfish reporters from running a tab
isn't sufficient for success and the restaurant doesn't make it,
don't worry. He can always lease the space. He owns the building

This is how he works: Under a sky as high and hot as scalded
milk, Keyshawn is running patterns on a practice field at
Hofstra University, catching long, elegant passes.

He comes off the line of scrimmage like Walter Brennan. For the
first three steps he's all crotchet and fuss and pistoning
forearms, his big feet flapping. Then on the fourth step his
feet are under him again, so he unfolds himself and he's daddy
longlegs now, football fast, going, pumping--he plants one of
those size-13 shoes, cutting, fakes, fakes again with a shake of
the head that seems like an angry denial, pumping, going. Part
of him is headed upfield now, and the other part isn't. You can
see him from every angle at once, a cubist painting of a man
running, and the ball is in the air, drilling an arc into those
hands as big and soft as oven mitts.

During the worst of this unseasonal heat wave it feels as if
you're wearing clothes made out of steel wool, but Keyshawn is
running flat out up the sideline, going deep, hitch and go, over
and over--fast, as if he's chasing something. Or something's
chasing him.

Keyshawn uses his shoulder belt nearly every time he drives. His
favorite color is blue. He listens to Tupac. He is a "shining
star" in a flashlight world. He often refers to himself as
"Number 19." He has been known to use the phrase "hunky-dory" in

During the season Keyshawn and Shikiri and their children live
on Long Island in a town house. Nothing palatial, just normal;
the neighbors rag him if he leaves the lids off his garbage cans
on trash day. This is a seasonal home--they're Californians to
the marrow--so the place has a look of impermanence. Nice
furniture, but not a lot of it; low knickknack count. A
television downstairs the size of a JumboTron, though, and
plenty of Pokemon videos. With kids, you don't have to worry
much about decorating anyway; they'll take care of it for you.
Their real home, the new place they're building in Los Angeles,
is almost finished. Many thousands of square feet to decorate
and accessorize. If you see young Mr. Johnson often enough at
Weeb Ewbank Hall, the Jets' headquarters, he's apt to confront
you with a design magazine folded to a picture of an armoire. "I
like this. We're doing Mediterranean."

He formed Keyshawn, Inc. in part to organize and operate his
charitable enterprises. The two most prominent among these are
Key's Kids, a community outreach program for underprivileged
children, and the Keyshawn Johnson Education Fund, which
provides scholarships.

In a windowless, airless basement auditorium borrowed from the
University of Southern California for the Dorsey High senior
awards ceremony in June, Keyshawn and Shikiri made one of the
last presentations of the evening. Through his education fund he
awarded four $5,000-per-year scholarships to exceptional Dorsey
graduates. The grants are in force for as long as the students
remain in college. He did this last year, too, and the year
before. Next year he'll add two more. Then two more, and so on,
for at least as long as he plays.

Eventually, he hopes 100 students will be going to college with
money that came from Keyshawn Johnson. When he explains this
benevolent academic pyramid scheme to the audience, it gives him
a standing ovation. No cameras are present in the small
auditorium. Later, when asked about the breadth of the plan, he
says, "You gotta give back. So, you comin' to eat?"

Is the Feud for real? Do Keyshawn Johnson and fellow wideout
Wayne Chrebet really hate each other? If so, does it matter?

To the joy of neither, their long-running Alphonse and Gaston
routine has become a comic staple of the New York sports pages
and radio shows. They are, to the press at least, as necessary
to each other as the very air, and as irresistible in their epic
spat as Moby and Ahab. That they still share adjoining lockers
compounds the comedy. To see them giving separate interviews to
separate sets of reporters while studiously ignoring each other
from a distance of 18 inches is to witness the rebirth of

In the midst of the Jets' early-season swoon, the Sept. 27 New
York Post found space to feature this headline: CHREBET FIRES A
KEY SHOT. The subhead: CALLS JOHNSON 'RETARDED.' (Nobody ever
said the NFL was the Algonquin Round Table.) The piece, though
riddled with factual errors, recounted a comment laughingly made
by Chrebet during a recent radio show on which he was flogging
his book, Every Down, Every Distance. Johnson responded the next
day by taking what was left of the moral high ground and lobbing
football cliches--"I'm just trying to win games," etc.--down on
Chrebet's head.

Absent the notoriety he gained by being referred to in Johnson's
book as a "team mascot," Hofstra long-shot Chrebet might not
have so quickly become the blue-collar folk hero he is today.
And without Chrebet as his foil, Johnson and his comments might
not have registered quite so brightly on the great tabloid radar
screen. Largely ignored is the fact that they have more in
common than either will admit. Each works like a draft horse in
practice; both have a burning ambition to win; both are fearless
going across the middle. Each is a "Parcells guy," a "parking
lot player" (i.e., they would play football in the parking lot
even if no one were watching). Both are proud and stubborn. Each
is as tough as a U.S. Army ham.

As to the true nature of their relationship, the following scene
from training camp might be illustrative. Chrebet catches a
touchdown pass in the big scrimmage. Cheers erupt. As the
offensive unit jogs off the field, Keyshawn touches celebratory
knuckles with everyone around him. Chrebet, however, walks right
past him but receives no knuckle, gets no love. A few series
later, when Keyshawn hauls one down in the end zone, Chrebet has
the loving knuckles out for all but Keyshawn. (During the
regular season, they knuckle grudgingly, like a long-divorced
couple, for the fans.)

While not complimentary, they are certainly complementary, in at
least two ways. On the field each is integral to the Jets'
offensive scheme. They put up some pretty gaudy combined numbers
last year with Vinny T. at the wheel: 158 receptions for 2,214
yards and 18 touchdowns. Each had 60 receptions for first downs.
They are a potent tandem, but are they dependent on each other
between the lines? To hear them tell it, no. (When Chrebet went
out with a broken foot in preseason, it was at least a week
before Keyshawn even used Chrebet's name to describe the
situation. He kept saying "When one guy goes down, another guy
has to step up.") But when both are playing--along with
Testaverde--the Jets' aerial attack is a thing to be reckoned

Perhaps more important, Keyshawn and Chrebet play necessary
characters in the ongoing drama of our national game. Sports
(and sportswriting) has always been about the creation of heroes
and villains, the manufacture of mythologies. Fans have a
rooting interest not just in the outcome of each game, but also
in the eternal, operatic struggle between one-dimensional
archetypes of good and evil. Thus a team becomes, as Parcells
often calls it in a different context, a "cast of characters."
Chrebet satisfies our need for a scrappy underdog, a diminutive
overachiever, while Keyshawn is portrayed as the blustering L.A.
glamour-puss with awesome physical gifts. (The uglier subtext is
racial, with Chrebet as a white, anti-Keyshawn. Sadly, this too
is a story that some faction of the Jets' fan base wants to
hear.) Thus, both players are done a great disservice.

They are stuck with these roles, it seems, handcuffed by the
press to identities not entirely of their own making. For the
past two seasons, for example, Chrebet was unfailingly referred
to by football's intelligentsia as the Jets' (and sometimes the
NFL's) uber-receiver on third down. In 1998 he made 26 catches
(down from 29 the previous year) for 412 yards and four
touchdowns in third-down situations, an indicator, apparently,
of homey values like grit and stick-to-itiveness. Keyshawn made
23 catches (up from 18 in '97) for 327 yards and seven
touchdowns in the same circumstance, yet is almost never labeled
a third-down threat. This is neither preference nor prejudice
exactly, so much as a case of the press's sticking to the
libretto it's written for everyone.

So, do they hate each other? Probably not. After all, why waste
that kind of energy? Contrary to what Newsweek said in its
recent profile of Keyshawn, teammates do not have to be friends.

But who knows how they feel about each other? Neither would talk
about the feud they aren't having. Chrebet refused to be
interviewed for this piece, and Keyshawn's last word on the
subject was this, "I don't want to help him sell any more books."

J-E-T-S! Jets! Jets! Jets!

Two phrases recur when you talk to people about Keyshawn: "He is
the most intensely loyal person I've ever met," and "If I had to
go into a dark alley, he's the one I'd want with me."

Why a corporate marketing director would be in a dark alley is
anybody's guess.

Maybe you think you know the place from movies or TV or hip-hop,
but South-Central Los Angeles is not metaphorical--it is not a
jungle or a war zone or a Third World country. Those are
literary cliches that obscure the reality of the place and make
any responsibility for it seem distant and impossible.
South-Central is an American neighborhood of wide streets lined
with small pastel houses where American families suffer not just
gang violence or institutionalized poverty, but worse still, the
failure of hope. That Keyshawn got out testifies to his strength
of will. That he comes back says a lot about his heart.

After the riots and fires in 1992, folks in Los Angeles heard a
lot of uplifting rhetoric from local politicians and corporate
glad-handers about rebuilding the scorched economy of
South-Central. Rhetoric looks swell on the op-ed page or in the
annual report but doesn't create any actual jobs or lay any
actual bricks. Most large companies hid behind the sterile
language of cost/benefit analyses. Burned-out businesses and
vacant lots have remained empty for the better part of a decade,
and people in the area still travel miles to find work or shop
for basic necessities. Only lately have inner-city areas like
this been perceived as emerging economic markets.

One politician who has turned the talk into something tangible
is L.A. city councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas. No oratorical
firebrand, he is instead an extremely patient man who has, over
a period of years, coaxed and hectored a handful of
redevelopment groups back into the 8th District, which includes
South-Central. One of the largest projects, a 26-acre, $50
million retail center, is being undertaken by a consortium made
up of three entities: Capital Vision Equities, a residential
developer; Katell Properties, a commercial developer; and
Keyshawn Johnson, a Pro Bowl MVP. "It's a very important project
for Los Angeles," says Ridley-Thomas. "It's the first project of
this size and sort in the last decade. The residents here are
very excited."

Chesterfield Square, as the center will be known, breaks ground
this month at the intersection of Western and Slauson avenues.
With its opening planned for Christmas, 2000, it will be
anchored by a huge Home Depot, a supermarket and a drugstore.
(Keyshawn would like to see a McDonald's in there too, and maybe
an athletic-shoe store.) The center will create 600 jobs and
send millions of dollars through the local economy.

Keyshawn's participation in the enterprise is "substantial"
according to those who know. In other words, he doesn't want to
be just a face on the prospectus. As Ridley-Thomas puts it, "He
hasn't been bashful about getting involved and putting his money
where his mouth is."

Keyshawn knows how successful former Lakers colossus Magic
Johnson has been with his inner-city investments, like his movie
theaters a few neighborhoods away in Baldwin Hills. Make no
mistake, this is not, according to the councilman, "a matter of
charity. It is not a matter of philanthropy. This is a matter of
business." And for Keyshawn, a matter of pride. He well
understands that he may make a reasonable return on his
investment--in fact, he underscores this in conversation--but
his eyes widen only when he talks about doing well by doing
good: "It's a good investment. And why wouldn't I want to do
something like this in the place where I was born and raised?"

Keyshawn talks to his mom, Vivian, two or three times a week.
She lives in a house Keyshawn bought after he made it to the
NFL. They talk about the family, about the restaurant, about the
world at large. They also talk about football. "She knows a lot
about sports," he says. A long time ago she was the one who
threw him the damn ball. What does she say to him about the 1999
Jets? "What's wrong with y'all?"

He can't get out of New York fast enough for his bye-week break,
a chance to fly well away from the blast radius of the tabloid
second-guessers and wise-guy finger-pointers. "All they're gonna
see is the back of my head gettin' smaller and smaller,"
Keyshawn tells every paper in town.

Shikiri Johnson is a stunningly beautiful and well-spoken young
woman. She rarely talks to the press. She and Keyshawn are
homebodies, protective of their privacy, reluctant to trade away
every little bit of themselves the way some famous couples do.
Turn around one day, if you're not careful, and all you have
left is a promotional device, not a marriage.

She has a degree in journalism and is working on a career in
broadcasting. "Not sports television," says Shikiri. "That's way
too close to home." She is also taking business classes in
anticipation of opening a boutique a few blocks from the
restaurant. They met at a party at USC; she thought at first
that he was a basketball player. They were married on
Valentine's Day, 1998.

"I love that things are going right for him," she says, "but
it's hard on our family time. I'm very proud of him, but it's
difficult to have my own identity."

Keyshawn's backstage at the Letterman show, waiting to go on,
watching the monitor in the dressing room: tonight's Top 10
list. He's too big in this little room, has to stand up or hinge
himself down onto a too-small couch. His legs are everywhere.
Maybe it's all these mirrors. He's in a plaid flannel shirt and
baggy jeans; he looks huge, looks like Tupac Bunyan. "Why are
those people laughing?" he asks.

Twenty minutes later he's on stage. Dave asks what it was like
to lose Vinny. Keyshawn takes a beat--as if he's the tummler at
Grossinger's--then asks back, "How would you feel if you lost
Paul?" The audience roars. Somewhere in Hollywood telephones
start ringing.

Shikiri and Keyshawn sit on a milk crate in their front hallway;
behind them is a piece of black velvet hung from the banister.
They are having their picture taken. Millions of magazine
readers will see them and envy them their youth, their beauty,
their love, their talent.

As soon as the photographer leaves, Keyshawn pulls on a coat to
run out and get their dinner. It is 11 p.m. He's going to Taco
Bell. "Don't forget the sour cream," Shikiri says. It's all about
the glamour.

In the U.S. Open players' lounge after the Seles-Williams match,
Keyshawn makes small talk with Serena and Venus and other
members of the Williams family. They've met before. Serena
leaves to tidy up; Venus plays with two tiny terriers that are
part of her entourage. They live in a carry-on bag. Keyshawn has
been briefly abandoned by the friends he brought--they've gone
to meet Seles. Venus sits on a table edge and opens up the new
Harry Potter book.

Two of the most popular athletes of the age are sitting a few
feet from each other on a banquet table in the players' lounge
of the U.S. Tennis Center at 10 o'clock at night, slowly
swinging their long legs back and forth. Not talking. Just
swinging. It is dead quiet, and for some reason, against all
logic, it's easy to feel protective of them both. Keyshawn's
friends have been gone a long time. "Can we go pretty soon?" he
asks no one in particular. This is fame, too.


COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Still Open Johnson has good numbers this year almost in spite of his quarterbacks.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN GREILICK/AP Stuck in a Mirer Testaverde's injury in the season's opening game (opposite) put the quarterback job in the shaky hands of Mirer (No. 3).

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA [See caption above]

COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. Eyes west Johnson and his young family live on Long Island during the season, but his heart--and his new dream house--are in L.A.

COLOR PHOTO: AP Double coverage Johnson calls the manager of his restaurant several times every day, checking turnover, receipts, breakage.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Going short The return of Chrebet, who missed five games with a broken foot, may open up the field for Johnson and the rest of the offense.

COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. Talking heads Johnson's wife, Shikiri, has a degree in journalism and is pursuing a career in broadcasting.

He is as brash and self-referential as the young Ali, as
irritating and confounding to conventional wisdom.

Laid low Greek-tragedy-style by a wounded Achilles, the Jets
collapsed--they were stunned instead of stunning.

He was a street kid. Smart. Supported his family. Hustled. Did
time in two juvenile camps. Sold dope. Carried a gun. Got shot.

The name of Keyshawn's new, upscale Beverly Hills restaurant,
Reign, suits the ambitious iconography of its owner.

Keyshawn and Chrebet are, to the local press at least, as
irresistible in their epic spat as Moby and Ahab.

He attracts Day of the Locust crowds--mothers lean out of the
stands in Green Bay to snap his picture for the kiddies.