- Seth Wickersham, ESPN Senior Writer
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That look, right there. That's the one. That look is what makes talking with Larry Johnson so tough. He gives it without warning, like now, while he nibbles on hot wings in a Times Square restaurant as someone asks him to name his best friends.
"Don't have any best friends."
Okay—in an emergency, who would you call?
"My brother or my dad. I wouldn't call anybody on the team."
And there it is, the look that fronts his Rocawear ads: the hard stare, the ticked-off one, the one that's been crafted and calculated to convey all the warmth of a Homeland Security agent. Johnson stares off to the side, eyes indifferent, head cocked away from conversation. His jaw is as square as an Asscher cut, his lips a vice grip. His right eyebrow arches and dips in stark contrast to the level left one, forming a brow line that traces single heartbeat as if on an EKG. It's just enough to keep you off guard, unable to get a clean read. And that's just what he wants. Be it Sunday or otherwise, Johnson will not allow himself to be wrestled to the ground.
No best friends? Of course he has best friends. Dante Hall, for one; former Chiefs fullback Tony Richardson, for another. Johnson's posturing isn't the point. The point is that Johnson feels alone. He often shows up solo at Kansas City bars on purpose, wearing that face, trying to … what? Will people away? Draw them in? Both?
His career arc is a lonely one too. Only a solo artist could arrive and vanish as suddenly as Johnson does. Each year that Johnson has gotten carries, he has produced not only a great season but a bright, blinding one. As a high school senior in 1998, he rushed for 2,159 yards and 29 touchdowns. In his fifth year at Penn State, he gained 2,087 yards, becoming the first 2,000-yard rusher in NCAA history to average more than 7.5 a carry. How dominant was he last season, his third in the league? When Johnson became a starter halfway through the season, Al Saunders, then the offensive coordinator, asked Johnson for his four favorite plays before each game, then called them almost exclusively, even though defenses had caught on by the second quarter. And for those who still think Eric Dickerson's NFL-record 2,105 yards is out of Johnson's reach, consider that last season's numbers project to a Riddellshaking 2,410 over 16 starts. "He's just explosive," says GM Carl Peterson. "What he did in those final nine games was phenomenal."
But a tailback with such a gift-"Jim Brown ability," as Dick Vermeil calls it-shouldn't have three- or four-year gulfs between some of the best numbers ever. Those three seasons aren't Johnson's only great years; they're his only notable ones. If we assume Johnson's talent level doesn't dip, then what gives? "Good or bad, I think he likes to feel he's a warrior," says his dad, Larry Sr. "And most warriors fight all the time, battles they don't have to fight."
AFTER EVERY game last season-including nine straight 100-yard Sundays and a pair of 200-yarders-Johnson sat in the training room, shielded from reporters, while Richardson, his locker neighbor, sniffed out story lines in the postgame interviews. Then Johnson would sneak out to ask him, "What do you think? Should I talk today?" Most times, the advice was to pass.
It was easier to skip the inevitable questions about why he'd spent the previous two years pouting. In those days, he eagerly filled reporters' notebooks from deep in Vermeil's doghouse. But now that he was setting records? Forget it.
Asking Richardson to run interference was just the latest example of what Johnson calls "walking slow." Years ago, when he was 6, maybe 7, Larry played tailback on his Pop Warner team. Time and again, his old man, the head coach, called plays from the sideline, then put camcorder to eye in time to capture his screaming wife, Christine, running down the sideline beside her end zone-bound boy.
But Larry Jr. cried when the games ended, feeling a separation from his teammates. He figured it was because he was the coach's son, or they were jealous of his playing time. Either way, he thought he had no friends. Which wasn't true, of course. He just felt that he didn't, and that self-imposed exile kept the other boys at arm's length.
The Johnsons taught their firstborn to be cautious, to offer trust sparingly. Whenever he entered unfamiliar territory, in the classroom or on the practice field, they told him to "walk slow"-to read faces and the situation before proceeding. So Johnson walked slow on the youth football field. He walked slow after Larry Sr. was hired to coach Penn State's defensive line and Larry Jr. was among the roughly three percent of kids at State College Area High who were black. He walked slow at Penn State, realizing he had to work harder than the others just so the staff couldn't be accused of favoritism.
And hard work was never a problem. A hard head was, though. Says Larry Sr., "He developed an attitude of I've-gotta-prove-I'm-beyond-acoach's-son. And that's stayed with him."
So Johnson will run the football as magically as anyone ever and stay as unhappy as he damn well pleases.
GULFS? JOHNSON doesn't see gulfs. He sees conspiracies. He sees politics. He sees old coaches, like Vermeil and Joe Paterno, whose ways are set, and he thinks, They can't handle me. They can't handle a guy whose punishing style leaves tacklers on the turf like footprints on hot tar and whose mouth is just as potent. They can't handle a guy who "challenges authority, then backs it up to make them look like asses," or who strives, however ineffectively, to "manipulate people until they understand where I'm coming from." They can't handle a guy who was on the bench. Again. Johnson was in his second year with the Chiefs, October 2004, and trapped in his worst gulf yet, not playing, often not even dressing for games. Every few nights, he'd hold his cell to his ear as Larry Sr. told him to hang in, but that wasn't working. Here he was, a first-round pick who'd come to camp on time and done everything the coaches asked, including playing on special teams, and what did it get him? Third string.
Politics, Johnson decided. Just like it was politics in high school when he sat until his final year because the coaches wouldn't drop the senior atop the depth chart for the new coach's kid. Could it have been that the other guy had waited his turn? No, it was politics.
Same deal at Penn State. Did Johnson sit because the Lions had recruited three other tailbacks besides him? Or because he was constantly kicked out of practice for fighting? Or for saying that the playcalling was "too predictable"? Of course not. Politics.
In Kansas City, they'd drafted him despite already fielding perennial Pro Bowler Priest Holmes in his prime. Vermeil had wanted a defensive player; Peterson overruled him. A few days later, in the coach's office, Vermeil stared at Johnson, Larry Sr. at his side, and shook his head: "You've had a great career in college, but you'll be very fortunate if you can get a 40-yard run in the pros. It just doesn't happen."
Johnson is convinced that he carried the ball only 20 times his first season-and only once in the first seven games the next-because Vermeil never wanted him. That wasn't what Vermeil and Saunders kept telling him, though. They made it simple: Their tailbacks needed to execute the 17 pass protections in each week's game plan. Do that and you play. But Johnson chose not to see it their way. "He didn't understand the culture we had," says Tony Gonzalez. "Larry floated. He didn't think he had to block hard in practice, and he did."
How did he see it? Well, Vermeil liked his oldschool guys and wanted those guys to do well, and that's why he was behind not only Holmes, but also Derrick Blaylock, a fifth-rounder from Stephen F. Austin. Johnson figured Vermeil gave Blaylock extra playing time to leverage his value in free agency the following spring. "Derrick wasn't rich yet," Johnson says. "So he helped him get that deal [five years, $11.1 million from the Jets] by sitting me on the bench, knowing it wasn't right." Screw them, Johnson thought. "It got to the point where I didn't talk to them," Johnson says, "and they didn't talk to me." They wanted politics, they got politics. Again, Johnson got into fights in practice and called out the team in the papers, this time for drafting him only to sit him. That prompted Vermeil to tell Johnson to zip it in front of the entire team, the first time many players recalled the coach singling out one of them. Johnson didn't care. He skipped meetings. And when he did show, he'd stare at the ceiling, leaving his playbook closed. "I was doing anything I could to be traded," he says. It didn't wear well. "He was pissing me off," says Gonzalez. "He was being a baby." His teammates knew he was trying to flunk his way out of town, but that didn't make it okay. "I couldn't talk to anybody else about it," he says. "There was no point. They wouldn't understand what I was feeling."
Johnson talked to his dad at night, telling him about his defiance, and the old coach couldn't believe it. "You just can't do that," Larry Sr. said. "You're doing it the wrong way."
"I just need to play," Junior would respond. "I've got to get out of here."
WHY DID they cheer?
It was last December, after practice. Vermeil, surrounded by his team, held a list of the five Chiefs who'd been selected for the Pro Bowl. After reading four of the names, in alphabetical order, he folded the paper in half, let the moment age, then yelled, "Larry Johnson!" The team rose and clapped, arms raised above their red jerseys, Johnson surrounded by fire.
A few months after Peterson ended Johnson's power play by refusing to trade him, Saunders decided he had to get on better with the sullen back. In April 2005, he flew to State College to meet with Johnson's parents, in an attempt to break their son's code. They dined together and watched old football tapes. When Saunders mentioned that his three children, like the three Johnson kids, had all been Division I athletes, Larry Sr. pounced. "Pretend he's your son," he said. "Every guy needs someone to say 'Great job' every once in a while. Tell him that, he'll run through a wall for you."
Saunders went back to Kansas City and told Larry that he'd play more if he worked harder and became more accountable. Johnson began the season playing every third series. He averaged 5.3 yards a carry. But it was after Holmes was hurt and Johnson began to play every down that he really started running through walls: the defending-champ Patriots for 119 yards; the topranked run defense of the Chargers for 131; four other playoff-bound teams for an average of 157.
Still, even as he was picking plays with Saunders in weekly one-on-ones, with Saunders telling him "Great job" over and over, Johnson never stopped staring off to the side, copping the hard look. It's all bulls-, he thought. He had no use for pats on the back. Validation came with the carries that finally let him show that his talent was too powerful to ignore.
So why did they cheer? Certainly not because Johnson was a changed man. They cheered because you just had to appreciate 1,750 yards, a mile of rushing. They cheered because, despite all of his posturing and fronting, Johnson ultimately knew that they'd helped him. "The offensive line and Tony Richardson have been so supportive, even when I wasn't playing much," Johnson had said after rushing for 201 yards against the Bengals in the season finale. "I feel that I owe everything, as far as my achievements, to them."
And his teammates knew that Johnson was running his biggest mind game on himself. They knew he needed to see enemies to get where he did. "Emotionally, is it the best way to be?" Gonzalez says. "Probably not. But it's what makes him work."
Of course, Johnson will have trouble feeling alone now: He's the undisputed starting tailback. He's posing for more Rocawear ads. He has founded a charity, LJ's Growth and Legacy Foundation, to benefit local kids. Herman Edwards, in his first meeting with his star after taking over the Chiefs in January, made it clear that he needs Johnson to lead. No more skipped meetings. No more whining about playcalling. No more hard looks at the first sign of conflict. "He wants the role," Edwards says. "Larry has never been put in a position to lead."
Edwards is counting on more than once-in-awhile, blindingly bright seasons. He's looking for a legacy, a career of many honors, but one shared, maybe even co-owned, by teammates. Maybe, just maybe, 1,750 will be the norm. Maybe Edwards will get what he needs.
Maybe this time Johnson will walk as fast as he runs.
*At least that's what he thinks. Which is exactly why he won't