Anger helped bring Johnson fame, and it will help bring him down
Larry Johnson had big shoes to fill, replacing Priest Holmes
Johnson embraced the underdog role, thriving on proving people wrong
Recent outburst on Twitter is Johnson's leftover anger talking
My father played for coach from "rememeber the titans". Our coach played golf. My father played with redskins briefley. Our coach. Nuthn.
I suppose it is pretty well known, at least in the greater Kansas City metropolitan area, that I sort of see myself as Priest Holmes' Boswell. For four years, from 2001 to 2004, I had this strange, interesting, confusing, intricate journalistic relationship with Priest. It should be said that he was an absolutely amazing running back those four years. Amazing. In 2001, he led the NFL in rushing. In some ways, that was his least impressive year.
In 2002, he was on his way to perhaps the greatest season a running back ever had before he hurt his hip ? in 13 1/2 games, he ran for 1,615 yards, caught 70 passes, scored 24 touchdowns and gained 2,287 yards form scrimmage. I have often tried to project that season out ... simple math comes out like this:
Amazing as those numbers look, I believe he might have done even better than that. He had a real shot a 2,000 yards rushing, 800 yards receiving and 30 touchdowns. He was that good and the Chiefs offensive line was that good. He could do more or less anything he wanted back then.
In 2003, he was not quite the same -- he was never quite the same after the hip injury, I don't think -- but he still set an NFL record with 27 rushing touchdowns, and he had 2,110 yards from scrimmage and he was a fantasy football monster.
In 2004, he again was not quite the same. And he got hurt. But even so, in a half season -- eight games -- he rushed for 892 yards and scored 15 touchdowns. So ... double up those numbers ... yeah, not bad. In 38 games from 2002-2004, Priest Holmes scored 66 touchdowns. SIXTY-SIX TOUCHDOWNS. That looks like a misprint. But it was very real. It's impossible to separate what Holmes did from the brilliance of that Chiefs offensive line and passing attack, but if that Chiefs offense was The Godfather, then Holmes was Brando.
And for whatever reason, we connected. Maybe it was the chess matches we played -- we used to play every week. Or maybe we just sort of understood each other. Priest was never easy for most reporters. Heck, he wasn't easy for me. After most games, Priest would announce he wasn't talking to the media. But it was understood that I would sort of stand around after the game for an hour or an hour and a half, however long it took, waiting for him to finish getting his body and mind recovered from the game.* And then we would go over the game, talk about various things. It became ritual. And Priest Holmes, like many great athletes, believed in ritual.
*Football took a terrible toll on Priest Holmes. I guess it does on most football players, but I saw it firsthand with Priest. He would have to enter another world emotionally and physically to take on the violence and fury of the NFL. Priest is about my height. He wasn't especially fast -- he went undrafted even though he played at the University of Texas. He wasn't an especially overpowering runner. He was a great running back because of his extreme preparation (I suspect no running in the history of the NFL read blockers better or was more precise about steps than Priest Holmes) and because of his extreme will.
Anyway, I've never had quite that sort of relationship with any other elite athlete ... I'm still not entirely sure how it happened with Priest. And because of that relationship, I did not have much interest in Larry Johnson when the Kansas City Chiefs shocked everyone by drafting him in 2003. Nobody really understood the pick at the time. The Chiefs desperately needed defensive help ... they had led the NFL in points scored in 2002, and they still finished 8-8. That defense was some kind of awful. The official explanation for the Larry Johnson pick was that the Chiefs were worried about the health of Priest Holmes -- and they had every right to be worried. The official explanation was that Larry Johnson was simply too good a value to pass up with the 27th pick*. The official explanation was not the whole truth, of course. It seems to be that Chiefs president Carl Peterson had fallen in love with Johnson's talents and, against the wishes of head coach Dick Vermeil, he took L.J. with the pick.
*The Chiefs actually had the 16th pick in the draft but, not seeing a defensive player who fit their eye, they traded down to 27. That would not be worth a side-note except Pittsburgh is the team that traded up to 16 ... and with that pick they took safety Troy Polamalu, one of the most dominating defensive players in the NFL.
I don't think it's revisionist history to say that Larry Johnson looked awful in his first camp. I remember it being the talk of camp at the time. He looked plodding and slow and like he could think of about 237 places he would rather be. He also fumbled a bit. He was angry then, legitimately angry, and the reasons were easy to understand. He did not get a real chance to play in college until his senior year. And he should have won the Heisman Trophy that senior year ... he rushed for more than 2,000 yards, scored 29 touchdowns, and averaged 7.8 yards per carry. He was actually averaging eight yards per carry -- EIGHT YARDS PER CARRY -- going into the bowl game. He finished third in the voting behind Carson Palmer and Brad Banks.
And then, he had these big NFL dreams -- Johnson is a student of NFL history -- and he ended up getting drafted by a team that already had Priest Holmes coming off one of the great running back seasons ever. Yes, he was very angry, and he brooded constantly, and his coaches and teammates were annoyed by him. He wanted the ball. He only carried the ball 20 times his rookie season.
In 2004, though, Priest Holmes got hurt. Believe it or not, Larry Johnson was not next up ... a running back named Derrick Blaylock became the starter (and he had a 186-yard rushing game -- man oh man was that a good offensive line). But Blaylock got hurt, and Larry Johnson got a chance to carry the ball. He was amazing. The Chiefs had one of the great offensive lines in the history of the NFL then (anchored by future Hall of Famers Will Shields and Willie Roaf and soon-to-be Pro Bowler Brian Waters) and Larry Johnson scored 10 touchdowns in his final five games -- three of them were runs of 32 yards or more. He was clearly lacking various other skills -- he was close-to-useless as a pass blocker and he was a limited receiver. And with Priest Holmes more or less filling up my time, I didn't really take much notice of Johnson except to notice that, damn, he ran hard.
And then there's 2005 -- and that's the year when everything crescendoed for Larry Johnson. Anger met opportunity, all behind a breathtakingly good offensive line. It was awe inspiring. Johnson started nine games in 2005 -- and he ran for 100 yards in all nine. He rushed for 1,351 yards and scored 17 touchdowns in those nine games. He ran for 211 yards against Houston, scored three touchdowns against Dallas, broke off touchdown runs of 49, 14 and 20 yards against Cincinnati. The line was so good that he was regularly able to break though the first line of defense, and then he would unleash ... he would run over linebackers and defensive backs ... damn, he ran hard. I wrote a column that year comparing him to Jim Brown, and heard from some people who were infuriated by the comparison though I should also say I heard from two of Jim Brown's former teammates who thought the comparison was just right. "Same guy," one of those ex-teammates wrote.
In 2006, Herm Edwards became head coach of the Chiefs ... and things changed. For one thing, Willie Roaf -- who is probably the greatest offensive tackle I ever saw up close -- retired. For another, Trent Green, the Chiefs prolific quarterback, suffered a concussion in the first game. And third, Edwards wanted to change the basic structure of the Chiefs. The team had scored a bunch of points from 2002-2005 -- more than any team in the NFL by a pretty substantial margin -- but they had only made the playoffs once, and they lost that playoff game. Edwards believed the team wasn't tough enough. He wanted to refocus the team's persona. The Chiefs were now about Larry Johnson.
Something changed at that point. Roy Williams, when asked why his assistant coach Matt Doherty flamed out as head coach at North Carolina, shrugged and said: "Those 18 inches can be pretty wide." He was referring to the 18-inch gap between the head coach's chair and the chair of the No. 1 assistant coach. It seems to me now -- and yes, I appreciate that this is a lot of pop psychology -- that Larry Johnson was built to be the outsider. He thrived on proving people wrong. He thrived on feeling under-appreciated and mistreated and unloved. He could be charming and funny and smart (he once came out for a Herm Edwards press conference and did a dead-on Herm impression to the shock of the media), but you always got the impression that he wanted to hide that side of himself. He seemed to feel like that side of himself wasn't real.
And so, he played the angry young man ... and it all made sense when he had reasons to be angry. But then, suddenly, he was an NFL star. He was famous. He was successful. He had a coach who didn't just like him but built an entire team around him (in 2006, Larry Johnson got 416 carries ... an NFL record). And suddenly, the angry act didn't make much sense to anyone, least of all to L.J. What did he have to be angry about? Nobody knew. Only he stayed angry. He was arrested for assault for waving a gun in his girlfriend's face. Charges were dropped. He was arrested again, this time for allegedly pushing his girlfriend to the ground. Charges were dropped. Daily Larry Johnson rumors emerged around town. In 2008, he was arrested two more times for assault --once for pushing a woman in a night club and a second time for spitting a drink in a woman's face. Off the field he was out of control.
And on the field? In 2006, when he was getting 25 to 30 carries every single game, he still ran with purpose and talent. He ran for 1,789 yards, scored 19 touchdowns, was one of the stars of the league even if the offensive line wasn't nearly as good. But, yes, something did seem missing. He yards per carry average dropped a yard. His enthusiasm for contact, his sporting rage, his ability to gain two or three extra yards without people seeming to notice, it all seemed to be withering. He ran for only 32 yards in the playoff game against Indianapolis and afterward bitched about the Chiefs offense trying to run the ball against a defense that knew it was it coming. It seemed wrong -- Larry Johnson suddenly didn't want the ball so much.
What followed is pretty typical NFL stuff. Johnson wanted a lucrative new contract even though his first contract had not expired. The Chiefs gave it to him even though they were well aware that NFL running backs who run the ball more than 400 times in a season are usually used up. Will Shields retired, leaving that once great offensive line in tatters. And Larry Johnson diminished before our very eyes. You could blame it on a thousand things, and any one of those could be right. Maybe his brilliant early performance was simply due to a great offensive line and a multiple offense. Maybe the 400 carries in a season finished him. Maybe injuries were the key. Maybe he simply lost control of himself and his life. Or maybe a talent like Larry Johnson is temporary, a flash across the sky. Maybe nobody can run that angry for very long.
Whatever the reasons, Larry Johnson averaged 3.5 yards per carry in 2007 and got hurt. He ran for 874 yards in a bleak 2008 season overwhelmed by off-the-field incidents. And this year, he averages 2.7 yards per carry and has not scored a single touchdown. Larry Johnson will turn 30 years old in mid-November. The general feeling in Kansas City and around the NFL is that he's done as a good NFL back. Maybe the fact everyone doubts him again will reignite him. Then again, maybe not.
And I can't help but feel sad for him. I like him in a strange way ... maybe because I have seen a little bit of that side he doesn't like showing people. Also I loved watching him play football.
The Larry Johnson Tweet that tops this post is gone from his account now ... I assume he removed it along with various other angry things he wrote last night after the Chiefs humiliating loss to San Diego. A few of the angry comments he wrote to fans are still up, though, if you want to see those ... sort of the vapor trail of his Twitter rage. People have asked me why he would just go off on Twitter like he did, but I think I understand. Anger helped make Larry Johnson into a breathtakingly good NFL running back. Anger helped make him famous and successful and rich. Anger helped him fulfill the dreams he had been having since he was a child.
The trouble is, at some point, all those other things faded away. He's not a breathtakingly good running back now. He's not especially famous, not particularly successful, and being rich -- assuming he has been smart with his money -- isn't enough. This is the the sad thing about Larry Johnson. All he's left with is the anger.
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