As third parties go, Keyshawn Johnson the ultimate wild card
Former NFL star Keyshawn Johnson coaches seven-on-seven team in LA
As go-between for his players and colleges, Johnson fits 'third party' mold
Johnson admits team is business venture, but truly wants to help these kids
WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. -- Keyshawn Johnson wanted to get mad, but he couldn't stop laughing. Two of his players were late to a camp/practice at Oaks Christian High, and their excuse had the nation's most famous seven-on-seven football coach in stitches.
"Chris and Mike-Mike called and said they ran out of gas," Johnson said late last month. "They had to walk a mile-and-a-half to a gas station."
Chris is Chris Harper, a receiver from Crespi Carmelite High in Encino, Calif. Mike-Mike is Mike Davison, Crespi's slot receiver/return man/all-purpose dynamo. Both players are members of the 1925 All-Stars, the seven-on-seven team assembled by Johnson and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers teammate Brian Kelly. Harper and Davison came to Johnson's attention through Devin Lucien, the former Crespi receiver who played for the first iteration of the 1925 All-Stars last year and who signed with UCLA in February. Unlike Lucien and 1925 teammates De'Anthony Thomas (Oregon) and Victor Blackwell (USC) last year, Harper and Davison haven't been deluged with scholarship offers. Harper shared the spotlight with Lucien at Crespi and didn't put up huge numbers, while Davison might be the shortest star high school football player in America. Johnson hopes he can get Harper, Davison and their 1925 teammates as many scholarship offers as possible, even if he annoys a few college coaches in the process.
The controversy surrounding elite travel seven-on-seven football has everything to do with the third party. For years, there were two distinct camps in college football recruiting. One camp contained the college coaches. The other camp contained the player, his parents and the high school coach. With only a few exceptions, those two camps handled the recruitment of each player. But in the past few years, seven-on-seven football has become a mirror of elite travel basketball. Just as in basketball, the travel-team coach (the third party) has gained power and influence in the recruiting process. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing depends on the third party's motives. Most college coaches assume the worst whenever a third party gets involved.
As third parties go, Johnson is the ultimate wild card. He freely admits his seven-on-seven team is part of a larger business venture called Big Man on Campus. But unlike many other travel-team coaches, Johnson doesn't depend on the football recruiting business as his main source of income. With money left over from a long NFL career, a gig analyzing the NFL for ESPN and an ownership stake in several Southern California restaurants, Johnson doesn't need the money his BMOC project might bring to put food on the table. Unlike some others involved in travel football, he certainly doesn't need to sell players to schools.
"None of these kids can pay my mortgage," Johnson said. "I promise you."
So why did the 11-year NFL veteran spend a night last fall scouting a Crespi game to see if Davison -- who is listed at 5-foot-4 but who might only be 5-2 -- could actually play? The reason Johnson will give is that he and Kelly believe the BMOC project is a worthwhile investment. The reason Johnson might not admit so readily becomes obvious after a few hours of watching him coach. He loves it. The guy critics called Me-shawn seems to genuinely enjoy working with high school players, and he wants to make sure they get scholarship offers and then pick a school that will work for them.
That's why Johnson has asked his players -- some, such as St. John Bosco receiver Bryce Treggs and Oaks Christian defensive back Ishmael Adams have multiple big-time offers -- to have college coaches call him or Kelly during the recruiting process. The former NFL stars have a few questions for the coaches, and they are not the questions the average recruit or coach would ask. Johnson said he already has ticked off several college coaches, and he'll happily rankle more as he tries to break through "all that recruiting bull----."
"Those recruiting lies you were practicing in your 20 years of coaching?" Johnson said. "Those lies aren't going to work on us."
On behalf of his players, Johnson wants to know a few things from college coaches. He wants to know the graduation rate, not just for players in the program but for the general student body. He wants to know what kind of jobs ex-players get when they graduate. He wants to know if each school has pockets of alumni outside the school's immediate geographic area. That way, Johnson can explain to an LA kid that going to school in Indiana might not be such a bad thing if he can come back to Southern California after graduation and work for a fellow alum.
Few of Johnson's questions involve the NFL, because Johnson knows better than most that the majority of his players won't make it to the NFL. He wants to make sure they have a future beyond football.
So how does this help Johnson? The 1925 All-Stars are the most visible component of BMOC. Johnson and Kelly have shopped a reality show that will follow a handful of players through the recruiting process. The show also is part of BMOC, and it likely will star players from the seven-on-seven team. Ultimately, Johnson and Kelly want BMOC to open facilities across the country that would provide sport-specific training as well as mandatory study halls. They dream of parents paying for BMOC to give their kids a place to go after school that might ultimately help them earn an athletic scholarship. (Johnson said he would like to open the first such facility by 2013.)
So if Johnson and Kelly can help a few under-the-radar prospects get offers, that helps advertise the business. If they can get players to come to BMOC's Under Armour-sponsored tournament in June at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., that helps advertise the business, too.
In the process, Johnson gets to have some fun working with players who can benefit from his guidance. Harper didn't have any offers until BMOC employee Byron Moore called coaches at Southern Methodist. Within 16 hours of receiving his tape, SMU offered Harper. Kodi Whitfield, a 6-2 receiver at LA's Loyola High and the son of former NFL offensive tackle Bob Whitfield, had little Pac-12 recruiting buzz before Johnson sent out tape of Whitfield practicing with the 1925 All-Stars. Almost immediately, Whitfield had offers from Arizona State and Washington.
"I didn't expect it to pick up this fast," said Whitfield, who has a 4.15 weighted grade-point average. "But I'm happy with where it's going."
Johnson said local high school coaches have had a mixed reaction to his efforts. Some welcome the help in landing scholarship offers for players. Others dislike the idea of third-party influence. "Some are not so friendly," Johnson said. "What happens is they become territorial."
Johnson said he does not want to take away influence from high school coaches. He would rather work with them than against them. Sierra Canyon High coach Jon Ellinghouse believes Johnson has the players' best interests at heart. Ellinghouse's quarterback, Tyler Stewart, is playing for Johnson this spring, and Ellinghouse said he has had a few long conversations with Johnson about how to best handle Stewart's recruitment. "I'm a big fan of it," Ellinghouse said. "Just as long as we work together on it. So far, it's been great."
Johnson also knows people assume that he is trying to steer the best players toward his alma mater, USC. Johnson certainly loves the Trojans, but he seems most interested in making sure his players have options rather than pointing them toward one school. Besides, he has taken on some players who will never get a sniff of interest from USC or any of its high-profile rivals. Why? Maybe because they'll help him launch a successful business. Or maybe because Johnson wants to help.
As Johnson wrapped his practice at Oaks Christian, he sat on a bench next to Davison. Johnson, who still looks like an NFL receiver, dwarfed the tiny Davison. As Davison looked up at the three-time Pro Bowler, Johnson unspooled his plan to net Mike-Mike a scholarship offer. "Now, we have to get you to San Diego State's camp," Johnson said. "Those coaches need to see what you can do in person."