"What Keyshawn was doing back then was normal for the area," says Darryl Holmes, a 35-year-old L.A. native who was an assistant when Johnson played at Dorsey High School and later at West Los Angeles (junior) College, in Culver City. "If there was a way to make money, selling drugs or stealing, Keyshawn was not above it. That's just the way it was. But what he's done since then, that's not normal at all."
•Part 3: They have to be ambitious, see themselves as successful. Johnson was a star receiver at Dorsey High, recruited by all the major powers and offered a scholarship by Miami in the winter of 1991. But he failed to reach the minimum SAT score for freshman eligibility, and Miami lost interest. "Deep down, I knew I wanted to go to college and be a superstar and all that," says Johnson. "But there was too much catching up to do in school. I didn't prepare myself."
Johnson went instead to West Los Angeles College. He lasted eight games. "He was extremely talented, extremely gifted, but not mature at all," says West L.A. coach Rob Hager. "One day he just didn't show up." Johnson returned the following spring, but Hager and Holmes told him to sit out the 1992 football season and prove himself by going to school and returning in the spring of '93. "All these colleges wanted you out of high school," Johnson's mother told him, "and now look at you."
Johnson righted himself and returned to West L.A. in the fall of '93 with an associate degree in hand and a fresh attitude. There was no secret to the transformation. "All I had to do was step back and look at where I was going," says Johnson.
Says Hager, "He came back strong, mature, focused, tremendous in a variety of ways." Johnson caught 55 passes that year and became one of the best junior college players in the country, and schools began recruiting him all over again. And his drive—did somebody say ambition?—became relentless. On an early-season bus trip home to West L.A. following a loss at lowly Compton Community College, Johnson stood up and berated his team. "Look at yourselves," he shouted. He saw quarterback Damon Williams, a former high school teammate, eating potato chips and smashed the bag in Williams's face. "Is this what you are, a waste?" Johnson screamed. "I'm not gonna let you guys ruin me getting to the next level, so wake, up and smell it."
Shaken and drained, Johnson sat down. The bus was silent. At the end of the season he accepted a scholarship to USC.
•Part 4: It has to be fun. Never lose the sense of joy in what you're doing.
Johnson could major in fun. He carries himself as if he knows things the rest of the world does not. Funny things. When he isn't smiling, he's laughing. This joy spills over to the football field in the most spontaneous ways.
For instance: In a 1993 junior college victory over Santa Barbara City College, Johnson caught a short slant and took it 91 yards for a touchdown—and then kept running, out of the stadium all the way to the top of a hill that overlooks the ocean, where he stood, with his left hand on his forehead, like Balboa discovering the Pacific. "I was just admiring the view," he says. That same fall he returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown against L.A. Pierce Junior College, ran through the end zone and up a ramp to a refreshment stand, reached into a bucket of ice filled with soda cans and pulled out a cold drink for himself.
At USC last year, not only did the 6'4", 210-pound Johnson catch 66 passes for 1,362 yards and nine touchdowns, but he also reminded his opponents of every catch and every yard. "In the Washington State game [a 23-10 USC victory in which Johnson caught three TD passes], he had their guys completely spooked," says USC senior center Jeremy Hogue. "We're calling a play and he's 10 yards away, talking to their defensive backs, saying, 'You're too short to cover me, I'm coming back.' You looked at their faces, and you knew they just wanted the game to be over."