Johnson seems to know everybody, everywhere. According to Hogue, when Johnson appeared for the Playboy preseason All-America photo shoot last May in Phoenix, "Keyshawn knew at least 10 guys from other teams." Johnson is as likely to pop up at a West L.A. nightclub as he is at an L.A. Clipper game. "He will be the mayor someday," Robinson says. "And I'm going to get free parking."
The USC that Robinson returned to in 1993 was much different from the one that he had left 10 years earlier. Among those who instantly noticed the difference was athletic director Mike Garrett, the 1965 Heisman Trophy winner, who succeeded Mike McGee just weeks after Robinson was hired. "Educate young people and win national championships, that's what we do here," Garrett says. But of USC's 76 national titles, only 13 have been won since 1978, and none in football, baseball or men's track and field, sports in which the Trojans won 22 titles from 1961 to '78.
Garrett has nudged the USC administration toward reacceptance of the importance of athletic success. And Robinson has rebuilt the football program in less than three years. How low had the Trojans fallen? In the first game of 1991 they lost to Memphis State, 24-10, in the L.A. Coliseum. "Great introduction as a Trojan," says Hogue. "First game of my career, I finally made it. Go running down the tunnel and lose to Memphis State. Welcome to college football."
By the time of the Freedom Bowl loss, the program had lost its vitality. "No one wanted to practice, the whole attitude of the team just stunk," says fifth-year senior tight end Tyler Cashman whose father, Pat, played for USC in 1966 and '67 and whose best man was O.J. Simpson. Under Smith there were strict team rules and dress codes (no earrings, no hats in meetings, no beepers). Robinson's style is different.
Says Cashman, "Robinson has one rule: You guys are grown men, don't embarrass me." More substantively, Robinson started filling the talent gaps. "He brought in a whole bunch of new kids," says Cashman. "Right away it was like, Hello. So this is college football."
The gate to the practice field is open, the way it used to be. Keyshawn Johnson steps from a USC campus sidewalk onto the deep, natural green of the football field. It is early evening, a soft breeze rustling the grass. "This is it," he says. "We used to come right through this gate. My first practice out here in '94, I dropped everything, just looking around. Of course, I also showed my ID to everybody I ran into on campus.
"This is a miracle that I'm here," he continues. "Talk about your damn Rudy stories. Give me another story like mine." He spurned the NFL draft last April, though he was a certain first-round pick, and now he carries an insurance policy worth more than $1 million against injury. He turned down the big money to play another year in college, to win a national title. "To help bring USC back," he says.
The tour resumes. Johnson points to the west. "Right over those trees," he says, "is the neighborhood." A kid's dream in cardinal and gold, never out of reach. With it, a school's football tradition, brought back to life.