Today Chrebet is the guy wheeling his leased Lexus through North Jersey, where he grew up, heading for something to eat at a place that suits his working-class roots. He stops at a glorified greasy spoon called Benny's Luncheonette, just down the road from the office building in the town of Fairlawn where his mother and father run a collection agency. "Table in back, Wayne," Benny Erlich says as Chrebet pads through the door.
Chrebet doesn't command a lot of attention. Today nobody but Erlich seems to know him, and most days at Benny's are no different. It's the same everywhere else Chrebet goes too. Just last month, on a flight to Houston, Chrebet swapped sports sections with the traveler in the seat next to him. The man had no idea who Chrebet was, and he wasn't bashful about sharing his less-than-favorable opinion of the Jets. Not once did Chrebet let on that he was the team's leading receiver. "Amazing how well I blend in," Chrebet says. "I don't think I'll ever get the attention. But that's fine with me, as long as I get to play. I just want to play."
Chrebet doesn't fit the profile of the typical NFL player. Ignore the scars from turf burns on his hands and forearms, and forget the fact that at the slim age of 23 he lives in an expensive high-rise apartment building with sweeping views of the New York skyline in the distance, and he could be the kid in your Sunday paper modeling underwear for a local department store. In appearance, anyway, the most extraordinary thing about him is how ordinary he is. "Omelette, hash browns," he says to the waitress.
"Anything in that omelette, hon?"
Chrebet played college ball at Division I-AA Hofstra and walked on with the Jets after no other team drafted him or gave him a free-agent deal. He's only 5'10" and 185 pounds, and this goes a long way toward explaining what he calls "my perception problem." When Chrebet reported to Jets training camp as a rookie, the guard at the front gate refused to let him in. Chrebet argued that he was a member of the team, but the man waved him away, telling him to come around and bug the players for autographs some other time. That same summer Chrebet volunteered to participate in a Jets charity golf tournament, and a man assigned to his group asked him if he was the caddie. "Embarrassing," Chrebet says. "But what are you going to do?"
Adding to Chrebet's "perception problem" is his skin color. Chrebet is white, and he plays a position that is almost exclusively the domain of black athletes. White wideouts in the NFL—particularly undersized players like Chrebet—are so rare that sports-writers routinely refer to them as "throwbacks." In other words, they're players who, because of their race, recall the days when receivers Danny Abramowicz and Fred Biletnikoff were among the game's statistical leaders.
These days white men aren't supposed to be able to run or jump, but Chrebet belies this stereotype. Although he might not be thought of as a burner, he consistently covers 40 yards in 4.4 seconds, and he can dunk a basketball thanks to his 36-inch vertical leap. Chrebet's father, Wayne Sr., is a former bodybuilder who has held the titles Mr. New Jersey and Mr. East Coast, among others. Wayne Jr. has a lean, sculpted physique and carries only 3% body fat. Yet despite his physical gifts, he has spent his athletic career trying to prove that he deserves a place on a roster.
"Wayne plays every day as if somebody in authority is going to tap him on the back and say, 'It's time. Clean out your locker. Go home,' " says his mother, Paulette. "It all goes back to who he is and where he's from. Nobody ever wasted millions on Wayne."
In his book Johnson, who is black, suggests that Jets offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt, Reich and the team's starting quarterback, Neil O'Donnell, favored Chrebet because he is white. Chrebet has a different recollection of what happened last year. "In camp, when Keyshawn finally reported after holding out for 24 days, Alex, Jeff, Webster and I all outperformed him on the field," Chrebet says. "There's racism in the world, I know that, but I don't think it exists on the football field. Keyshawn's complaining, but the Jets handed him my starting job. If there really was racism on our team, a white coach wouldn't have given him my starting job when he hadn't earned it yet.