Keyshawn Johnson dedicated his new book, about his first season with the New York Jets, to four people: Jesus, his mother, his daughter and himself. "To myself," the dedication reads in part, "for not giving a damn about what people think." That noted, Johnson won't give a damn to learn that as a rookie author, he's almost as big a loser as he was last year as a rookie football player. Nor will he give a damn to learn that this article isn't about him but about his fellow Jets receiver Wayne Chrebet, the one person—besides Johnson himself, of course—with whom Johnson seems obsessed.
It's not hard to figure out why in his nasty little memoir, just Give Me the Damn Ball! The Fast Times and Hard Knocks of an NFL Rookie, Johnson refers to Chrebet on no fewer than 25 pages and reviles him as the coach's "mascot" and "pet" and "the little dude from Hofstra" who "wouldn't even make anybody else's team." By outplaying Johnson last season, Chrebet stole the thunder from him, and in doing so he made the former Southern Cal All-America look like an overpaid and overpraised prima donna hardly worth the first pick in the 1996 NFL draft.
If you've never heard of Chrebet, it's because he plays for the worst team in pro football, a team that lately has gone without much of a local audience, let alone a national following. Chrebet is also too humble to publicly malign his teammates and coaches in order to draw attention to himself, as Johnson has been only too eager to do. Chrebet is, in fact, the anti-Keyshawn, a player who puts his team first and who has built his reputation on something that used to matter more than hype: performance.
"As soon as the Jets start to win, football fans everywhere will be talking about Wayne Chrebet," says Frank Reich, a quarterback for the Jets last year who signed with the Detroit Lions as a free agent in March. "I'm going on my 13th year in this league, and I've played with some good receivers and watched some good ones on film, and I feel Wayne is a Pro Bowl receiver. He's got tremendous physical ability—more, in fact, than most guys in the league."
No receiver in NFL history has caught more passes in his first two years than Chrebet did. In 1995 he had 66 receptions (the most ever by a Jets rookie and three more than Johnson had last season), and last year he had 84, breaking by four the two-year mark of 146 set by the Washington Redskins' Gary Clark in 1985 and '86.
Chrebet's achievement is even more remarkable when one considers that he started only nine games last year on a team loaded with talented receivers; that Johnson replaced him in the lineup early in the season at the Z, or strongside, spot; and that the Jets used Chrebet often as a possession receiver, bringing him off the bench in third-down situations to exploit his sure-handedness with short passes designed to earn first downs. Defenses knew Chrebet was going to be thrown the ball, and he still defied them. He finished the 1996 season with 31 third-down catches, more than any other player in the league. He also finished with more receptions than veteran Jets receivers Jeff Graham and Webster Slaughter combined, and with more than Johnson and Alex Van Dyke, another highly touted rookie, combined.
"Wayne's the one who bails them out whenever they need it," says Jason Belser, an Indianapolis Colts cornerback who faced the Jets twice in 1996. "He's their big-play guy. And he'll do anything for his team. If they need Wayne to block, he'll block. If they need him to run a route across the middle, he'll run it. Wayne is fast, too. He's the type of player who in the fourth quarter is still moving at the same pace as in the first quarter. Much of that is desire, but there's no denying it: The guy's got lots of ability."
Even though Chrebet's contribution to the Jets last year was more significant than Johnson's, Chrebet hasn't enjoyed the celebrity status accorded to his teammate. After games the garrulous Johnson entertained questions from scores of reporters as he changed into designer clothing, while at a locker nearby Chrebet, hardly noticed, quietly slipped into jeans and a light sweater. Before Johnson's book came out, Chrebet handled his teammate with weary bemusement, somewhat as an adult handles an unruly, precocious child.
He's still dealing with Johnson that way. "To be honest, it makes me kind of nervous that a grown man thinks about me so much," Chrebet joked when asked about Johnson's book. "Between you and me, I think Keyshawn has a crush on me. Why is he worrying about Wayne Chrebet so much? I thought he was Mr. Hollywood, the guy who got more than $6 million just to sign. Big contract, a big house, big everything. What's he bothering with me for?
"I'm Wayne Chrebet. Who's Wayne Chrebet?"