He is as brash and self-referential as the young Ali, minus the poetry; as irritating and engaging and confounding to conventional wisdom as Ali before he leveled Liston. Is he really as good as he says he is? "I can hurt you all over the field." Who can be that good? "I can carry this team." Nobody's that good! "Reinvent the position?" Who would even say this kind of stuff!
If Keyshawn Johnson didn't exist, the press would have to create him. The way he created himself.
He is 6'3". He weighs 212 pounds. He trains year-round for his day job as a wide receiver for the New York Jets: weights, plyometrics, running. Off-season he runs in the California hills. Or he runs those stairs that lead down to the sand at Santa Monica beach. There are hundreds of them. This might take a couple of hours. He runs until he's ready to puke. Matinee-idol jock millionaire, and he's about to puke in front of tourists on their way to the Santa Monica pier. This is when James Strom, his strength coach, tells him to run some more. That way, when reporters call Strom to ask what sort of shape Keyshawn is in, he can answer in simple declarative sentences: "Nobody works any harder. Pound for pound he's up there with the strongest guys in the league."
The dietary secrets at Keyshawn's training table? No soda, alcohol only on special occasions, don't mess with supplements, eat lots of Popeye's fried chicken.
He is 27 years old. Married to Shikiri High tower. They have two children, doll-perfect Maia, 4, and chubby-handsome KiKi (Keyshawn Jr.), 15 months. He grew up in South-Central Los Angeles. He is the youngest of six kids. Didn't know his dad. Still doesn't. He and his mother moved around a lot, never settled for long in one house, one apartment. His brothers and sisters often stayed with relatives. He showed up one afternoon at a USC football practice and started hanging around as a ball boy. He was nine.
Street kid. Smart. Supported the family. Hustled, scammed, scalped tickets. Did time at two juvenile camps. Moved around, played for three high schools. Sold dope, carried a gun. Got shot. Went to a couple of junior colleges after he realized he couldn't talk his way past the SATs. Finally got into USC. Played two years, as a junior and a senior, but finished second alltime in receptions (176) and receiving yardage (2,940). Two-time All-America. Was the 1996 Rose Bowl MVP, with 12 catches for 216 yards. Went first in the NFL draft that spring. Held out. Missed three weeks of camp. Got a six-year deal with the Jets worth a reported $15 million.
He is not dead and he is not in prison because he created in his imagination something called Keyshawn Johnson. He carries this invention out into the world and talks about it. That makes it real.
This was their year. Seven bookies out of 10 made the Jets the favorites to go all the way. All the pain and the practice add up to this moment, this season, right here, right now.
Week 1. Jets versus New England. Quarterback Vinny Testaverde goes down with a ruptured Achilles tendon while stepping forward no more quickly than he might have if he were opening a door for his wife. Vinny T., earnest as a priest, the physical and spiritual foundation upon which the Jets' hopes rest, is out for the season.
Still, Keyshawn has eight catches for a career-high 194 yards, and one touchdown, against cornerback Ty Law, his co-MVP from the 1998 Pro Bowl. But at the press conference a few hours later he breaks a cardinal rule of the NFL: Never show any genuine emotion on the podium. Speak only in upbeat clichés. Soldier on. Cry only if you're retiring. "We're f—ed" won't sell many tickets.