In a windowless, airless basement auditorium borrowed from the University of Southern California for the Dorsey High senior awards ceremony in June, Keyshawn and Shikiri made one of the last presentations of the evening. Through his education fund he awarded four $5,000-per-year scholarships to exceptional Dorsey graduates. The grants are in force for as long as the students remain in college. He did this last year, too, and the year before. Next year he'll add two more. Then two more, and so on, for at least as long as he plays.
Eventually, he hopes 100 students will be going to college with money that came from Keyshawn Johnson. When he explains this benevolent academic pyramid scheme to the audience, it gives him a standing ovation. No cameras are present in the small auditorium. Later, when asked about the breadth of the plan, he says, "You gotta give back. So, you comin' to eat?"
Is the Feud for real? Do Keyshawn Johnson and fellow wideout Wayne Chrebet really hate each other? If so, does it matter?
To the joy of neither, their long-running Alphonse and Gaston routine has become a comic staple of the New York sports pages and radio shows. They are, to the press at least, as necessary to each other as the very air, and as irresistible in their epic spat as Moby and Ahab. That they still share adjoining lockers compounds the comedy. To see them giving separate interviews to separate sets of reporters while studiously ignoring each other from a distance of 18 inches is to witness the rebirth of vaudeville.
In the midst of the Jets' early-season swoon, the Sept. 27 New York Post found space to feature this headline: CHREBET FIRES A KEY SHOT. The subhead: CALLS JOHNSON 'RETARDED.' (Nobody ever said the NFL was the Algonquin Round Table.) The piece, though riddled with factual errors, recounted a comment laughingly made by Chrebet during a recent radio show on which he was flogging his book, Every Down, Every Distance. Johnson responded the next day by taking what was left of the moral high ground and lobbing football clichés—"I'm just trying to win games," etc.—down on Chrebet's head.
Absent the notoriety he gained by being referred to in Johnson's book as a "team mascot," Hofstra long-shot Chrebet might not have so quickly become the blue-collar folk hero he is today. And without Chrebet as his foil, Johnson and his comments might not have registered quite so brightly on the great tabloid radar screen. Largely ignored is the fact that they have more in common than either will admit. Each works like a draft horse in practice; both have a burning ambition to win; both are fearless going across the middle. Each is a "Parcells guy," a "parking lot player" (i.e., they would play football in the parking lot even if no one were watching). Both are proud and stubborn. Each is as tough as a U.S. Army ham.
As to the true nature of their relationship, the following scene from training camp might be illustrative. Chrebet catches a touchdown pass in the big scrimmage. Cheers erupt. As the offensive unit jogs off the field, Keyshawn touches celebratory knuckles with everyone around him. Chrebet, however, walks right past him but receives no knuckle, gets no love. A few series later, when Keyshawn hauls one down in the end zone, Chrebet has the loving knuckles out for all but Keyshawn. (During the regular season, they knuckle grudgingly, like a long-divorced couple, for the fans.)
While not complimentary, they are certainly complementary, in at least two ways. On the field each is integral to the Jets' offensive scheme. They put up some pretty gaudy combined numbers last year with Vinny T. at the wheel: 158 receptions for 2,214 yards and 18 touchdowns. Each had 60 receptions for first downs. They are a potent tandem, but are they dependent on each other between the lines? To hear them tell it, no. (When Chrebet went out with a broken foot in preseason, it was at least a week before Keyshawn even used Chrebet's name to describe the situation. He kept saying "When one guy goes down, another guy has to step up.") But when both are playing—along with Testaverde—the Jets' aerial attack is a thing to be reckoned with.
Perhaps more important, Keyshawn and Chrebet play necessary characters in the ongoing drama of our national game. Sports (and sportswriting) has always been about the creation of heroes and villains, the manufacture of mythologies. Fans have a rooting interest not just in the outcome of each game, but also in the eternal, operatic struggle between one-dimensional archetypes of good and evil. Thus a team becomes, as Parcells often calls it in a different context, a "cast of characters." Chrebet satisfies our need for a scrappy underdog, a diminutive overachiever, while Keyshawn is portrayed as the blustering L.A. glamour-puss with awesome physical gifts. (The uglier subtext is racial, with Chrebet as a white, anti-Keyshawn. Sadly, this too is a story that some faction of the Jets' fan base wants to hear.) Thus, both players are done a great disservice.
They are stuck with these roles, it seems, handcuffed by the press to identities not entirely of their own making. For the past two seasons, for example, Chrebet was unfailingly referred to by football's intelligentsia as the Jets' (and sometimes the NFL's) über-receiver on third down. In 1998 he made 26 catches (down from 29 the previous year) for 412 yards and four touchdowns in third-down situations, an indicator, apparently, of homey values like grit and stick-to-itiveness. Keyshawn made 23 catches (up from 18 in '97) for 327 yards and seven touchdowns in the same circumstance, yet is almost never labeled a third-down threat. This is neither preference nor prejudice exactly, so much as a case of the press's sticking to the libretto it's written for everyone.