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Muddied but Unbowed
Jeff MacGregor
November 08, 1999
This was the season he was going to ascend to the cosmology of one-name stars. This was the year his team was going to the Big Show. This was the year it all fell apart...yet Keyshawn Johnson continues to shine
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November 08, 1999

Muddied But Unbowed

This was the season he was going to ascend to the cosmology of one-name stars. This was the year his team was going to the Big Show. This was the year it all fell apart...yet Keyshawn Johnson continues to shine

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Keyshawn talks to his mom, Vivian, two or three times a week. She lives in a house Keyshawn bought after he made it to the NFL. They talk about the family, about the restaurant, about the world at large. They also talk about football. "She knows a lot about sports," he says. A long time ago she was the one who threw him the damn ball. What does she say to him about the 1999 Jets? "What's wrong with y'all?"

He can't get out of New York fast enough for his bye-week break, a chance to fly well away from the blast radius of the tabloid second-guessers and wise-guy finger-pointers. "All they're gonna see is the back of my head gettin' smaller and smaller," Keyshawn tells every paper in town.

Shikiri Johnson is a stunningly beautiful and well-spoken young woman. She rarely talks to the press. She and Keyshawn are homebodies, protective of their privacy, reluctant to trade away every little bit of themselves the way some famous couples do. Turn around one day, if you're not careful, and all you have left is a promotional device, not a marriage.

She has a degree in journalism and is working on a career in broadcasting. "Not sports television," says Shikiri. "That's way too close to home." She is also taking business classes in anticipation of opening a boutique a few blocks from the restaurant. They met at a party at USC; she thought at first that he was a basketball player. They were married on Valentine's Day, 1998.

"I love that things are going right for him," she says, "but it's hard on our family time. I'm very proud of him, but it's difficult to have my own identity."

Keyshawn's backstage at the Letterman show, waiting to go on, watching the monitor in the dressing room: tonight's Top 10 list. He's too big in this little room, has to stand up or hinge himself down onto a too-small couch. His legs are everywhere. Maybe it's all these mirrors. He's in a plaid flannel shirt and baggy jeans; he looks huge, looks like Tupac Bunyan. "Why are those people laughing?" he asks.

Twenty minutes later he's on stage. Dave asks what it was like to lose Vinny. Keyshawn takes a beat—as if he's the tummler at Grossinger's—then asks back, "How would you feel if you lost Paul?" The audience roars. Somewhere in Hollywood telephones start ringing.

Shikiri and Keyshawn sit on a milk crate in their front hallway; behind them is a piece of black velvet hung from the banister. They are having their picture taken. Millions of magazine readers will see them and envy them their youth, their beauty, their love, their talent.

As soon as the photographer leaves, Keyshawn pulls on a coat to run out and get their dinner. It is 11 p.m. He's going to Taco Bell. "Don't forget the sour cream," Shikiri says. It's all about the glamour.

In the U.S. Open players' lounge after the Seles-Williams match, Keyshawn makes small talk with Serena and Venus and other members of the Williams family. They've met before. Serena leaves to tidy up; Venus plays with two tiny terriers that are part of her entourage. They live in a carry-on bag. Keyshawn has been briefly abandoned by the friends he brought—they've gone to meet Seles. Venus sits on a table edge and opens up the new Harry Potter book.

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