Sure enough, the sting was on: Martin took the handoff and set his feet. He wasn't even gripping the laces, and the ball came out of his hand like a lathered-up bar of soap as he prepared to absorb a furious body slam from Brooks—"the hardest hit I took all day," Martin would say. The ball nonetheless sailed over the head of Bucs free safety Damien Robinson and into Chrebet's arms.
After the ensuing extra point and kickoff, Jets defensive end John Abraham, a rookie chosen with one of the picks acquired in the Johnson trade, forced King to fumble, and linebacker Bryan Cox recovered. By that point Keyshawn's many sound bites—not to mention his middle-finger salute to a CNN/SI camera crew last Thursday—had come back to bite him in the butt. "They dug deep," a subdued Johnson said of his former teammates. "They have the heart to continue to fight back. What more are you going to say?"
Cut Johnson some slack, for the star will surely shine again. Tampa Bay remains a Super Bowl threat, and Florida Key, for better or worse, has enlivened a locker room that already includes perhaps the NFL's wittiest All-Pro, defensive tackle Warren Sapp. From afar, Johnson's slaps at Chrebet and Groh may seem petty and pathetic, and the natural inclination is to tell him to seek therapy for his obsession. Yet viewed up close and in context, Johnson's rhetoric is hard to classify as malicious. There's a charming self-awareness to his desperate quest for attention.
Last Thursday night Johnson hammed it up while sitting with Sapp in the back room of Sacks, a restaurant and jazz club owned by Bucs defensive end Chidi Ahanotu. At a rare break in the conversation, Johnson was asked, Is Chrebet not a good player? Johnson paused for several seconds. "He can play," Johnson conceded. "He can play. But here's the question I ask: Does he line up on every play knowing other teams are geared toward stopping him and still beat them?"
It's true that the 5' 10", 188-pound Chrebet doesn't necessarily fit the profile of the classic No. 1 receiver, but for now he's the best wideout the Big Apple has to offer. Chrebet hasn't so much replaced Johnson as he has compelled a city to rethink its notion of a star. On a recent night at Manhattan's cavernous Park Avenue Country Club, Chrebet was approached by a boozy dotcom executive who made a passionate confession: "I walked around all night looking for you!" she screamed into his ear. "I went up to some guy who looked like a football player and asked if he was you, but he laughed and told me he was Jessie Arm-stead. Then I saw another player, but some guy told me he was Tiki somebody. I mean, I didn't know you from a hole in the wall, but I just had to meet this Wayne Chrebet!"
How hot is Chrebet? Among the 24 well-wishers who left him voice-mail messages by the time the Jets' plane had arrived at JFK airport on Sunday night were two guys from the silver screen ( Jay Mohr and Jerry O'Connell of Jerry Maguire fame), a pair of diamond dwellers ( Chuck Knoblauch and David Wells) and two gold-record musicians ( Bon Jovi guitarist David Bryan and Scott Stapp, the lead singer of Creed, Chrebet's favorite rock band).
Whatever the scope of his celebrity, Chrebet—like Johnson, incidentally—owes much of his success to drive and desire. A notorious late-night workout fiend, Chrebet, in the wake of last season's disappointment, added a wrinkle to his regimen. Following weightlifting sessions that would often last past 1 a.m., he'd don a snorkel and a mask, slip into his pool and swim to exhaustion. "I noticed that I would sometimes tire late in games because I couldn't control my breathing," he says. "I knew I needed to improve my stamina if I was going to make the late catches everyone expects of me. The swimming was a little thing that paid off."
Chrebet came up big in the season's first week—and it had nothing to do with football. On Sept. 4, after watching film of the previous day's 20-16 win over the Green Bay Packers, Chrebet drove away from the Jets' facility at Hofstra, where he was a Division I-AA standout, and began thinking of his college sweetheart, Amy Wick. In May he and Wick had ended a seven-year relationship. ("May 16, at 9:30 p.m.," Wick says. "I've got the day X'd out on my calendar.") They'd spoken only twice in the following five months, but now Chrebet desperately wanted her company. He pulled out his cell phone and called her.
"Meet me at my house," he implored. She said no. "Come on," he pleaded. "No way," she said.
Finally, Wick relented, and soon they were standing next to a pond in his backyard. Chrebet, clutching a single candle, took a knee and grabbed Wick's right hand. Remember, Chrebet has this way of sneaking up on people. His was a modest marriage proposal. "So, do you have my back?" asked Chrebet, too nervous to realize he'd seized the wrong hand. Wick said yes. "Good," he said softly. "I've got yours, too."