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The fleet of Rolls-Royces pulled up fashionably late, rolling into the parking lot at the House of Blues Sunset Strip in front of a host of onlookers. Once inside, rapper Tupac Shakur and his entourage made their way upstairs, where the man of the moment was holding court. A day earlier Keyshawn Johnson had been the toast of New York City after the Jets made him the top pick in the 1996 draft; now the former USC wideout was back home in L.A. hosting a jam-packed bash he would later describe as "the biggest party in the history of drafts." Clad in a white linen suit and surrounded by fellow athletes, actors and beautiful women, Johnson embraced Tupac amid a fusillade of flashbulbs as his college highlight reel played on a TV screen above him. To paraphrase one of Tupac's most famous song titles, the scene could have been described as All Eyez on Key.
As Johnson partied on that April night nearly 10 years ago, celebrating with fellow draftees Jonathan Ogden of UCLA and Lawrence Phillips of Nebraska and watching high-energy performances by Coolio and the Westside Connection, he was confident that he would justify his status as only the second receiver drafted No. 1 since 1965. But as high as Johnson was on his abilities, he was similarly excited about the potential of the 10 other wideouts selected in the first two rounds, a class of pass catchers he believed could rank as the best ever.
Looking back, Johnson, now with the Dallas Cowboys, thinks he may have set his sights too low. "By the time we're done," he says, "I want to be able to say we're the best draft class, at any position, in the history of the game."
Given that the 1983 quarterback crop produced three Hall of Famers in John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino, as well as a fourth Super Bowl starter ( Tony Eason) and a Pro Bowl participant ( Ken O'Brien), that goal will be difficult to attain. But with 10 wideouts drafted in '96 still performing at a high level--nine starters and suspended Philadelphia Eagles star Terrell Owens--they figure to continue building their case for the next several seasons.
Consider that the most productive receiver from the '96 class, the Indianapolis Colts' Marvin Harrison (pick No. 19), has no plans to break up his record-setting partnership with quarterback Peyton Manning. Thanks to year-round conditioning, Harrison and many of his classmates seem to be getting stronger as they get older. "It doesn't seem like I've been playing 10 years," the meticulous Harrison says. "My body feels like it's been four. Where it ends I don't know, but I can tell you there's no end in sight."
Everywhere you look on fall Sundays members of the class of '96--including some who were drafted after the second round--are shredding NFL secondaries. Last year the Carolina Panthers' Muhsin Muhammad (pick No. 43, now with the Chicago Bears) and the New Orleans Saints' Joe Horn (pick No. 135, by the Kansas City Chiefs) ranked one-two in the NFL in receiving yards, with 1,405 and 1,399, respectively, while Harrison, Owens (pick No. 89, by the San Francisco 49ers), the Chiefs' Eddie Kennison (pick No. 18, by the St. Louis Rams) and the Buffalo Bills' Eric Moulds (pick No. 24) also exceeded 1,000 yards. This year Terry Glenn (pick No. 7, by the New England Patriots), who now starts opposite Johnson in Dallas, led all his classmates through Sunday with 804 yards, 11th in the league.
With Harrison's Colts sitting on the best record in the league, there's a good chance that a class of '96 wideout will start in the Super Bowl for the fourth consecutive year, following Johnson, Muhammad and Owens. ( Glenn was on the Patriots' roster for Super Bowl XXXVI but was inactive for the postseason because of a team suspension.) This season Muhammad of Chicago, Glenn and Johnson of Dallas, the Seattle Seahawks' Bobby Engram (pick No. 52, by the Bears) and the New York Giants' Amani Toomer (pick No. 34) have realistic aspirations of making it to Super Bowl XL in Detroit.
"No matter what happens," says Johnson, who started for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their Super Bowl XXXVII victory, "I know I was the first to get a ring." Well, no--two backups now out of football beat him to the parade route. The Green Bay Packers' Derrick Mayes (pick No. 56) won Super Bowl XXXI jewelry as a rookie at the expense of Glenn's Patriots; and the Baltimore Ravens' Jermaine Lewis (pick No. 153) earned his ring four years later, returning a kickoff for a touchdown in a 34--7 victory over Toomer's Giants.
"When we were coming out of college, all the scouts kept telling us how good we all were," Toomer says. "You take that stuff with a grain of salt. But it is amazing that so many players at one position from one draft have been so productive for so long."
In the winter of '96, during a Senior Bowl practice in Mobile, Toomer was standing on the sideline assessing his place in the pecking order of wideouts, when the sight of a tall, muscular player he'd never heard of caused him to do a double take. Recalls Mayes, a sure-handed Notre Dame standout, "We were going through drills--me, Amani, Bobby [Engram], Eric Moulds--and all of a sudden we saw this stallion of a man running around recklessly, diving under the bleachers to catch a ball, doing anything he possibly could to make an impression. We were like, Who is this kid? He's crazy! When he gets in the game, it's going to be bananas."