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PRO FOOTBALL WEEK 3

Johnson's Heart Is in L.A. as Jets Win Big

September 21, 1998|T.J. SIMERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It was like the old days in Los Angeles when they played football there--ask your grandparents--with two terrible NFL games scheduled, fans arriving late, fans leaving early, 13,148 not even showing up. The only difference here on the outskirts of the Big Apple on Sunday was that the home team won.

But it was football, and instead of having nothing to do or worst, being forced outside to play soccer, youngsters here could count how many times Peyton Manning was sacked, while waiting anxiously for idol Keyshawn Johnson to dance and prance after another touchdown catch, which he had in the Jets' trouncing the Colts, 44-6, in Giants Stadium.

The Cowboys complete the lost weekend here with a lackluster national TV game tonight against the Giants: Jason somebody-or-another versus Danny Kanell. But its still professional football.

"This is the kind of weekend the people in L.A. should be experiencing," said Johnson, a kid growing up in the shadows of the Los Angeles Coliseum forced to leave town for steady employment elsewhere. "They shouldn't be going down to Newport Beach or Venice Beach. They should be in the Coliseum watching the Hollywood Stars or whatever, and then going out to dinner to Keyshawn Johnson's restaurant."

A hot dog at Keyshawn's, now that would be appropriate, but the thing is if Johnson was catching touchdown passes in Los Angeles, he'd be the toast of town now, a new generation's Johnson and maybe just as "magical."

Sentenced on game-day to this New Jersey hell hole, he has made the best of it--leading the AFC in catches and touchdown receptions before Sunday, then adding to the demolishment of the Colts with an 11-yard scoring play.

"As much as we ran the ball today they might just as well give me a 70-number and line me up at tackle," said Johnson with a laugh, reporters smiling in return at receiving yet another fine quote.

There really is no ignoring the charismatic Johnson, even on a day when the Jets ran for 302 yards and quarterback Vinny Testaverde makes his debut as a starter here, throwing four touchdown passes.

And that's what the folks at the Los Angeles Coliseum are counting on, why they have enlisted Keyshawn Johnson's help, knowing full well he's every bit the showboat that Michael Ovitz is the showman. "Am I as high-profile as some of the people that Michael Ovitz has?" said Johnson. "Probably not. But I think I mean something to the people in that area, and maybe I can help."

He has already had his picture taken with Los Angeles Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas to be used as propaganda, has offered to speak to Jets' ownership on behalf of the Coliseum, and why he now pumps up New Coliseum investor Ed Roski as much as he talks about Bill Parcells.

"Ed Roski and those guys behind the Coliseum know what they're doing," said Johnson, a former Trojan, selected in the first round of the 1996 NFL draft. "There's a strategy there. it may sound like a loser now, but there's the October meeting, and let's face it, it's still the perfect place for football--just check out any USC game. I think kids in L.A. dearly miss football. . . . I still make my home in L.A. and I want my son and daughter to go to a game there, go to the NFL Experience that I've seen the plans for--it's like Disneyland."

Johnson, a born spokesman, has become one of New York's go-to athletes for lively chatter. He wrote a book after his rookie season in which he mistakenly called teammate Wayne Chrebet the team's mascot, and then survived the backlash as Chrebet emerged as one of the game's better receivers.

Now Johnson is on the brink of stardom.

"You guys kill me," interrupted Johnson. "You guys act like I've never done anything . . . on the brink? You have 70 catches like I did last year and it doesn't mean [anything] when you go 9-7 and don't make the playoffs. Eight touchdowns, 64 catches and you break rookie records and it doesn't mean [anything] if you're 1-15."

Correction: 63 catches as a rookie.

"I don't get frustrated by it," said a frustrated Johnson. "My coaches feel I've been solid since I became a professional athlete, but you still have that small few who are going to take a shot at you."

Hard to believe, but then running pass routes with an attitude has always separated Johnson from the pack, making him a superstar at USC and a dynamic playmaker for the Jets. It also makes him the ideal relentless crusader for the Coliseum.

"It's up to people like me to change the perception some people might have of that area," Johnson said. "I don't know Michael Ovitz, but Carson? I remember being excited about football in the Coliseum just like it is here now in Giants Stadium. The Coliseum is USC football, it's the Olympics, for heaven sakes it's a monument. They should be playing football there on Sundays."

No reason why the people in New York should be the only ones suffering through a bad weekend of football.

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