HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — They sit side-by-side in the locker room, barely speaking, two men from vastly different backgrounds who share one very special trait. Keyshawn Johnson and Wayne Chrebet might not be friends and probably never will be, but they are outstanding football players.
And partly because of their skills, the New York Jets stunningly are a Super Bowl contender.
Johnson and Chrebet care deeply about each other when they are on the field. They understand what their success means to the Jets, who won their first NFL division title this year and are preparing for next weekend's home playoff game. They encourage each other, congratulate each other, and do some mean downfield blocking for each other.
"We're teammates," Johnson says. "Teammates will do anything to help one another win games. And we want to win games."
Otherwise, there remains a frostiness that dates back to Johnson's 1996 rookie season, when the top overall draft pick wrote a biting autobiography in which he criticized Chrebet, among many others.
"We didn't get along from the start," Chrebet says. "It's the same as it was . . . but people still don't understand that the book had nothing to do with it."
When Johnson arrived to much fanfare--something the rookie encouraged--it turned off the unassuming Chrebet. And regardless of what Chrebet says, he was hurt by what Johnson wrote.
"I guess our personalities don't mesh," Chrebet says. "But it's no big deal."
While the two ignore each other off the field, their cool relationship doesn't seem to affect their performances. And when Johnson was selected for the Pro Bowl this year, he invited the other Jets receivers, including Chrebet, to be his guests in Hawaii.
Chrebet has yet to respond.
"I don't know what kind of relationship they carry off the field, but on the field it's definitely a business manner," says Dedric Ward, the third wideout who has emerged as a big-play receiver and perfect complement to New York's dynamic duo.
"In the huddle, when we're all in there together, we talk about and discuss what's going on, congratulate each other on the big catch," Ward said. "You wouldn't be able to tell they have problems off the field, because they act like best friends on the field."
They certainly work well together and with revitalized quarterback Vinny Testaverde.
Johnson has been the more spectacular this year, even scoring on an end-around and catching 83 passes for 1,131 yards and 10 TDs. He uses his 6-foot-3, 212-pound frame to outreach or outleap defenders, and he has good speed after catching the ball to go with his power.
Chrebet, one of the league's best third-down receivers, had 75 catches for 1,083 yards and eight TDs. Despite being only 5-10 and 185 pounds, he also has some power and is a superb blocker. Chrebet has no fear of running patterns over the middle, and he probably is even better than Johnson after the catch.
They respect each other's skills, even if they aren't about to go out and publicize those skills.
"I've worked with some very good receivers in my career," says 12-year veteran Testaverde, who led the AFC in passing in his first season with the Jets. "They're two of the best. They're versatile, tough, have great hands and they want the ball."
Johnson, who grew up in Los Angeles' inner city and was a ball boy for the USC football teams, has always chased the spotlight. He's loud, sometimes brash, often obnoxious. But he also can be charming, witty and devotes as much time to charitable causes and working with children as anyone on the team. He is part of a group trying to bring the NFL back to LA.
At USC, he drew headlines--along with double and triple coverage. The Jets, coming off a 3-13 record in Rich Kotite's first year as coach, selected him at the top of the draft.
Kotite then wasted Johnson by using him almost exclusively on sideline patterns and rarely calling for the crossing routes and fades at which he most excels. The Jets went 1-15 as Johnson seemed befuddled.
"I don't want to bring that up," he says. "That's like, ages ago."
The previous year, Chrebet was invited to training camp as an undrafted free agent from Hofstra, where the Jets practice. His invitation was more of a courtesy than anything, but Chrebet worked his way onto the team and led the Jets in yards receiving, while finishing second to Joey Galloway among rookies with 66 catches.
Like Johnson, Chrebet has improved each year. Unlike Johnson, he hasn't told people about it. Chrebet, who grew up in the New Jersey suburbs--as did coach Bill Parcells--is quiet, humble and nothing like a pro football player.
Chrebet is more popular with the fans, although Johnson rapidly gained ground in that area this year. Chrebet's No. 80 jersey was the second-most demanded NFL merchandise item behind Brett Favre's No. 4 for most of the year.
While they won't become part of a mutual admiration society, Johnson and Chrebet have other concerns. The most pressing: being part of a championship team.
"Wayne can help us win," Johnson says. "Dedric can help us win. I can help us win.
"I know the one thing we all want is that ring. You know we're working together for that."