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The Key to Success

BILL PLASCHKE

Long Before His Days With the Jets, Johnson's Struggles Off the Field Helped Develop His Dramatic Flair

January 16, 1999|BILL PLASCHKE

"Sorry, Key," Holmes says. "I'm quite sure we can lose just as easily without you."

And they do lose, both remaining games.

Johnson spends the end of what was supposed to be a brilliant freshman season living in a cramped house with a buddy and his mom, watching his team lose, bragging about how he is better than all of that.

Nobody is listening.

"I told Keyshawn, 'You are the most known, unknown person in this town,' " Ava Shah says.

*

He is sitting on a bench in a tiny, windowless weight room at West L.A. in the spring of 1992.

He has returned after quitting. But while his teammates are working out, Keyshawn Johnson is still talking.

Says he's not going to be stuck here like they are. Says he hates playing for a losing operation like this one.

Coach Rob Hager hears him, confronts him. Johnson talks back.

"If you don't want to be part of the team, we don't want you around," Hager says.

"Fine," Johnson says.

He storms out the door, down the steps to his car, and is effectively off the team for the next calendar year.

"He was so competitive, yet so misguided," Holmes says.

*

A breakout sophomore season? Not quite.

Johnson manages to get signed by Mississippi State, even though he has not completed two years of junior college schoolwork, which gets Mississippi State in a heap of trouble and Johnson a quick trip back home.

He stays with eight people in a two-bedroom apartment near Mount San Antonio College in Walnut.

He takes some classes at Los Angeles Valley College in Van Nuys.

He watches his high school rivals become college stars.

He quietly returns to West L.A. in the spring and begins working out like never before.

"He came to me one day and said, 'You know, I need to do something if I'm going to make it,' " Holmes says. "He'd been trying to go around things, but now decided to go at them head-on."

He runs track to improve his speed, and he often finishes last. But for the first time, he doesn't care.

"You know Keyshawn, he would brag when he didn't finish last," friend Tamecus Peoples says.

Instead of running the streets for money, he and Peoples do it the right way, collecting cans around school.

Some time after he is found vomiting in the hills behind the Culver City campus during a workout, the football coaches allow him to rejoin the team without a word.

"If we don't keep opening the doors for these kids, who will?" Hager says.

*

And through that open door, Keyshawn Johnson flies.

He moves into an apartment with Abdul-Jabbar, who by now is a running back at UCLA.

He watches his friend star at the Rose Bowl, while he plays on a bleak patch of grass surrounded by portable bleachers used at the Rose Bowl parade.

And he gets furious. And he gets better.

And in his final 1993 season at West L.A., he creates what will forever be the two perfect Keyshawn Johnson moments, no matter how many passes he intercepts or touchdown reverses he runs.

*

It's the middle of the season. The opponent is Pierce College.

Keyshawn Johnson has made a promise to the guy who runs the school sandwich truck, and now he will keep it.

After scoring on an 80-yard kick return, Johnson doesn't stop in the end zone.

He keeps running over the dirt track and up the side of a small hill to where his buddy's truck is parked during the games.

He runs up to the window, smiles at his buddy, and orders a Snapple.

"Never seen anything like it," buddy Marlin Lewis says. "Nobody had ever seen anything like it."

Then, after taking a swig of the drink, he runs past the usual crowd of several hundred and takes his place on the kickoff team.

And recovers an on-side kick.

*

It's the last game of the season. The last time Keyshawn Johnson will be part of hidden Los Angeles, the last moments before he is discovered by the nation.

His team is losing by three touchdowns at halftime in Bakersfield.

As the Bakersfield team prepares to run through a giant paper banner to start the second half, Johnson runs around whispering to his teammates.

Moments later, the West L.A. team runs through the banner.

Then the players ball up the paper and throw giant wads at the Bakersfield band.

Then on the first play of the second half, Johnson catches an 80-yard touchdown pass.

"There were 20,000 people screaming at us," Holmes recalls. "Then all of a sudden, they are silent."

Several weeks later, Ava Shah receives a call from her nutty protege.

"Ave, this is Key," he says. "I just signed with USC."

For the first time in his life, she hears him weep.

*

Today--they never know when--a certain high school and a junior college in town may receive boxes of shoes and supplies from an alumnus named Keyshawn Johnson.

Today, an all-star game featuring the rarely publicized stars of City Section high schools against the big-name kids of the Southern Section is being formulated with Johnson's support.

And today, the receivers at West L.A. constantly bug Coach Rob Hager.

"Just throw me the damn ball" they tell him, echoing the cry that became the title of Keyshawn Johnson's book.

Hager just smiles.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Catching Up

Keyshawn Johnson's increase in production this season has a lot to do with the New York Jets' success. How Johnson's statistics this season compare to the wide reciver's average statistics his first two seasons in the NFL:

Receptions

Avg.: 66.5

1998: 83

Yards

Avg.: 903.5

1998: 1,131

Yards Per Catch

Avg.: 13.6

1998: 13.6

Touchdowns

Avg.: 6.5

1998: 10

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