Long before he was labeled the missing piece to Tampa Bay's Super Bowl puzzle. Years before he demanded the Jets just give him the damn ball. Before he even dreamed of becoming an All-American at USC ... Keyshawn Johnson was a tough kid growing up in a rough neighborhood in South Centeral L.A. But in the end, Keyshawn rose to success and stardom. The Bucs are just one of his benefactors.
By RICK STROUD
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 1, 2000
LOS ANGELES -- Keyshawn Johnson has the best hands in football.
If they are not the softest, it's because his life has been hard. But nothing Johnson has wanted has eluded his reach.
They are hands, unusually large with long, slender fingers that reach to your forearm when clasped in a handshake, that have pressed the palms of the President, presented fund-raising checks to a world-renowned heart surgeon, given scholarship money to underprivileged students, waved to a white Bronco carrying a fugitive O.J. on the San Diego freeway and carried the helmet for Marcus Allen from practice as a pesky ballboy at Southern Cal.
[Times art: Rossie Newson]
When he was trying to survive in South Central Los Angeles as the youngest of six children, one who never knew his father, he was a handful. And his hands were in everybody's pockets. They sold drugs, fenced merchandise from burglaries he masterminded, scalped tickets and were cuffed behind him during two trips to juvenile detention centers.
On this hazy, balmy SoCal morning, Johnson is dripping with sweat during a two-hour workout in the expansive gym he built at his palatial home in Calabasas when he dips his hands into a 50-gallon trash can half filled with rice.
For several minutes, Johnson squeezes fistfuls of the white grains while twisting as if he was turning a knob.
The exercise strengthens the big mitts that are already like vices and have gripped more passes in the last four seasons than almost anyone in the NFL. By the time he finishes, the pulverized rice has powdered his palms and fingers as if they were covered by white chalk.
"This is how you get paid," said Johnson, flashing a neon smile. He should know, having signed a $56-million contract after being traded to the Buccaneers last April.
[Times photos: Dirk Shadd]
Johnson stretches with the assistance of his personal trainer in his expansive home gym, which is one of the special features in his 10,000-square-foot home outside Los Angeles.
Johnson stares at his hands, admiring them the way a craftsman would examine his tools. Pro football might be the way Johnson makes his living. And he is passionate about the game.
But he won't be satisfied until he leaves his handprint on everything.
And what Johnson touches usually is magic.
"I believe in myself," he said. "I want to do things. I want to run a large corporation. I want to run a restaurant. I want to take control, take the challenge and see if it fails. Take the challenge, see if I succeed, and move onto the next thing.
"I don't think there's anybody in the league like me, period. I just don't. On the field, off the field, at home. I'm just different."
* * *
The uniformed guard at the security gate asks for a picture I.D. when the visitor tells him he is there to meet Johnson. He makes a call to the famous residence and hands over a map with highlighted directions as a white, columned gate opens.
It is only 8 a.m., and Johnson looks tired from the celebrity golf tournament and awards banquet he hosted the day before -- and from watching his L.A. Lakers' win the NBA title with a Game 6 victory over Indiana.
Johnson, who is a Lakers season ticket holder with a suite at the Staples Center, decided to spend a quiet night at home in front of a big-screen television the size of a JumboTron.
"I didn't want to deal with the crowd and the ruckus," he said.
Johnson is wearing a black sleeveless T-shirt from Dorsey High School, his alma mater, with Ghetto Swarm printed in big green letters on the back.
The home is magnificent, a Mediterranean-style mansion with a 40-foot ceiling and spiral staircase in the atrium that leads to a sunken formal living room and fireplace. The floors are marble tile and stretch for 10,000 square feet, most of which Johnson personally designed.
Keyshawn Johnson hangs out in the game room of his palatial home in Calabasas, a ritzy community near Los Angeles.
Johnson has a three-carat diamond earring in his left lobe. A mobile phone seemingly grows out of his right ear. He is a pinball that ricochets from one interest to the next. It's clear that whoever invented call-waiting had Johnson in mind. He reaches for his phone the minute he awakes, the way a smoker lights a cigarette in the morning. Except during his workout, for the next 8 1/2 hours, the phone is in use.
Even when relaxing at his home, Keyshawn Johnson always is on the move, spending much of the day on his mobile phone.
At 28, Johnson is one of the biggest stars in Los Angeles, which is saying something. His is literally a Hollywood story, and after just four NFL seasons, Johnson's celebrity in his home city is off the charts. "He reminds me a little bit of what Magic has become," sportscaster Jim Hill said.
But not even Magic, or Buck as he is known to Johnson, has a top-10 Beverly Hills restaurant, a shopping center he helped finance due to open in South Central next spring or a new clothing line that will debut next summer.
Johnson is brutally honest and usually on the right side of any argument. He is just as comfortable in a board room as a locker room.
"We live in a fictitious world, man," Johnson said. "Everything is lies and agendas and all that. I don't have time for that. If you're going to deal with me? You'd better not be lying. As soon as I find out you're lying, your a- is probably done."
* * *
When you look at Johnson now, it's hard to see past the money and the fame. But Johnson and his mother, Vivian Jessie, went through some hard times. He spent his 11th birthday at the Venice Beach homeless shelter. And for about nine days, Johnson says, he and his mom lived out of a car, an old blue Chevy that had been given to them.
His mom would drop him off at school and pick him up at USC, where he would talk his way onto the football field as a ballboy. The two would spend the night in a parking lot. Sometimes it was the apartment complex of a friend. Most times, it was a mortuary parking lot, because his mother reasoned, nobody does drive-bys in a mortuary.
Of course, nobody knew Keyshawn was living like this. His mom would pull up, he'd jump in the back seat and pull a blanket over his head so no one would see.
At USC, Johnson would sometimes be invited to eat at the training table and would grab a little extra for the road, knowing it might be the only meal that day.
"We were little neighborhood rugrats who schmoozed our way on the field," Johnson said. "USC's campus is in our neighborhood and the athletes grow up living in our apartments. That's why a lot of Trojan alums are accustomed to urban areas because they had to actually stay there for four or five years. Their education is worth $35,000 a year and they live in the projects."
Marcus Allen, the former Heisman Trophy winner from USC, said he and his Trojan teammates never knew Johnson's plight, but took a special interest in him.
"You could see he had the magic then. He had charisma," Allen said. "The kid had a presence at an early age, and I think he knew exactly what he wanted to do. I think he sort of emulated the guys who were there around him and he certainly worked at it. I don't think it was by mistake. He certainly has God-given ability, but he saw what he wanted to do and worked at it. He didn't take anything for granted.
"I think early on, the exposure (to football) was great for him. . . . He's been around ballplayers his whole life, and he certainly had that exposure at SC. He was sort of like a little brother. Everybody knew him. He was never a nuisance, but he was a character."
By the time Johnson was 13, scalping tickets was a big operation for Keyshawn and his brother, Mike. During the 1984 Olympics, his mom worked for the Saudi Arabian team and they gave her pins and tickets that Keyshawn sold for big cash. Soon, they hit the road, going to Boston for the 1987 NBA Finals with the Lakers, and later, to Minneapolis for the World Series.
When he was 14, Keyshawn sold drugs -- marijuana and a little crack -- and moved on to burglaries a year later. He wasn't involved in the actual stealing, but he'd organize the thefts and his ring would bring him stuff to fence.
Eventually, he was caught, and twice got sent to juvenile camp. But his only arrests were for scalping tickets.
Johnson bounced around to several high schools before landing at Dorsey High as a senior. By then, he was a star, heavily recruited by all the major programs. But he had always tried to scam his way through life, and the practice cost him when he failed to pass the SAT.
Embarrassed, he flew to South Carolina and spent three weeks at a junior college near Clemson before returning, homesick. Eventually, Johnson enrolled at West Los Angeles College, where he earned JC All-American honors.
While staying with a friend in a gang-infested neighborhood in Inglewood, Keyshawn was coming home from the movies at about 11 p.m in April 1993 when a car rolled around the corner, a figure hanging out the dark tinted window. He heard three loud pops. After running inside the house, Johnson noticed blood on his pants and realized he'd been shot in the leg.
"It change my life in this sense," he said. "I knew I had to get out of this crap and start playing some ball."
* * *
Johnsons wife, Shikiri, is a newscaster for Bay News 9.
Johnson is married to Shikiri Hightower, and the couple has two children, daughter Maia, 5, and son Keyshawn Jr., 3, who goes by KiKi. Shikiri recently began work as a TV reporter for Bay News 9 in Tampa.
She has a degree from USC in journalism and is struggling to find her own identity as a broadcaster. Shikiri almost never speaks to the press, since the Johnsons are extremely protective of their privacy when it comes to family matters.
"People who want to do something on me don't need to have a conversation with her," Johnson said. "She knows she's my wife and we have kids and we share a special relationship. But as far as knowing the ins and outs about me or football, she couldn't tell you anything."
Johnson plays with his son, Keyshawn Jr., 3, in their plush living room. Johnson also has a 5-year-old daughter named Maia.
Johnson has been asked to pose with his wife in swimsuits and the like. He is Gable-handsome, and they certainly make a striking couple. But Johnson always declines. During a photo shoot by his pool, he refused to even take off his shirt. "I don't do naked pictures," he said. "I don't sell sex."
* * *
Johnson owns a restaurant that, like its owner, is full of unexpected delights.
The first is its location, between West Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. It's called Reign, although Johnson can't tell you who came up with the name, but unlike many sports stars, it's not the temple or trophy room for his career, replete with framed jerseys.
"Me, I'd have named it anything. Anything other than my name. That's cheesey," he said.
Instead, it's a nice place frequented by well-dressed diners, no jeans allowed. Its decor is bleached wood with soothing earth-tone upholstery.
When Johnson was searching for a spot to locate his eatery, he would drive through L.A. at night, checking to see what the lighting was on the street and which buildings were abandoned.
"You get a different picture at night," he said.
The menu is described as Southern, down-home cooking: pork chops, fried green tomatoes, crab cakes. Johnson, of course, has no training as a chef. But he took his cooks to his mother's home in Tarzana, to school them on some favorite family recipes.
Johnson owns an upscale restaurant called Reign, which is located between West Los Angeles and Beverly Hills.
When he's in L.A., Johnson drops in his restuarant several times a week to mingle with customers, supervise the kitchen staff or work the door. During the season and when he's not there, he dials his boyhood friend, Skeats Spalding, who helps manage Reign (and acts as Johnson's eyes and ears).
"I own the building. I know I can make money," Johnson said. "If my restuarant was to fail, even though it never will probably if we stay consistent . . . I still have a building I can sell. I don't like to do deals unless they make money."
What Johnson does with that money isn't always publicized. Recently, Johnson paid $125,000 to purchase new lockers for the football team at Southern Cal. The old ones will be painted green and sent to Dorsey High School.
"I'm actually trying to develop a plan where we can build a weight room and a locker room all in one (at Dorsey)," Johnson said. "Like a mini-complex for them."
Johnson is arguably one of the most generous superstars in the business.
Johnson is giving back to the community where he grew up, helping to develop a $50-million retail center called Chesterfield Square in South Central L.A.
He formed Keyshawn Inc., mostly to operate his charitable endeavors. Among them is Key's Kids, an outreach program for underprivileged children, and the Keyshawn Johnson Education Fund, which provides scholarships.
In June, Johnson held his first Keyshawn Johnson Celebrity Golf Tournament at Braemar Country Club in Tarzana, an event attended by Southern Cal alums such as Allen, Ronnie Lott and Jason Sehorn. The event culminated with the awarding of two $20,000 college scholarships to Dorsey High School students.
It wasn't that long ago, 1992 to be exact, that Johnson sheepishly admits he was among those who looted during the riots and fires in South Central during that summer of racial tension. The burned-out businesses and vacant lots still dot the landscape.
But now Johnson is giving back.
He is part of a redevelopment group that is financing a 26-acre, $50-million retail center known as Chesterfield Square, on the corner of Western and Slauson avenues. It will include a Home Depot and a McDonald's.
"I look at it as nothing has changed," Johnson said. "It is what it is. It's a neighborhood, it's people there who are obviously in lesser positions than I'm in, that I'm able to provide and do for. So I try and do that without hurting myself."
* * *
To those who don't know him, Johnson's reputation is based on the book he authored about his '96 rookie season with the 1-15 Jets, one that riled the Jets and the NFL.
In Just Give Me the Damn Ball!, Johnson came across as selfish and arrogant, although what he had to say was mostly the truth.
"That's how he is, he's brutally honest," Hill said. "Maybe to a fault. He's an individual who if he likes you, he tells you. If he doesn't like you, he'll tell you even faster. So you know exactly where you stand."
When Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde ruptured an Achilles' tendon in the first game against New England last year, Johnson let his emotions flow. The Jets, coming off a loss the previous year to Denver in the AFC title game, had been favorites to go to the Super Bowl. Johnson knew what Testaverde's injury meant.
"The season was f--ing over with," he said. "There's no reason to act like that s-- helped. If Vinny hadn't gotten hurt, we would've won the Super Bowl. I really believe that."
Johnson still managed to have a better season than the one before. Despite a 1-6 start, the Jets rallied to win seven of their last nine games and finish 8-8.
Johnson figured with Testaverde back, the Jets would challenge again for the AFC title. But coach Bill Parcells quit to become the Jets chief football operations officer. Bill Belichick refused to succeed Parcells,and landed as head coach in New England. And new owner Woody Johnson turned to linebacker coach Al Groh to take over the team.
According to Johnson, that's when the trouble began. Johnson had two years on his contract and was headed for a big payday. He believes it was Groh's decision to trade him to Tampa Bay for two No. 1 draft picks.
Although he will tell you he understands it was business, Johnson was stunned by the trade. In fact, it has taken him a long time to accept he's not playing in New York anymore.
"It probably took a few days," Johnson said. "Once I got to L.A., I realized after seeing my (Jets) teammates at my golf tournament that, damn, I'm not going back there. I didn't even go back for the house. My wife did all that.
"I talk to those guys every day. I talk to somebody in that organization every single day. And it'll probably be like that until the end of the year. Like I talked to Aaron Glenn last night for one hour. I won't do that just because they're mad at me. I've got people coming down from New York asking me questions. They're sitting around writing, "He's mad at him. He doesn't like this.' No I'm not. I'm not mad at those guys. They did what they had to do and I'm going to do what I have to do."
Johnson knows what people are saying, especially in New York. They think he will go stir crazy away from the big-city lights and media attention of New York or L.A.
"I think that's what they don't understand out here. They think he's hungry for media attention," Johnson said. "But people will come to me. If we win three or four games, they'll be having me and (Warren) Sapp right back on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
"Nobody knew how hard it was to always have to fight to put up those numbers. To have six balls thrown to me, I had to catch at least five of them because I wasn't going to have 13 opportunities to catch six passes. I was only going to have six opportunities to catch six. I had to go 6-for-6. A lot of people didn't see it that way. Everybody here is all cool. Reidel (Anthony) and Jacquez (Green) understand their positions. I understand mine. We didn't have that chemistry in New York. It's just better for me here, anyway."
Johnson says he wants to play just six more years, then he's shutting it down. He means it. Ten seasons is enough. By then, he hopes his hands will be covered in Super Bowl rings.
"I'm not going to fail," Johnson said. "What I consider a success and what you consider a success might be two different things. If I don't get to a Super Bowl here, then I've failed."
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