© St. Petersburg Times, published October 30, 2000
TAMPA -- Turns out, the road to success -- or at least the access road that may lead to it -- is about 4 miles long. As luck would have it, it runs from Keyshawn Johnson's house to Shaun King's.
It was Wednesday night, after a rotten day of practice, when Johnson pointed his car toward the home of his quarterback. If there is yet somewhere to go in this football season for the Tampa Bay Bucs, this is where the journey began.
Johnson was feeling a little disappointed, which is nothing new, since Johnson has spent the last month feeling that way. So he called up King and asked what he was doing. King was with friends. Johnson said he wanted to come over. King sent his friends home.
When Johnson arrived, the two sat, drank cranberry juice and talked. The World Series was on in the background, but Johnson doesn't even remember that. For 3-4 hours, the conversation went on.
To sum it up, Keyshawn wanted the damn ball.
Oh, maybe you guessed.
Okay, okay. So there was nothing new in the message which, by the way, Johnson also made sure was heard by Tony Dungy and Les Steckel and, no-doubt, door-to-door salesmen who ventured into Johnson's neighborhood. Except this time, everyone heard. On Sunday afternoon, Johnson caught six passes for 121 yards. He made catches in traffic, he drew pass-interference penalties, and he provided enough electricity to help the Bucs light up the scoreboard in their 41-13 victory over the Vikings.
This was the player the Bucs thought they had when they brought him from the Jets. For the first time since pulling on his Bucs uniform, Johnson was a bargain, a star. For the first time, he was Keyshawn.
Say what you want about a guy who says what he wants, but on Sunday, Johnson finally made some noise between the sidelines. Oh, he has caught balls this season. Eight in one Detroit game, six in the other. Six against the Redskins.
But, for the first seven weeks of the season, the player was disappointed, and the team was disappointed. Johnson had only one touchdown.
Which was the long and winding road that led Keyshawn to King's door. Sort of the King and I meets Yalta.
"It's the first time all year I've lobbied for the ball," Johnson said. "Things had been bothering me for four weeks. I waited and I waited and I waited and I waited, and I couldn't wait any more."
The waiting ended Sunday. On the Bucs' second offensive play, he caught a pass and fought his way into the end zone. He caught balls behind him. He caught a ball while Robert Tate, from all appearances, frisked him for a hidden weapon.
"I told him to let 19 and 28 (Warrick Dunn) eat till they're full," Johnson said. "Shaun's a good listener."
Maybe that's the point. For all the chest-thumping, for all the narcissism, the guy can play. Maybe instead of worrying about how much Johnson has talked, critics should have listened to what he was saying. He wants the ball? Well, who doesn't want him to have it?
The thing is, King needs someone like Keyshawn. King is a second-year quarterback who at times appears to lack the poise of his first year. He needs someone to go up and make something happen when it appears there is very little chance of it happening. That was part of what Johnson told King. That either he'll catch the ball, or he'll knock it away. He won't let it be intercepted.
"I think Shaun can be a hell of a quarterback," Johnson said. "I can make Shaun be one of those quarterbacks that people say is on his way to good things. All it takes is trust and understanding."
This time, among the things Johnson chewed up was Vikings' cornerback Tate. Go back to the third quarter, on a third-and-11 play. Johnson was streaking down the left sideline, and Tate was shoving and pushing and grabbing and tickling, and it didn't make any difference. Johnson still caught a 35-yard pass to the Minnesota 17.
For the record, Johnson enjoyed that one. Tate, he said, had yapped at him, and he took it personally. And why wouldn't he? Who would dare enter a talking contest with Keyshawn?
"I was reading clips, and I saw where Tate said I was just another receiver, that I wasn't anything special," Johnson said. "Even in pregame, he came up and said something to me. Any time you attack me personally, I'm going to come back and get you."
Maybe it isn't just King who needs to get to know Johnson. Maybe it's all of Tampa Bay. It's a conservative area, and players who sound their own horn have a limited amount of time to show they have substance. Already, there have been those who would write off Johnson as self-absorbed (and now for a quick list of wide receivers who are not: zero).
Admit this, however. The game matters to him. He does make tough catches. He does play hard. He does care.
Not only that, but he has the directions to King's house.
Gee. How does someone get an unlisted address?
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