It Has Not Been a Yellow Brick Road for Johnson

Making the jump from College Football to the NFL as a first round draft pick can be a very grueling and difficult road. But for Kansas City Chiefs rookie running back Larry Johnson, this season has been anything but a trip to OZ.

After his arrest early morning arrest on Friday on an alleged charger of aggravated assault and a misdemeanor charge of battery, he's going to need the Wizard himself to get him out Dick Vermeils doghouse.

Nobody in the local media has been more supportive of Larry Johnson than yours truly. And quite honestly, yesterday's arrest does little to change that I'm clearly standing behind Johnson because I think he'll be a great NFL running back someday. However, that day is not going to happen anytime soon and Johnson needs to understand that before he wastes any chance of becoming a star for the Kansas City Chiefs.

When reports circulated on Friday that Johnson had been arrested, my first thought was to presume guilt. After all, athletes are arrested all the time and this was anything but shocking. However it was Larry Johnson who from most counts is a solid young man who is completely disappointed that he's only suited up three times this season for the Chiefs.

Reports that he's openly complained about playing time and the fact that he's been moping in the clubhouse are 100% accurate. You can't blame Johnson for his attitude. He was the best running back in college last season and the Chiefs wanted an insurance policy for the injured Priest Holmes. And I'm sure he expected more out of himself and the Chiefs.

Johnson from all accounts new the drill before he signed his contract. He worked in the Chiefs mini-camps, signed his contract on time and attended training camp in River Falls with a nice signing bonus and a positive attitude.

But he quickly found out how difficult it is to adjust to the speed and pace of the NFL. Especially under the grueling and demanding practices of head coach Dick Vermeil. Still Vermeil and the rest of the coaches knew it would take time for Johnson to adjust and they were willing to be patient. Johnson however was not.

But was their some lingering resentment over the draft day decision that brought Johnson to the Chiefs?

Might have been. That is if you believe the reports that Vermeil wanted to draft a defensive player like linebacker Boss Bailey who was still on the board late in the first round. Instead, Vermeil took the cue of team President Carl Peterson and drafted Johnson out of Penn State instead as a calculated and smart insurance policy.

I doubt that had anything to do with Johnson's lack of adjustment in training camp. Instead he just got off to a bad start. He played very little in the Chiefs first three exhibition games before a break out game against the Seattle Seahawks. He scored his first touchdown on an 80-yard kick-off return.. He ran the ball well and caught the ball like a veteran. His performance netted him nearly 200 all purpose yards.

The future looked bright and Johnson appeared to show the flashes that made him worthy of the top draft pick. But fellow running back Derrick Blaylock moved up the depth chart and Johnson's high from the Seattle game came crashing down on him after Vermeil and the coaching staff declared Blaylock the back-up for Priest Holmes.

Obviously, Johnson was disappointed, hurt and confused. In addition the performance against the Seahawks was supposed to elevate him to more playing time. It should be noted that Johnson played with the first offensive unit and faced the Seattle starting defensive unit most of the time he was on the field.

But as some of the players have told Johnson to keep his head up over and over again after viewing his mood in the locker room. But despite the pleas and the words of the veterans, Johnson remained dejected.

As the season progressed, Johnson to date has only suited up in three games this season. His rushing stats are minimal even though Vermeil promised after the bye week that Johnson would get more playing time. He said that despite the fact that Blaylock was playing well.

But Vermeil understood that Johnson was upset and he did what all good coaches do and that's to try and support his player. Vermeil has even declared that Johnson is the best running back on the roster behind Holmes. It's an opinion that I share.

Johnson has to understand that he is one play away from getting into the game. Holmes could go down at anytime and Johnson will be called upon to share the rushing load with Blaylock.

After all, Johnson was a five year player for Penn State. He had to wait four years to get the starting nod and he led the NCAA in rushing in 2002 with over 2000 yards. I don't support the theory that Johnson beat up on some inferior Big 10 opponents so his statistics are not that impressive. The bottom line is that he took advantage of opportunities and led the nation in rushing. That was no accident.

Johnson is a smart young man. He comes from a great college program, he's a son of a coach and reports prior to the draft all stated that Johnson was an outstanding and well rounded young man. If he weren't, the Chiefs would not have drafted him.

After Friday's arrest, people might think different.

The alleged victim Letissha Truitt was a former girlfriend of Johnson from Pennsylvania. According to reports, Johnson had called the police when the two were dating last year and asked them to remove her from his residence. So the two have history and who knows what really happened then or even now.

Johnson's attorney Kevin Reagan told the KC Star that these chargers were false.

"We vehemently deny that he threatened her (Ms. Truitt) or touched her in any way shape or form," Regan said.

He also addressed the issue of the hand gun and said the gun was legally registered but it was not loaded when police arrived and it was never used in a threatening way on the victim. It should be noted the victim had no marks or any evidence of any physical abuse that could have come from Johnson.

To me the two had an argument and she called the police. But they don't pay me to be a judge or jury. The court system will discover the truth and deal with the matter. In conclusion of the matter, this tells me that Johnson might have simply dated the wrong woman.

But Johnson is an NFL player now and he is a target for these kinds of incidents. Hopefully he'll learn from this and move on. But NFL players face these kinds of situations from individuals who want to get close to them and this is one of the pitfalls of the job.

I'm not suggesting in any way that Ms. Truitt is a bad person or was at fault. The bottom line is that their problems became public and now Johnson faces the wrath of his teammates, the coaches and a Johnson County, Kansas Judge.

Chiefs head coach Dick Vermeil indicated after practice on Friday that he tended to always believe the player in these types of situations. Vermeil did not really want to talk any further about the matter until he knew more of the facts. He did indicate the matter would have little impact if Johnson would or would not suit up for the Broncos game in Denver on Sunday.

As for President Carl Peterson, the man who drafted Johnson, he was disappointed that Johnson or any Chiefs was arrested but said he and Vermeil would discuss the matter and address the matter with Johnson after learning all the facts.

Johnson is not expected back in court until January 7th, 2004. At that time, Reagan will likely request a diversion program for Johnson considering he's never been in trouble with the law before. Under local laws in the State of Kansas, Johnson is an eligible candidate for a state sponsored diversion program that would include a probationary period, counseling and community service. If the judge grants that, then Johnson will not receive any jail time.

In the end, Johnson should learn a valuable lesson. Life in the NFL is not just about yards, first downs and touchdowns but instead it capsules so much more. The lack of playing time, disappointment and frustration will be even more public after this incident. How he deals with that will determine his future in Kansas City or in the NFL.

If Johnson listens to veteran teammates like Tony Richardson, who is ready to open up his arms and heart to Johnson; he can take the next step along the way on the maturation process that might get him back on the playing field.

One little incident does not say that Johnson was a bust NFL draft pick. But if Johnson doesn't learn from this situation, then that label might just ring true for him and the Chiefs organization.

The best thing he can do is work hard in practice, listen, learn and do what he's told from his coaches and teammates. Maybe this was just the thing Johnson needed to get him focused and back on track to contribute to the Chiefs football team.

For Chiefs fans, let's hope so because I think Johnson can be a star in this league. I might be the only one left who believes that to be true. But I believe their will be a game this season or next, when the Chiefs will need to count on Johnson.

And if he comes through for the team, this incident will forever be forgotten and simply be a blimp on his NFL career.


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