Larry Johnson: Talented and Misunderstood

In the NFL persistence is everything and patience under fire and scrutiny can be career ending if not handled well. A player must be willing to endure grueling torture on both body and mind. He has to take heat from the fans or even teammates who question every move--especially if the young player comes into the NFL with a strong pedigree.

Players take heat from the coaching staff and ultimately have to decide if it is all worth it. Then, if it is, it takes 110% on every single play, both in practice and on Sundays, just to get a chance to show what you know you can do.

For Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson, he made the leap of faith despite battling coaches in the organization and living up to the recently failed legends of every running back to graduate from Penn State outside of Franco Harris. He did that even knowing that in Kansas City he'd be an understudy to future Hall of Fame running back Priest Holmes. Larry Johnson made the decision a long time ago that he'd be a great NFL running back and he knew he could overcome any obstacle in his path.

Well he's done it again in Kansas City finally showing off the talents that made him a first round draft pick in 2003. After a successful stint as the Chiefs' starting tailback the last five games of the year, he carried his offensive teammates on his shoulders and led them to a season-ending stretch that led them to four victories in their last five contests. Without Johnson running the ball as he did down the stretch, the Chiefs would have gone into the 2005 season with even more questions. One question that was answered is that yes, Johnson can be the man in Kansas City and his attitude, skill, and style is best suited for this offense.

He didn't disappoint them. Not many people realized the potential of Johnson, outside of a few beat writers—both former Kansas City Star writer Ivan Carter and I routinely told anyone who would listen that Johnson was a quality player. We were both convinced he would not fall in the deep trenches of other Penn State running backs that never made it in the NFL. And there were many Penn State backs with rushing statistics similar to Johnson's who ended with unfulfilled and broken dreams on NFL soil.

That list includes, Blair Thomas, Curtis Enis, Curt Warner, Lydell Mitchell, D.J. Dozier, and Ki-Jana Carter. One runner who had success early in the NFL was 1973 Heisman Trophy winner John Capalletti who played five seasons with the Los Angeles Rams before joining the San Diego Chargers. He played in the NFL for eight seasons and after an emotional college career that was well documented, he was the first Penn State back who played with the kind of fire in the NFL that was matched during his college career. After Capalletti, the Steelers drafted the great Franco Harris and no one can dispute his Hall of Fame credentials nor his place in NFL lore by making the play of the millennium; better known as the ‘Immaculate Reception' in a playoff win against the Oakland Raiders.

Johnson appears ready to carry on the legacy of Harris. Unlike his predecessors, Johnson has made a splash in the NFL after nearly drowning his first year and half with the Chiefs. He's an impact running back that has speed and power. He also has a passion for the game that fuels him. He doesn't think he can be stopped on the football field. He proved that when Joe Paterno, the legendary Nittany Lion Coach, put the ball in Johnson's hands.

He led the NCAA in rushing during the 2002 season with 2,087 yards and averaging 7.7 yards per carry. That feat has only done by eight other backs. In one season as the man in College Station, Johnson set a mark that has never been touched by any other back at Penn State. It's clear that he was something special in college, but he still had to convince everyone else he was the real deal. He had to find his own path despite the fact he scored 23 touchdowns his senior season, 20 on the ground and 3 via the pass.

And that path was formed in his early years. Because he was such a gifted athlete, Johnson played tight end and defensive back before making the switch to running back. He started playing flag football at the age of eight and then his father told him at nine years old that he was ready to play tackle football; so he did and that bug bit him hard; he's been excelling at it every since.

"I played all sorts of positions before I made the transition to running back," said Johnson talking about the early years. "I never wanted to go inside so I always went outside around the end. That's all they made me do and it took a while to go into the holes."

Johnson played multiple positions during his stellar career in high school, and was decorated as not only a great running back but also a play-making defensive end. In his senior season at State College High School in Pennsylvania, he had 31 tackles and seven sacks. Oh, by the way, as a running back, he ran for 2,159 yards and scored 29 touchdowns. But despite the success on offense, Johnson continued to shine on the defensive side of the ball.

"It was fun. I played mostly stand-up rush end. I could blitz from wherever I wanted. I wouldn't even get in a three-point stance. I would stand there and look at the quarterback and just go. If they didn't block me then I would get the sack. I didn't want to play defensive back or linebacker," said the high school two-way standout.

But college scouts took notice and even though his father, Larry Johnson, Sr., was a coach on the Penn State Nittany Lion staff, the younger Johnson had other ideas about his college choices.

"Not many people know this, but I was born in Washington, D.C. and I grew up in Maryland. I took a couple of visits to North Carolina and Maryland before thinking about Penn State. The coaching stability at North Carolina and the fact that Maryland was going up and down bothered me and coaches who were recruiting me thought that I would end up at Penn State," Johnson says.

In the end they were right and Penn State became Johnson's savior. "All the coaches who were recruiting me knew that I was the coach's son," said Johnson. That meant even though he was interested in attending other schools they knew because of his father that Penn State would ultimately be the choice. Still, he had to meet with Joe Paterno face to face and the legendary coach treated Johnson as any other big name recruit despite the fact his father was on his coaching staff.

"It was kind of weird when I met him [in recruiting]. He came to my high school and I could have gone to one of his practices and talked to him afterwards. When he had the meeting with me he called me into the office at high school. He wanted to make a scene with me like he did with all the other recruits," said Johnson.

But while everyone else saw Penn State as a no-brainer for Johnson, Paterno did not. He recruited him just as hard as anyone else. One thing is certain—Paterno knows how to recruit tailback.

"It took a lot for him to come to the high school instead of the home. He wanted to make a scene like he did with other kids. He came in with his son Jay, who was his recruiting coordinator at the time, and he wanted to tell me that I was a good football player despite the fact my father was a coach. He knew I was a good football player and wanted to make sure that I knew he wanted me to come here. It made me feel good that a respected coach wanted me. He could have let an assistant recruit me, especially since my father was coaching there but he made it a point to come himself," said Johnson.

That gave Johnson the confidence that Penn State was the right choice. But he also was aware of the reputation of the running backs that had failed in the past and he always kept that in the back of his mind. He knew that the NFL scouts would be critical. But none of that matted his senior season, when he became the full time featured back who carried the team on his back.

After Johnson set a Penn State single game record with 257 yards rushing yards against Syracuse early in 2002, people started taking notice and scouts began to wonder if he could deliver the same performances in the NFL. But that didn't bother Johnson who was fortunate to have his father, Larry Johnson, Sr., at his side. In fact, that was a highlight for Johnson as he helped him every step of the way.

"It was fun playing with my dad. I had no problem with it. My dad coached D-Line and I was a running back. I would take cheap shots and ear hole his d-line—especially the guys that were on the lower end of the chain. I would blind side them when they weren't looking and get into fights at practice. And they all knew the only reason that I did it was because they knew I was just like everyone else," says Johnson.

But one thing became clear from that time on--Johnson understood how coaches thought, walked, and talked. He had an unusual insight because he could read coaches and he understand the mind games that they play. It would be something that would eventually carry over into the NFL and something that he would apply first hand with the Chiefs organization.

"I was in a position to do that because I knew a lot more about the program than the kids coming in. I tried to tell these kids that not everything is always what it seems to be. Especially in my position, as I had to fight through being the third and fourth-string guy to get playing time because I thought I was better than the guys in front of me. I was always aware who did what and what coaches didn't like me, had something against me and which coaches helped me. So having my father around, I pretty much knew everything before the kids did."

In fact, Johnson was joined on the field by his brother Tony who was a wide receiver for the Nittany Lions. Tony, who had a cup of coffee with the San Francisco 49ers according to Johnson, is close to signing with the New York Giants and will work with them in the off-season. "We had fun playing together on the same field. Our whole family had an awesome time together at Penn State," said Johnson.

But even with the comfort level and the success that Johnson had at Penn State with his family, those lingering questions never let up. He didn't play all that much his first three years at Penn State, and when you throw in a red-shirt season he was older and more mature as well as confident when it came his time to shine at Penn State.

"It was hard (not playing) and I was always competitive and I felt at times that when I did scrimmage I would always outshine the other players in front of me. But the fact that they were older than me and the seniority kicked in they (the coaches) felt that I needed to wait. But when I got my opportunity to show some things my sophomore and junior seasons, I showed that I could do more than they expected me to do," Johnson says of the leaner years at Penn State.

In fact Johnson could have broken a host of Penn State rushing records if he'd played earlier. By his own admission, he wasn't even on his ‘A' game his senior season and people commented that he looked like he wasn't having a good time.

"'You didn't look like you enjoyed yourself' people would say to me. But what people don't understand is that I felt I could have done these things a year or two earlier," said Johnson.

With that drive in hand, NFL scouts took notice and starting gaining confidence that he might indeed be different. At the NFL combines each year, scouts, coaches and general managers have to look beyond the physical skills. They have to look under the cap of the player and see what drives each potential draft choice. One thought that became unanimous was that Johnson was confident and, because of his father, was equipped to handle all that was in front of him. They knew he was battle tested and prepared both on and off the field for the rigors of life in the NFL.

That would in the end be something that would test not only his heart and faith but his ability to adapt to a situation that no athlete wants to be part of—being drafted by a team that didn't really want him.

When the Chiefs discovered that Priest Holmes would need off-season surgery to repair his injured hip in March of 2003, the Chiefs brought in one free-agent running back after another, but none of them caught the Chiefs' eye. At the NFL combines, Chiefs President Carl Peterson took a liking to Johnson as someone who could not only be a back-up to Holmes but could eventually become a starter when the future Hall of Fame back hung up his cleats.

But he was the only one who saw it that way. His head coach Dick Vermeil didn't want to draft Johnson when the Chiefs traded down in the first round. Some say he had his eyes set on Georgia linebacker Boss Bailey who he envisioned as a starter for the Chiefs' struggling defense. For the record, Bailey has done little for the Lions in two seasons.

Instead Johnson was drafted in the first round by Kansas City and from his first press conference talking about Johnson, Vermeil made it clear that Johnson was the Kansas City Chiefs' draft choice, not his. The bottom line is, Carl Peterson made the pick as insurance and it proved to be a smart decision--one that would pay off in 2004.

Nobody knew if Holmes could return to his old form after arthroscopic hip surgery or how he would respond to rigorous rehabilitation; not to mention a potential contract holdout. Peterson had to make a call and he chose Johnson who was the second back taken in the 2003 draft behind Miami Hurricane running back Willis McGahee, who was recovering from major knee surgery.

Johnson came to Kansas City and made the most of his new gig. He bought a house in the community, signed his rookie contract prior to training camp, and came into a situation being promised he'd get a chance to make an impact on the best offense in the NFL as a back-up. Johnson didn't want to come to Kansas City at first, but part of his reluctance was the fact he didn't know that much about the area. He'd spent his entire life living on the east coast, so he experienced a plethora of emotions after being drafted and even after he signed his initial contract.

"Kansas City is not my area, the Priest Holmes situation, and Coach Vermeil was another Joe Paterno-type coach," Johnson said. "When the Chiefs called and I talked to Carl Peterson on the phone and he told me that he was going to select me, I wasn't that excited. I had my hat hanging on the Tennessee Titans or the Pittsburgh Steelers--either would have been a great fit for my style of running."

After talking to his family and realizing that fullback Omar Easy was on the roster with the Chiefs, he started feeling better. In the NFL, you don't get to pick where you go until you're a free agent or you don't get drafted. Johnson, who was a Dallas Cowboys fan despite growing up in Redskins territory, came to grips with Kansas City and eventually made his home here and he's glad he did.

But as the 2003 training camp unfolded, Johnson became weary of his situation. Some observers said he had a hard time adapting to the grueling training camp led by Vermeil. Plus, special teams standout Derrick Blaylock stepped up his game and quickly moved past Johnson on the depth chart. The Chiefs never thought Blaylock would blossom as he did.

"I understood my situation. I understand that Priest Holmes is a great back. I'm a competitor. It could be Jim Brown ahead of me. I feel I could beat out Jim Brown. That's the way that I was raised and that's the way I was. Being a kid I grew up in a football atmosphere since birth. You're always in a competitive situation and I had to compete for this and for that. So when I came here I was ready to compete and when there were some walls put up against me, I felt frustrated that I had to put up with the same things that I did at Penn State," said Johnson.

But that's what makes Johnson such a competitor and also makes him so misunderstood. He feels he can do it now and he wants to carry that Penn State torch in the NFL. He wants to prove everyone who doubted him wrong. He understands the legacy of his predecessors and from the time he was drafted he wanted to honor each of them.

"I still wouldn't say I'm better than those guys now," Johnson says of the likes of Carter, Dozier and all the backs of the last 10-20 years. "Outside of Franco Harris and Lenny Moore not many after that have been successful (in the NFL). I take great pride being from Penn State. Those guys have actually helped me when they come back to Penn State they talk to me. I feel it's a duty of mine for the next kid behind me and I put that (legacy) on my back."

In fact, Johnson says he remains close to Carter and Dozier as well as Oakland Raiders quarterback Kerry Collins. They, more than anyone else, understand how hard it has been on Johnson in his short NFL career. "All those guys support me so much and they know about me. Some of them have known me from a high school kid watching them practice to being a freshman in college to now."

But being a rookie and having high expectations for yourself don't always mix well with a coaching staff and an organization that has built an offensive juggernaut. Johnson felt that he could compete immediately but the coaches felt otherwise and as the games started for real in 2003 with Johnson inactive. Johnson's attitude was perceived as being a malcontent when all he wanted was to get on the field to show his skills.

Thus the start of Johnson's NFL career didn't get off to a good start. His coaches knew he could run the ball but he also had to learn the complicated pass protection schemes that are critical to making this offense so effective.

That meant he had to earn the confidence of not only his head coach, but also his offensive coordinator, Al Saunders. It's been reported the two don't generally see eye to eye, but that's not unusual. For whatever the reasons, as Johnson told me, some people just don't get along. Regardless, those ills can be cured with productivity on the field. But the Chiefs were not giving Johnson the opportunity to show his skills even in the exhibition season.

With Priest Holmes breaking the NFL scoring record in 2003 and Blaylock firmly positioned as the back-up, Johnson spent the first eight games riding the bench and letting the frustration build. He tried to keep a positive attitude but it wasn't easy.

At the bye week, head coach Dick Vermeil indicated to the media that the Chiefs would work Johnson into the game plans the second half of the season. But an off-the-field incident changed those plans. Johnson was arrested for a domestic dispute that had his personal life splattered all over the newspapers, sports radio talk shows, and on television. Johnson chalks up the entire incident to gaining experience and learning from his mistakes. Nonetheless the media feasted on it and everyone proclaimed him a troublemaker. Those who knew him understood that wasn't the case.

Johnson's penance was some public embarrassment and a two-day jail stay, but he didn't mind. He knew he'd made a mistake with the incident that put him in harm's way and in trouble with the law. But he also knew he would learn from it.

"On my part I should have known better. Every situation you either get more and more sharper or more and more dumber. I chose to get sharper and that I could not trust the people who I swore I could trust that would never do that to me. It kind of opened my eyes. I took that as a real learning experience," says Johnson.

Though Johnson was incarcerated for a brief period; he didn't mind the jail experience. "As strange as it seems, I had fun. Those guys never treated me like I was a prisoner or an inmate. In the end I knew I would come out on top. I was not in a real life-threatening situation and it was only two days. I always kid people that I'm going to be the next featured person on Fox's Beyond the Glory."

Still the experience was a cry for help and one player who stepped up to help Johnson was fullback Tony Richardson. He was one of the players who stood by Johnson though thick and thin. "I learned from Tony Richardson to be a professional off the field. That's the most important thing. I don't need anyone to tell me how to do what I know how to do (on the field). I think I have the football thing down pat. It's the off the field stuff. It's a business-like atmosphere and there are certain things that you can and can't do. Tony Richardson has been awesome with me. I look at 'T-Rich' as a big brother that I never had," said Johnson.

As for his coaches during that ordeal, Johnson didn't want to rely on them. He knew better. He made a mistake and instead went internal. He also understands that coaches come and go as he had seen at Penn State and being around coaches his entire life; he had a unique perspective. Johnson knows that you can get all the help in the world but in the end it's up to the individual to make something good out of a bad situation.

That's exactly what happened to Johnson who finished the 2003 season scoring his first career touchdown against the Chicago Bears in the last game of the season. He only had 20 carries for 85 yards but at least he got a taste of what he was able to do in college in the season's final game.

As the team prepared for the 2004 season, Johnson entered the off-season with a purpose. Vice President of Player Personnel Lynn Stiles told me last April how impressed he was with the efforts that Johnson was making in the off-season workouts and throughout the mini-camps. He told me he was clearly a more mature and confident looking player.

But that was Stiles speaking and not the coaches. As the 2004 exhibition games began, Johnson excelled in the opener against the Giants in New York. But over the last three games, his carries dried up. He only had a few the rest of the exhibition season as the focus once again shifted to Derrick Blaylock, who was entering his final year of his contract.

As 2004 officially started, Johnson was not happy and clearly it showed as he barked at the media. Vermeil was aware of his unhappiness though he blamed the lack of playing time on the restrictions of the game day roster as an explanation as to why Johnson wasn't suiting up. That all changed when in November when Priest Holmes was injured against Tampa Bay; that gave Johnson hope.

Eventually Holmes was diagnosed with a knee injury that would end his season but at the time Johnson didn't know how long Holmes would be out. But Derrick Blaylock was also hurt in the Buccaneers game so that forced Johnson into the starting line-up in a close game that was critical to the Chiefs playoff hopes. Suddenly, he was expected to carry the load. It was obvious he was entering the game rusty.

His emotions were all over the place. He wanted to wash away the distaste of the ‘Diaper' comments that Vermeil had made so public, he had a grudge against the media who wrote things about him because they were unwilling to get to know him kept harping that he was a draft bust. To top it all off he was entering the game near the goal line with virtually no reps in practice the week before. Though he failed to punch the ball in the end zone near the goal line on consecutive running plays late in the third quarter, he never gave up on himself.

Nonetheless, Johnson gave the offense some spark in the fourth quarter as he caught several passes that kept drives alive but unfortunately the offense faltered against the Buccaneer defense and Johnson was left with an empty feeling after the loss. He wanted to win that game for the team.

In retrospect if Kansas City had put Johnson into more games earlier in the season maybe he could have been the difference in the Tampa Bay game and over the next two weeks where he once again was perched on the bench as they Chiefs were embarking on their four game losing streak.

But as the injury status of Holmes remained under cloak and dagger within the Chiefs organization, Johnson felt he would get more carries the next week at New Orleans. But Blaylock had a career game against the Saints, rushing for more than 180 yards. Blaylock's lack of strength inside the goal line, however, cost the Chiefs a critical touchdown in the first quarter that could have put the Saints game out of reach.

The same happened the following week against the New England Patriots. But what made that game even more frustrating for Johnson was the fact that Blaylock was ineffective against the defending Super Bowl champions. That's when the coaching staff decided to give the ball to Johnson the following Sunday against the Chargers.

Still for Johnson there was some skepticism. He'd heard that song and dance before but nonetheless he prepared himself in a professional matter and he was confident. Against San Diego, Johnson scored a pair of touchdowns and ran all over the Chargers much heralded run defense which at the time was ranked 2nd in the AFC against the run. That game served as the birthplace for Larry Johnson.

Over the next five games, Johnson did it all--running, receiving, and even adapting to the difficult pass-blocking schemes that the Chiefs' offense requires of their running backs. He was playing with a fire and passion and he brought toughness to the Chiefs offense that had been lacking during their four game losing streak.

The following week against the Raiders in Oakland, Johnson added another pair of touchdowns. He further backed up his performance the following weeks against the Titans on the Monday Night stage and again with 151 yards and two more touchdowns in the Chiefs 45-17 rout of Denver.

For the season, Johnson ended up scoring 10 touchdowns (9 rushing, 1 receiving), 581 yards rushing while averaging 4.8 yards per carry and he caught 22 passes for an average 12.6 yards. That's Priest Holmes type of production. In fact, his feat for scoring multiple touchdowns in five consecutive games ties him with Holmes for a Chiefs' record.

What does that mean for 2005? Who knows? But his increased playing time could hinge on fostering a better relationship with his coaches even though he will probably outlast many of the current staff members, who are reaching the end of contracts. Nonetheless, Johnson admitted that he understood where he stood with them despite his success at the end of the year.

At least he has one supporter in Carl Peterson, who proclaimed at the end of the season that he wanted Johnson to share the load with Holmes next season. It was not something that he had talked to his head coach about and when Peterson was talking about that request with the media at their season ending press conference, Vermeil was emotionless.

"What most people don't understand is that I've been through this with my dad coaching on about six or seven different coaching staffs and I pick up things that other kids don't. I know which coaches are shady, which coaches have it out for some kids on the team and those that generally want to try and help you. I'm smart enough to read people," proclaimed Johnson.

"I knew it was a funny vibe coming here with Coach Vermeil. Not because he didn't like me but he wanted to go another direction (in the draft). Some of the coaches here have been warm to me being here. That's the way it is. You can't change people, especially people who have been doing it for so long. I just see it coming. What I said in the media is the truth. I didn't take it to where I downgraded them."

Even with the recent success, Johnson doesn't feel, nor is looking for, the love from his coaching staff. Instead he's willing to earn their respect and even further set an example for his teammates and within the Kansas City community.

"I don't expect them to be patting me on the back or hugging me. I just want keep what I'm doing and get them to trust me as to what I do on the field. It's like the movie Gladiator--you win the crowd, you win the freedom. I feel right now what I do in the community and what I do with the young kids and me being young myself. They see me out there not just doing it but talking about it. I've never been one those kids where I was crying for glory. Instead I went a different direction and proved through hard work that you can be on top," revealed Johnson.

Still Johnson has a lot to learn jumping from a top collegiate program to a top NFL team that maintains one objective each season: to win the Super Bowl. In college, Johnson could afford to have fun in his senior season when he only had a few classes left to graduate but you have to take everything seriously in the NFL. Because of his father and his relationship with Joe Paterno, Johnson understands first hand that the NFL is business.

The Chiefs newest running back has had a lot of obstacles to overcome even after his recent successes this season, but he's clear on his mission in the NFL and what really motivates him to succeed.

"I play for those who say I can't do it. They give more fire than those who say I could do it. I'm so fired up with the things that I'm doing now and I'm excited and those people have to shut their mouths. They can't say anything about me anymore. What I do in the press when I run my mouth and I turn around and run it on the field it puts it into a different light and it shows people how real I am. I'm not just talking to hear myself talk but standing for a purpose," Johnson says with conviction.

That attitude has won over the hearts of the fans and it has also won the respect of his teammates. For Johnson, running behind the greatest offensive line in the NFL helps but you also have to have talent. There have been backs who have struggled behind this great offensive line. But Johnson brings something else to this offense.

"I bring a defensive mentality to the offense. The offensive line up front with three pro-bowlers is top notch. It's awesome and I never had anything like that in college. I've always had to make do with what I had but when you have three pro-bowlers you're blessed and your cleats should be cast in gold."

That appreciation clearly defines his 2004 season and it has shaped the foundation for what Larry Johnson wants in 2005. "I want to be the clear #2, not the #3 guy. I know people have respect for Priest Holmes but when you're a young kid you should throw that all out the window when you're let in. I know what I can do on the field. I have to put myself in a position that if Priest Holmes goes down that I have to get this team to a Super Bowl. I'm going into the off-season with a little bit more fire than most people. But I still have to back up next year with what I did this year."

Larry Johnson might be one of the few players that truly understand what it takes to be successful in the NFL. Whereas other players waver, Johnson wants to be a leader on this team. He's more than willing to wait for his opportunity as he did in college, but he also understands what to do on the football field and now so do his coaches. He's not taking anything for granted and he knows that he has to be a leader on and off the field as he works with the youth in the community and preaches to them to stay in school and away from bad elements. He has a huge heart and he's not afraid to help those in need or those who are less fortunate.

On the field it will be interesting to see if the Chiefs can trust Johnson with a greater role in the offense next season. Johnson knows that nothing will be given to him and he knows he'll have to earn every yard. And that suits him just fine. All he's ever wanted was the rock in his hands.

There was not a more productive running back in the NFL over the last five games of the season and the future looks bright for Larry Johnson and the Chiefs despite their 7-9 finish. Granted he'll have to co-exist with Priest Holmes for at least one or two more seasons and that suits the former Penn State running back just fine.

"I don't give a damn who I have to run though," Johnson proclaims.

That's the attitude of a winner and that sums up Larry Johnson.

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