LJ Deserves His Space

In professional sports, a common theme among fans is the presumption that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. This past week Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson made a reference to the political landscape or social realities in the area. Johnson was criticized for his comments. Some thought he was bashing the city or the people that support him on Sunday afternoons. So what's the big deal?

Several years ago when Roy Williams was the head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks basketball team, he made a comment about the "whine and cheese" crowd that sat quietly through another lifeless opponent at Allen Field House one cold January evening.

The game was sluggish; the fans were bored. Still after the game Williams, now the North Carolina basketball head coach, ripped those who supported the team that night. He was perceived as being insensitive to not only the paying public who stood in line for hours and days for a chance to sit in the prestigious Basketball shrine but also the boosters who gave Williams lifetime memberships to country clubs and free steak dinners all over town.

Was he right? Probably, in his own mind, and to some extent if you look at the comments in a realistic manner, the comments were justified.

Larry Johnson has been a tremendous source of quotes and anecdotes since he arrived here as a rookie back in 2003. His auspicious start in this organization put a damper (not diaper) on his development. It also affected his attitude with the coaching staff, one that didn't want him, and by a player who was given God-like status in Priest Holmes.

To his credit, Johnson did what he always did growing up in Pennsylvania. He spoke his mind. Anything wrong with that? Not at all. We all do that from time to time. In fact, some make a living at it.

Johnson's comments didn't offend me at all. I thought, in fact, they were quite humorous when he made his political comments. Maybe it was the timing of them that had everyone upset. This past week Johnson was in a Kansas City Missouri courtroom awaiting a trial that would vindicate the actions of which he's been accused. But to some fans that means he's guilty. That's unfortunate. Granted, this is the second time that LJ has been involved in an after-hours altercation.

The first was well documented in his rookie season. He was placed on probation and had been a model citizen until the incident a couple months ago. Regardless of what happened to LJ that night, it's meaningless unless he's convicted. Plus, looking at it from the outside, the case has been messed up by Jackson County prosecutors who have asked for two separate continuances. Sounds like these people have the same phone lines as the one inside the office of the Missouri legislators who are about to lose the Chiefs to Kansas. It's clear both offices are flawed. Sorry, I'll keep focus.

Still, Johnson's optimism in this case is probably justified based on his willingness to get on with the trial. The incident which seems rather silly or a sense of amusement to most is an unfortunately common theme amongst famous sports athletes. They are and always will be targets.

Since Priest Holmes was placed on injured reserve, Johnson has confined his comments to a select few in the media. He was misquoted by a local radio station, and those comments upset his head coach. But Dick Vermeil is a big boy, and he can handle the media. In his own way, Johnson is doing so now. But what's so bad about choosing who to speak with and when? That's his right. It's the right of every player on the team. In fact, Priest Holmes would answer more questions on the road than at home. Nobody made a big deal out of that.

But for some reason Johnson's comments are under a microscope. Is that fair? Again, sure it is. But is it right? Not really. Actually if Freddie Mitchell had stuck with this team, maybe nobody would have paid attention to Johnson's sometime brash but brutally honest style. In interviewing him as I have in the past, his frankness is actually quite refreshing.

Still, some in the media make a living at turning any verbal string of words and spinning them into anything they want. How many times do you hear a portion of a quote? All the time. We're guilty in this profession and in society that we hear only what we want to hear. In the media, sometimes we write only what we think makes for good copy.

So how does this all tie in?

The bottom line is Larry Johnson is playing a kid's game in a man's world. In the NFL only the strong survive, and Larry Johnson is one strong man. He's also grown up around this sport his entire life. If there is anyone prepared to play this game both on and off the field it's Larry Johnson.

To his credit, he never lost confidence the first year and half, and, if not for the intervention of management a year ago, Johnson could be backing up Dee Brown on Sunday.

The reality is the success of the Chiefs 2005 season, and the post season for that matter, hinge on the ability of LJ to churn up yards and move the chains. He can carry this team on his back. He has the stones to do it. He has the talent to do it. So why is everyone worried about the sticks?

Later today, LJ will be playing in the Chiefs' most important game of the season. If the Chiefs win, Johnson and his teammates could chink the armor of the Broncos. After all, isn't that more important than what LJ says about the folks who live in Johnson County—regardless of whether or not he made a true political statement?

Still Johnson understands now that his talents are probably better served running between the white lines of an NFL football field than trying to please the masses outside the lines.

Listen, every Chiefs fan better be thanking their lucky stars that President Carl Peterson stood up and demanded that this organization draft Johnson three years ago. If he hadn't, the Chiefs 2005 season of promise would have been buried weeks ago. Johnson has started four games this season; the Chiefs have won three of them. That's not a coincidence. We could be witnessing the birth of the next superstar running back in the NFL. Let's all sit back and appreciate it.

We'll have plenty of time to dissect LJ's comments after he retires from the game. Then we can drink all the wine and eat all the cheese we want.

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