Preference Is In Coach, Not Race

Chiefs running back Larry Johnson has run the gamut since he was drafted four years ago out of Penn State. Entering this season, Johnson wanted a fresh start under a new head coach. All he wanted was the opportunity to build upon his success under the previous regime. After a recent interview on HBO's Inside the NFL, Johnson's comments are being taken out of context by some.

His words were not centered on race, as some have criticized, but instead from a feud that was never settled.

Pound for pound, Johnson is the best running back in the NFL. He's the strongest, fastest and most durable. While other highly touted running backs love to sprint to the sidelines after they make a great run or avoid contact up the middle, Johnson is quite the opposite. He loves contact. He feeds off it. With five games left in the season he's garnering the kind of attention that makes him a legitimate MVP candidate.

That happens when you lead the league in rushing. In five days he's carried the ball 65 times, gained 311 yards and scored three touchdowns in victories over division rivals Oakland and Denver.

He's earned the right to say what he thinks because he's answered his critics and the bell for anyone who thought he couldn't climb out of the shadows of Priest Holmes.

Johnson is proving that he's a leader on the field. Off the field he does his own thing and there isn't anything wrong with that. But in the national spotlight he's a target. Locally, we've beaten to death his relationship with former head coach Dick Vermeil, but HBO's Cris Carter decided to spin his own angle on the controversy.

Being an African-American athlete is hard enough, and it's natural to assume that Johnson would relate better to Herm Edwards, but not because of the same ethnicity.

"I could relate to Herman (Edwards)," said Johnson. "I couldn't do that with the other coaches I had because they had not done it. You know, they haven't put those pads or they haven't been in the situation as a young black athlete and know what we had to go through."

For those unable to read between the lines, Johnson isn't alone in his view that players generally feel more comfortable under coaches who have played the game. That's not uncommon, nor does it state anything about race.

Edwards and Johnson share more than the fact they each played the game and had similar upbringings. They share a bond that most people can't relate to because they share decades of turmoil in a society that unfortunately still believes that everything is based on race. It just isn't that way in sports, for the most part.

Most of the great athletes in this country, since the turn of the century, are African American. If there are communities, cities, towns and groups that still believe race is at the center of the people's consciousness, then they are mistaken.

"You know, when we go out, you know, we like to go out," said Johnson. "You know, we like to hang out. We like to have fun. But then you got to worry about the guy around the corner with the gun. You got to worry about this girl on the block. You got to worry about, you know, your parents. You got to worry about your homeboys taking advantage of you."

LJ is correct. The average shelf life of an NFL player is roughly five or six years. They are pulled, coddled and spoiled by everyone because they have money, fame and they play professional sports – not because of their color.

"There's so many things you got to worry about being a young black athlete," said Johnson. "And to be able to have a father like mine and have a coach like Herm, I was able to escape a lot of those realities and find myself in a new ray of light."

Johnson is a role model for all young children. My youngest son worships the ground he walks on because in his eyes, he's a great football player. My son wears his #27 jersey with great pride when playing football with other kids, and he doesn't care about the color of his skin or his demeanor on the football field.

He simply appreciates what he does on Sundays.

And at the end of the day, LJ is a better football player in Kansas City today because he has a better connection with his current coach. He didn't have a great relationship with Vermeil.

But that relationship didn't turn sour because of race. Instead, it is LJ's belief that Edwards has a better understanding of him as a person and an athlete.

What Edwards did just days after taking the head coaching job was to clearly define Johnson's role on this football team. In that conversation there were things that neither had to say to each other. They already knew those things because they've lived and done some of the same things on and off the field.

Vermeil was old school, and so was Joe Paterno at Penn State. Johnson waited three years to start in college and in the professional ranks. What he was upset about was playing time, because he felt he could contribute.

Does it really matter that Johnson says things that are open to interpretation? The bottom line is he says those things because he believes in what he's saying in every single interview he gives, both locally and nationally.

For those of us who see him every day, we get it, and we understand the kind of person he is in the locker room. The national media loves to sensationalize everything. They specialize in making more out of less. Their job isn't to report something factual but to create hypotheticals that are open to multiple interpretations.

In Kansas City, we know exactly what we're getting from LJ, and that's good enough for me.

So here's a message to those who believe his comments stirred racial barriers: move on, please and let's talk about something far more worthy, like getting to the playoffs and winning some games in January.

Neither of those will happen without Johnson walking the walk and talking the talk on the field and in the locker room. That's his only motivation.

WarpaintIllustrated.com Top Stories