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Fast and Furious with Finesse

Keyshawn Johnson, once one of the NFL's premier wide receivers, has moved on with a flourish to his next life as a broadcaster and businessman.
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Arnon Milchan, September/October 2008

It's a typical day at the office for Keyshawn Johnson—which means he's behind the wheel of his gunmetal Porsche Cayenne Turbo SUV, hurtling west on Los Angeles's Ventura Freeway, alternately talking and text-messaging on the Blackberry that's never far from his hand.

"My car, my cell phone—that's my office," he says, shifting lanes with the panache that marked his moves on the football field in college and the National Football League. He pauses to ponder and says, "Really, do you need an office—or do you just need storage?"

He's on his way to the Panera Bread franchise that his holding company, First Picks Management, runs in Thousand Oaks. There, Johnson, the CEO, will have a few words with Glenn Mah, the chief operating officer of the company, which owns franchise rights to Panera for California's Central Coast from Westlake Village to San Luis Obispo (First Pick has three stores open, with another nine in development). "I'm more the finance guy and the real estate guy," Johnson says. "[Mah does] the day-to-day operations."

Johnson will then take a spin by the 15,000-square-foot house he's building in a gated community in Calabasas (home to comedian D. L. Hughley and Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Andruw Jones, among others) to check on construction progress. Afterward he'll head home, a condo where Beverly Hills meets Westwood that he shares with two dogs (a Vizsla named Charlotte and a Shih Tzu named Gizmo) and his two kids, Maia, 12, and Keyshawn, 9, who spend every other weekend with him and live with his ex-wife.

As he drives, texts and talks, the Cayenne whizzes by a glass-skinned office building hunkered into the hillside somewhere near Calabasas. "Now that's a building I'd like to buy," Johnson, 36, says, craning his neck to get a look. "What I want is a cute little eight-story building that we can manage and take care of and have our offices there."

He catches a seam in traffic and gets loose in the open field—a solid half mile of a freeway lane with no cars in front of him. When his passenger observes that Johnson drives the same way he ran with the football, Johnson grins and says, "Fast?"

Well, yes—but also with an aggressive finesse that reflects the confidence that Johnson brings to every endeavor in his life. Whether it's football, broadcasting or business, Johnson makes no room for even the thought of failure. That was true when he played wide receiver for the University of Southern California—and when the New York Jets made him the NFL's No. 1 draft pick in 1996. It's also true as he glides through the transition to his post-NFL career, after retiring before the start of the 2007 NFL season.

"If someone had said to me, 'Hey, we want you to run up and down a football field for 11 years and get hit upside the head a few times—but then you'll have all this when you're 35,' I wouldn't have thought twice about it," Johnson says. "For me, football was a great jump start to catapult me into another arena of life."

"Keyshawn always had a vision of what was next," says John Robinson, who coached Johnson at USC, when the Trojans won the Cotton Bowl and the Rose Bowl. "He's always two or three years ahead in his mind. He's probably got the next 10 years mapped out."

Adds Jerome Stanley, his longtime agent, "It was always in his mind to have a big post-athletic career."

The switch to civilian from professional athlete often forces a rough adjustment on the player who is unprepared for the change. "How you transition out is as important as when you do it," Stanley says. "He made the right decision." "I don't think too many people have a fairy-tale ending to their careers," says Dallas Cowboys quarterback Brad Johnson, Keyshawn Johnson's teammate on the Super Bowl XXXVII champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "It ends abruptly for almost everybody."

For Keyshawn Johnson, however, it was a no-brainer: "By the time we won the Super Bowl, I had accomplished everything I wanted to," he says, mentioning being named All-Pro and winning MVP awards for the Cotton Bowl, Rose Bowl and Pro Bowl. "I was tired of playing. I didn't have anything else to prove to anyone. I left when I wanted to."

Signed to a six-year, $15 million deal when he turned pro, he's been buying and selling real estate almost since he got out of college ("My first piece of real estate? My mom's house," he says). His company, First Picks Management, is part of an expanding universe of holdings, from real estate to a new entertainment production company (1925 Pro-ductions) he's starting with former teammate Brian Kelly.

And that's not to mention the most visible part of his post-NFL résumé: a coveted spot as NFL analyst on ESPN's "Sunday NFL Countdown" and "Monday Night Count-down." After a single season on the shows, he's a hit.

It's not as if success on TV was a given. Sure, Johnson has a reputation for being outspoken and possesses a smile bright enough to solve a small energy crisis. But the sidelines are littered with former players who crashed and burned trying to make the leap from playing the game to commenting upon it. "A lot of people have tried it who know the game—and then aren't able to do it," says Tom Jackson, one of Johnson's on-air colleagues at ESPN and himself an NFL veteran. "Joe Montana got on TV and it was a train wreck. There's no doubt Joe knows the game, but he couldn't express the information for an audience. But Keyshawn is a natural."

Johnson's on-air persona—a blend of brains, brashness, candor and just plain likability—masks a work ethic that has guided him most of his life. Self-discipline helped him focus on pulling himself out of a cycle of poverty and crime that eventually swallowed up many of the people he grew up with in South Central L.A.

Early on, he drifted outside the law to get money to support his mother and himself, who were homeless for periods when Johnson was a pre-teen. In his 1997 book, Just Give Me the Damn Ball!, he talks about being involved in a variety of youthful criminal activities for which he was never caught. But his run-ins with the law (mostly for ticket scalping and charges of selling stolen tickets) led to brief teenage stints in juvenile detention.

Incarceration shook him up and straightened him out. He finished high school, then redeemed his poor grades with a two-year junior-college stint before turning himself into a star at USC, where he had worked as a ballboy as a kid. Later, as an NFL pro, he would go on to found Key's Kids, a charity that worked with inner-city youth.

"I have a very high regard for him because he beat all the odds," says Bill Parcells, who coached Johnson with the Jets and Dallas Cowboys. "He has a lot to show for his career. People who know him see a whole different side than the early public perception of him."

Chosen as the first draft pick by the hapless Jets in 1996, Johnson went from a Rose Bowl championship team to a 1-15 rookie pro season. Frustrated, he chronicled the sorry season in Just Give Me the Damn Ball!—after which the media pounced, dubbing him Me-shawn for airing his candid opinions of the Jets' players and coaching staff.

But when Parcells took over as Jets head coach in 1997, Johnson found exactly what he was looking for: "I didn't need anything from a coach except a winning attitude and he gave it," Johnson says of Parcells, who was 29-19 during his three years with the Jets.

They seem like an odd couple: the publicly prickly Parcells and the free-spirited Johnson. But Johnson says, "Coach Parcells gets along with guys who can play football. And I'm a guy who took care of business for every coach I ever had. He was the authority figure and I listened."

Parcells, now executive vice president of football operations for the Miami Dolphins, says, "Keyshawn was willing to do all the jobs a lot of receivers are not willing to do. He'd block anybody you asked him to, including guys who were a lot bigger than he was. He always brought a good attitude—and he was a great ball-snatcher."

Even before he decided to retire, Johnson was a bright blip on ESPN's radar. ESPN asked him to be a commentator during its coverage of the 2007 NFL draft, only the second active player to garner an invitation. Not long afterward, Johnson announced his retirement from the NFL to join ESPN.

"His work ethic was great—he bowled us over," says Seth Markman, senior coordinating producer for ESPN's NFL shows. "He was willing to talk honestly about the issues and give opinions of controversies that were swirling around. Without having any TV experience, he looked like a natural. So when he expressed an interest in hanging them up, we saw his future with us."

During the 2007—08 NFL season, his first on ESPN, Johnson hit his stride early on, adopting a schedule that provides time to do the research he needs to have his facts straight by airtime.

But making it look easy has its drawbacks: "People think I just get on TV and talk, but that's not the case—it's a real job," Johnson says. "I start getting ready for the upcoming weekend in the middle of the week. I watch game films, but I don't study them. I can look at a guy and tell if he can play, because I played the game."

"What we're all looking for is the honesty that focuses on what the facts are," Tom Jackson says. "It's rare that someone is able to be himself. He's got the whole package."

Steve Tisch, chairman and executive vice president of the New York Giants, who has known Johnson for a number of years, says, "As a broadcaster, Keyshawn is charismatic, intelligent, articulate. He's got that star quality—the smile, the eyes, the brightness. The camera loves him."

Still, there were adjustments: "In the beginning, I had the director and producer in my earpiece, because they weren't expecting me to know what to do," Johnson says. "Once they learned that I had to be me, they let me run with the ball. Everyone wants to direct or produce you, but if they let your natural talent take over, you look good."

Johnson proved adept at shooting from the lip in ways that entertained viewers and occasionally rankled the players he critiqued. The moment that seemed to define him came during an interview with showboating Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson, in which he tried to school the player in the right and wrong way to celebrate a touchdown.

That interview—still available on YouTube—crackles with tension and friction, with Keyshawn coolly piercing Chad's calm veneer.

"I try to tell the truth and keep it as clear as possible," Keyshawn says. "Some people believe there's a code, that if you played the game, you're not supposed to say those things. But I can't say a guy is doing great if he's really struggling. I'd look like a damn fool."

"That Chad Johnson interview was one of the best things I ever saw," Tom Jackson says. "That opened a lot of people's eyes."

Adds Markman, "I'd take one of those every week. He's not afraid to ask the tough questions. And he's just a rookie at this."

Johnson wants to do more interviews for ESPN. And if any of the scandals of the off-season come up during the 2008 NFL, Johnson has opinions at the ready. The controversy about the New England Patriots stealing signals by videotaping opponents' practices? A molehill, says Johnson, who played for Patriots coach Bill Belichick when both were with the Jets: "It's been blown out of proportion by the media. The game hasn't changed in 10 years, but the media has. Those morons—they're fucking wackos. And now I'm part of it."

Steroids are a different story: "If you're on steroids, you're a loser and you'll never be a champion," Johnson says flatly. "I don't respect anyone who cheats to get ahead."

Entering his sophomore season on ESPN, Johnson wants to expand his TV portfolio. He's already got a reality series in production for the A&E Network, in which he offers makeovers for people's homes as an interior design consultant.

"A production company found me because of an article on interior design I did and pitched me the show," says Johnson, who is lending his name to a line of home furnishings as well as a fashion line. "I have a knack for design. It's all about taste. I look at books and buy every magazine out there that has anything to do with interior design. There are tons of them. And I've gotten better and better at it."

He also wouldn't turn down a TV talk show, preferably one produced by the production company he is creating.

"I'm not a comedian but think I'm interesting enough," he says with a laugh. "I want to talk to athletes but I think I could talk to anybody, really. My dream guest? Oprah. Or Obama."

Still, Johnson knows his limitations: "I'm not trying to be a journalist," he says. "I don't want to be caught up in being a Bryant Gumbel—type person. I couldn't do that. Bryant Gumbel is stuffy to me. I've got to be casual and fun. I can't take myself too seriously."

Perpetual-motion machine? Johnson fits the description. His agent, Jerome Stanley, says, "Keyshawn is not going to do one thing at a time. He's a busy bee."

For his part, Stanley is trying to convince Johnson to be a contestant on "Dancing with the Stars." Former coach John Robinson likes to tell Johnson that he could be mayor of Los Angeles.

"Political office? Never—there's just too much bullshit," Johnson says. "I like making money too much. But if you make money while you're in office, it means you're doing something sneaky.

"The chances of me doing 'Dancing with the Stars' are the same as me pulling a monkey out of my ass. That's not me. I'm not trying to be seen and be famous for the public. I'm already seen. When you're an athlete from L.A. like I am, you're already entrenched in the entertainment industry. You don't try to go out of your way to be noticed on TV."

The sun is fading as Johnson slides into a seat on the patio of a coffee spot near his condo. He lights a Cuban Cohiba, savors its rich flavor for a moment and looks at it appreciatively: "This isn't as strong as I remember," he says. Which reminds him of the first time he smoked a cigar, while he was playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He smiles and says, "I didn't really smoke. So I thought that if I inhaled, it would give me a faster buzz."

"I tried to warn him—I said, 'It's not like a cigarette,' but he gave me the 'Oh yeah, whatever,'" recalls Brian Kelly, his then-teammate on the Bucs. "I got ahold of some Cubans and we started smoking them in a club. He got kind of queasy, kind of woozy, so he got in his car to leave. And a little while later, he called me. He was parked by the side of the road and couldn't drive the rest of the way. When I picked him up, he was like a guy who had 20 shots of Tequila. After that, he had a new respect for cigars."

As he savors his Cohiba and laughs at the memory of his first cigar, Johnson adds, "I associate good cigars with wealth, with relaxation, with fine wine. They're a luxury I enjoy. I still smoke them occasionally, depending on where I'm at and what I'm doing. And I am building a humidor in my new house."

If he doesn't exactly have the entire next phase of his career planned out, Keyshawn Johnson has a full platter of options. He has no time, he says, to look backward at his football career. The future is ripe and he's eager to discover its possibilities.

"Football was a good anchor to segue into the next 30 years," Johnson says, then adds, "Hopefully, more than that. When it's all over, I want to be that old guy out on a yacht in the south of France, smoking a big old stogie, with a hairy chest, a pot belly and saggy nuts."

Marshall Fine is a writer and critic whose most recent book is Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented American Independent Film.

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