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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

(continued from page 1)

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.


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