Just Give Me the Damn Ball!

The Fast Times and Hard Knocks of an NFL Rookie


By Keyshawn Johnson

By Shelley Smith

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“Well, son, I guess we have to go the to bank.” That’s what Leon Hess told me the day the Jets drafted me as the number-one player in the NFL draft. But that first day, the day of the draft, was one of the happiest days in my life, because I knew I was ready to make things happen in the league and help turn things around for the sorry-ass Jets. But what a nightmare! Week after week, loss after loss. The Jets went in with a loser reputation, and they were earning it all over again. We had no emotion, no energy, no hunger. The media tried to cover it all. Rich Kotite tried to explain the disasters away. But nobody outside the team knew the real truth of what really went on. This book is going to change all that.



Copyright © 1997 by Keyshawn Johnson and Shelley Smith

All rights reserved.

Warner Books, Inc.

Hachette Book Group

237 Park Avenue

New York, NY 10017

Visit our website at www.HachetteBookGroup.com

Just Give Me the Damn Ball! was produced by Bishop Books of New York City.

First eBook Edition: September 2009

ISBN: 978-0-446-56510-3


Thanks to my mother, Vivian Jessie; my auntie, Robbie Townsend, and her daughters, Vickie and Susan; my sisters, Sandra Thomas, Kim Thomas, and Denise Thomas; my brothers, Dennis Thomas and Michael Thomas; my cousin Eric Brown; and all those others who've helped me along the way. Thanks to my coaches, Darryl Holmes, Rob Hager, and Jim Wells, for all the extra meals they snuck to me. Also thanks to coaches Marcus Porter, Tracy Atkins, Paul Knox, Eugene McAdoo, John Robinson, Mike Sanford, and the entire USC staff: James Strom, Mike Riley, Keith Burns, Mike Barry, David Robinson, Doug Smith, Dennis Thurman, Charles White, Rod Marinelli, Joe Barry, Joe Hubbard. Also my thanks to George Raveling. Thanks to the Jets' guys, Richard Mann, Ray Hamilton, Shack Harris, and Dick Haley. And thanks to all the coaches who are now claiming they did coach me. Thanks to my friends, Reynaldo "Skeats" Spalding, Tamecus Peoples, Marlin Lewis, Derrick Hazely, Clifton Hunter (aka "Kippy"), Tousaint Thomas (aka "Tutu"), Lamont Warren, Karim Abdul Jabbar, Chris Miller, Jerome Stanley, Lee Kolligian, Shelley Smith. Thanks to Shikiri Hightower and her family. Thanks to the reporters I like: the late Alan Malamud, Jeff Fellenzer, Tim Layden, Ahmad Rashad, Joe Theismann, Sterling Sharpe, Len Berman, Dan Patrick, Bob Costas, Chris Berman, Stuart Scott, Mike Tirico, Joe McDonnell, Gerald Eskenazi, Mark Cannizzaro, Randy Lange, Bill Rhoden, Steve Serby, Richard Oliver, Jim Hill, and all of you who praised me when I scored touchdowns and criticized me when I celebrated, dropped a pass, and lost a game. You know me, I don't sugarcoat anything—thanks for all the bullshit you wrote all year, which gave me and Shelley such great stuff for this book.—K.J.

A book like this was made possible by many, many people. Thanks mostly to Keyshawn, for trusting me with his dream. Thanks to my editor, Rick Wolff, for guidance and inspiration, and my agent, Michael Carlisle, at the William Morris Agency, and his assistant, Mary Beth Brown. Thanks also to my bosses at ESPN, Howard Katz, John Walsh, Bob Eaton, Vince Doria, Jim Cohen, Steve Anderson and Chuck Salituro, and my bosses over the years at Sports Illustrated, Mark Mulvoy, Peter Carry, Jerry Kirshenbaum, Steve Robinson, and Chris Hunt, and to my former colleagues at Pacific Stars & Stripes and The San Francisco Examiner, especially Charles Cooper. Thanks to the Jets' public relations staff and the Jets' beat writers, Gerald Eskenazi, Mark Cannizzaro, Dave Hutchinson, Randy Lange, Richard Oliver, Paul Needell, Rich Cimini, and Jim Corbett. Thanks to The New York Times' columnists George Vecsey, Bill Rhoden, and Dave Anderson for early advice. Thanks also to Rob McMahon, Emi Battaglia, Roy Johnson, Eric Lynch, Matthew Ipsen, Dan Patrick, Chris Berman, Ann Marie Jeffords, David Brovsky, Sterling Sharpe, Tracey Reavis, Anthony Cotton, Jeff Fellenzer, Vanessa Tharp, Mike Tharp, Lee Kolligian, Carrie Chase and the folks at Bishop Books, and Warner's Madeleine Schachter, Esq. Also to the coaches and players from Dorsey High School, especially Reynaldo "Skeats" Spalding, Lamont Warren, Roderick Pleasant, Marlin Lewis, Derek Hazely, and all the coaches and staff from West Los Angeles College and USC. Thanks to Budge Porter and Lee and Maria Kunz, for starting me on this whole wacky book business. Thanks to my friends—team Hiller, Roemer, Walsh, Whitman Nicholas, Chenault-Leonard, Norton, Pleasant, Spalding, Thomas, and Balderama. A very special thanks to Berj Najarian of the Jets' PR staff, Tamecus Peoples, Kelly Neal, and Jerome Stanley. Also—you dance with me, you dance with my family: Ron and Luanne Smith, Jubal and Zoanne Terry (and baby), the Samulesons in Pender, Nebraska, and Sgt. Vince Elmore.—S.S.



"No, Keyshawn Johnson is not here," I said softly to the voice on the other end of the phone and started to hang up. "For real, he's not."

When the phone rang in my New York City hotel room one August afternoon in 1996, I only had a guess as to who was doing the calling. Only a few people knew I was even in New York, so it should have been either one of my boys, my girl, or one of my agents giving me the word that I should either pack up and head back to Los Angeles, or that my contract with the "dog-ass" Jets was finally done. That's what the local paper had called my new team that morning in an article talking about my contract, or lack of one, and my two-week holdout. I kind of liked the term.

Absolutely nothing had gone according to plan since the Jets made me the first pick in the NFL draft in April, which is why I had zero confidence that the ringing phone was bringing me any kind of good news.

My agents and I had slid unnoticed into New York the night before and they had launched a sneak attack on the Jets that morning, arriving uninvited and unexpected at the Jets offices to try and get a contract done. They left me alone and it wasn't long before I got tired of sitting around in my hotel room. So for almost two hours I walked down Broadway in Manhattan, from the middle of the city down to someplace called the Village. I had never heard of it, but I walked there, trying not to be recognized because the Jets thought I was playing golf in Los Angeles. I don't even know how to play golf, but it seemed like a good thing for someone not in New York to be doing.

As I walked, I did a lot of thinking. The past months had taken their toll on me mentally and physically. I wasn't sleeping right. I wasn't eating right. I wasn't working out right. And mainly, I wasn't playing any ball. And here it was August 6. I made up my mind right there on Broadway that if my agents came back with even a little better money, I was signing the offer. I was tired of being a holdout, tired of sitting around, tired of listening to nasty-ass negotiations on a speakerphone. I was going to get my money, maybe it would have to be on the back end, when I became a free agent. Right then, I didn't care. I wanted to ball.

I had been back in my room about an hour when the phone started ringing. I thought it might be some nosy reporter who had spotted me. I had tried hard to stay invisible, but when you're 6′ 4″ with a one-carat diamond in one ear and your picture's been on the cover of just about every sports section in America, it's a little difficult. People stared at me, figuring I must be somebody, but they couldn't get a fix on who. I told the bellman I was Everson Walls. I told the waiter at the Carnegie Deli that I was a freshman at USC, and I told the cab driver I was retired from the Raiders.

And now I was telling some fool that I wasn't me.

"No, Keyshawn Johnson is not here," I said into the phone again. The receiver was halfway back on the cradle when I heard my agent, Jerome Stanley, shouting: "Key, Key! It's us and the Jets. Don't hang up!"

So I didn't. And suddenly they were all there on the other end. The good guys—my agents—and the bad guys, Jets president Steve Gutman and Pat Kirwan, director of player administration. They were telling me to come to camp. The deal was done. Finally. Time to play ball. For the dog-ass Jets.

That moment put the cap on some of the most stressful weeks of my life. I went from being the most celebrated college football player in America to being the most unemployed college football player in America. Most weeks I was strong, ready to fight, ready to stay out the entire season and go into next year's draft. And some weeks I just felt like signing anything to get this over with. I never wanted to be a holdout, but I was not about to be a fool.

The negotiation process really began in January 1996, when I came out publicly and said I wanted to play for the New York Jets. People reacted crazy. Nobody could believe I actually wanted to play for a team with a sorry-ass history and a 3–13 record in 1995.

But it made perfect sense to me. The Jets had the No. 1 pick and I was the best college player available. And then the Jets paid big money to get a quarterback, Neil O'Donnell, who had just led the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Super Bowl, and they beefed up the offensive line, getting Jumbo Elliott from the New York Giants. They also hired a new offensive coordinator, Ron Erhardt, who had run the show in Pittsburgh. But they all needed somebody who could take it in for six. I figured it ought to be me.

The Jets' scouts came to see me in the NFL combine in Indianapolis in February, a wacked process where players get measured and weighed and timed. I felt more like I was being prepped for a transplant than for pro football. They also saw me run with a group of my teammates at the University of Southern California during the spring. I ran a 4.41 that day over 40 yards, smoking everybody except some track dude who probably had never even seen a football. They also watched all my game films from USC and talked with just about every coach I'd ever had. Kirwan figured out that in my entire career at USC, I dropped a total of two balls. I think their minds were made up after that.

It wasn't long before they were calling my guys to try and work out some sort of pre-draft deal. I gladly would have signed a pre-draft deal if the money had been right. But the money wasn't right. Wasn't even close. The No. 1 pick in 1995, Ki-Jana Carter, got a deal with the Cincinnati Bengals that paid him $17 million over seven years with a $7 million signing bonus and an out-clause after four years, meaning he could up and leave or renegotiate. Simple logic said that all the Jets had to do was better that offer by 20% and I'm signed in a minute. Deal done. Let's play.

But the Jets didn't see it that way. Their first offer was for $16 million over seven years with a $6.3 million signing bonus spread out over three years. No out-clauses, no guarantees. Their reasoning for what they admitted was a LOW OFFER was this: I was a wide receiver and wide receivers are generally not paid as high as running backs, which is what Carter is. Also—and here's the one I couldn't believe—that because I would be coming to New York, I would be in the largest media market in the country and therefore able to make up the difference in endorsement deals. It was the lamest line of reasoning I'd ever heard. Because I've got a personality and some punch behind it, I was being penalized.

It was like some baker getting a 9-to-5 at a bakery but getting paid below minimum wage because he sells pies out of his own kitchen at night. Made no sense to me. More than that, it wasn't fair. All I wanted was a fair deal.

But we had to play their game, so we countered with a proposal that would pay me a $7.3 million signing bonus and a six-year deal worth about $16 million. The Jets also said they wouldn't, under any circumstance, give me an out-clause. The team had NEVER given a voidable to any player. In the past three drafts, players had sought and gotten voidables, and league owners were getting worried about the trend, basically because voidables mean that if the dude they pick isn't happy, the team has lost its investment. We knew Gutman wouldn't budge on the issue. He had been a member of the collective bargaining council that had dealt with this very issue and we knew that nobody understood it like he did. There was no point in trying to TRICK HIM with some sort of legal language. So we decided not to fight the voidable issue, figuring we give—now it's your turn.

This is where we stood heading into draft day, April 20. We were talking with Gutman and Kirwan every day leading into the final week, but nobody was budging on either side. It was fun to watch the media try to figure out what was going on. Gutman has a history of not commenting on negotiations and we weren't talking, but ESPN's Chris Mortensen thought he had it all figured out. He went on the air saying that talks between the Jets and me were stalled because I was insisting on a $10 million signing bonus and a contract worth $20 million. Mort was tripping.

Fred Edelstein, who publishes a newsletter named the "Edelstein Pro Football Insider," later would write that we had a pre-draft deal with the Jets. Edelstein was tripping, too. If we had a pre-draft deal, then why the hell were we fighting with the Jets at 9 a.m. the morning of the draft?

Although we didn't realize it at the time, a phone conversation the night before between Jerome and Gutman would set the tone for the months to come.

"You're screwing your client by not taking this offer," Gutman had said. I know spit was coming out the sides of his mouth.

"I'd be screwing my client if I did take this offer," Jerome said back.

"You're a fool if you don't take this deal. If you don't take this offer now, we'll trade the pick, you know that."

Fine, I said to myself while they argued some more. Trade the pick. I'd rather sign a deal for less money that was fair, that was structured differently, than sign this deal with the Jets. Trade me. I know I'm going to play wherever I go. Gutman won't have a job for long if he doesn't sign me.

The next morning, Kirwan sat with us and tried to play nice guy, reasonable guy. It wasn't working and the draft was only two hours away. He wasn't happy; neither were we. He got up to leave.

"What do I tell them?" he asked us. "How can I go back with this kind of counterproposal? You're asking for a hell of a lot of money."

"Tell them all we're asking for is a fair deal. It's a simple process," Jerome said.

Kirwan shrugged and was gone.

I asked Jerome if he thought the Jets were bluffing about trading the pick.

"I guess we'll find out."

They had to be bluffing, I was telling myself when I went back to my room to get dressed. They need me a lot more than I need them. Their owner, Leon Hess, the gas man, wasn't getting any younger and I knew that man wanted to win. I also knew they weren't going to the Super Bowl with Lawrence Phillips or Jonathan Ogden or Simeon Rice, the other top-rated draft picks. But they might with me.

I had finally reached the point where I said, Screw it, what happens happens. I was tired of thinking about it and tired of trying to figure out what somebody else was thinking and what they were going to do. This was the NFL draft and I was going to enjoy myself whatever the outcome. I didn't fly all these miles, pay for 16 of my friends and family members to fly all these miles, to spend the day depressed. Screw the Jets. This day was mine. I've been watching the draft on TV ever since they started televising it. Just like I had practiced signing my name for autographs as a little kid, I had envisioned myself up on that stage, cameras flashing, people cheering. Not even Gutman was going to wreck this day. This day was mine.

I did know one thing: Whatever happened, I was going to look good. My suit was as sweet as they come. I had met Ron Finley, a clothing designer with his own label, Dropdead Clothing, a while back in Los Angeles, and I'd asked him to come up with something for the draft. He hooked me up with a cream-colored, knee-length jacket and matching pants. I knew as soon as I slipped it on that morning that it was just right for a day like this. I gathered my crew and we got on the shuttle bus that would take us from the hotel to Madison Square Garden. I had my closest friends and family, people who have been with me from long, long ago. Everyone was dressed in their finest clothes and the women had cameras stashed in their purses. Everyone was buzzing with chatter and bugging the hell out of me, asking me what was going to happen and if I was nervous and all other kinds of bullshit. Right then I wished I'd brought my headphones.

I've been to Super Bowls and the NBA Finals, huge concerts and even riots. I've seen people crazed and excited, but there was nothing, nothing that compared to what I saw when I walked into the Paramount Theatre inside the Garden. When I got off the bus I saw a guy in green tights with a cape running around screaming. Another sane Jets fan. And all the way down the back hallway leading to the stage I heard my name echoing through the place. "Key-shawn John-son," "Key-shawn John-son." And when the fans saw me, the place blew up. I couldn't believe how loud they were and how green they were. I figured this wasn't the time to mingle. So I handed our daughter, Maia, to my girlfriend, Shikiri Hightower, grabbed my mother's hand, and headed backstage to be with the other guys who were also waiting to hear where their next home would be.

One by one we were called onto the stage to be introduced to the crowd. I walked out and the place went crazy again. I saw my crew standing in an aisle; the public relations people had told the families that once their guy got picked, they could run up onstage next to him to celebrate. My family was dead sure I was going first and they wanted to be ready.

Backstage the tension was thick. Guys fidgeting, standing up, pacing, trying to chatter at one another. A lot of fake laughs and fake well wishes. We weren't standing back there for each other. This was all about taking care of business for the rest of our individual lives. I kept looking up at a clock next to the big-screen TV. This was taking forever.

Finally it was 11 a.m., and I watched the pre-draft ESPN stuff on the tube. Chris Berman was giving his predictions and then they flashed to a guy who was picking up a phone receiver from inside a green Jets helmet. He wrote something down and took it up to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was waiting onstage to announce the No. 1 pick. And just then the phone next to me started ringing. It was Leon Hess, the 81-year-old owner of the Jets.

"Well, son. I guess we've got to go to the bank. You're our guy."

The television cameras caught my face as I broke into a huge smile while holding onto the receiver. And then I heard Tagliabue: "With the first pick in the 1996 draft, the New York Jets select wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson."

It was official. I was the No. 1 pick. The crowd erupted again, screaming, yelling crazy, waving banners and signs and jumping all over the place. I knew these folks wanted to win, but this was wild. I could barely hear Mr. Hess on the other end of the phone. I started to say something back when my agents started tugging on my sleeve, telling me that Tagliabue was waiting.

"Hey, Tagliabue don't sign my paycheck," yelled at them. "Let me talk to the man."

And so I did. I told him he wouldn't be sorry, that I was going to do all I could to help him win games. He said that was all he wanted. And then I turned and walked out on stage with a Jets jersey in my hand. My family rushed up and I reached for my daughter, giving her a kiss that would be caught on the front page of Newsday the next morning. "Oh, Baby," it would say. Oh, baby, was right. After that it was sheer insanity.

I ran into the crowd and threw my hat to the fans. People were pushing me from one group of reporters to another.

"Welcome to New York," somebody was screaming as we made our way.

"Hey, Keyshawn, I want to have your baby," yelled another. I looked—it was a dude.

Finally we made it into the limousine that would take us out to Jets headquarters at Hofstra University on Long Island. The fans swarmed the car, trying to stick papers, cards, footballs, all kinds of stuff through the window for me to sign. We took off, stopping to drop off my mother and sisters and the baby at the hotel. Traffic was keeping us from moving more than a few hundred feet at a time and when the driver said he couldn't turn left off of Broadway onto 44th, where our hotel was, I told him to pull over and we'd walk. I grabbed my baby and the diaper bag and headed with the group towards the hotel. People started honking and screaming when they saw me. I guess it was pretty funny to see a 6′ 4″ black dude in a knee-length suit holding a baby walking down a street in the middle of Manhattan. I felt like the mayor or something.

By the time we finally made it to the Jets training camp at Hofstra, a half-dozen TV cameras were waiting for me by the front door. So was Gutman, flashing what I'd begun to call his smiley-handshake face. He led us up to his office, where Mr. Hess was waiting, nearly bouncing as we came in. He made a point of walking around the room introducing himself to each of my guys and my agents. The funny part came when Hess met my older brother Michael, who was outfitted in a high-necked pin-striped suit, one of those old-fashioned round hats, and tiny wire-rimmed sunglasses. Michael's always been on the cutting edge of fashion. But here was Mr. Hess, introducing himself to Mike like Mike was some country club big shot.

Hess didn't care what Mike looked like; Hess was cool. Hess was happy.

Smiley-faced Gutman walked me down to the office of the wide receivers coach, Richard Mann. It happened to be his 49th birthday and he was sitting in a rocking chair, a Jets tradition for the position coach who caught that year's first draft choice. "Hey Richie, I got you a present," Gutman said. Mann just smiled as I walked in the door. I didn't know it then, but Mann's help later on when I finally got to training camp would shape my entire season.

And then I caught a whiff of cigar smoke. Kotite. It had to be. It was. Head coach Richie Kotite slapped me on the back and shook my hand, looking tired but pretty happy. All the papers had said he would veto picking me because he was a blue-collar guy and I was all flash and dash.

But I think the bottom line was he wanted to win and I am a player. I guess he figured we'd find a way to co-exist. We'd see. I knew I'd be around for a while.

When the final press conference was finished and the last photo was shot, so was I. It had been an exhausting day. I was ready to get back to Los Angeles, but we couldn't make the last flight. So back in Manhattan we headed out to a restaurant, where my crazy family popped a few bottles of champagne and tried to make a big deal out of the day. I said no, not now, not tonight. Too much was running through my head. And even as I was falling asleep with Maia on my chest, happy that my dream of being drafted had been fulfilled, there were still a lot of troubling thoughts running through my head. By taking me, did the Jets think I'd eventually agree to their weak-ass terms? Or were they going to meet mine? I didn't know what they were thinking before the draft and I didn't know now. I was still a long way from the money and a longer way from the playing field.

Over the summer I tried not to think about contracts and negotiations and offers and deals. But it was tough. Especially because we weren't speaking with the Jets at all. Things broke off the week after the draft with neither side doing any moving on anything. The thought began to slip into my head that I might not be signed in time for rookie camp on July 13. It was a bad thought.

Mini-camp had been a pain. I played O.K., not great. But I was sick with the flu, had taken a red-eye flight the night before, and was still reeling from everything that had happened during the draft, just five days earlier. The DBs were hanging all over me, trying to show they could slow down the big man. Later I'd find out they said I was whining about the coverage. I had told them to keep their motherfucking hands off me. That's not a whine. That's a threat.


On Sale
Sep 26, 2009
Page Count
224 pages

Keyshawn Johnson

About the Author

Keyshawn Johnson was the first overall pick of the New York Jets in 1996 after a stellar career at USC, where he led the Trojans to victory in the 1996 Rose Bowl. He played 11 seasons in the NFL with the Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys, and won a Super Bowl in Tampa after the 2002 season. He was recently named the co-host of a nationally broadcast ESPN morning radio show and makes regular appearances on the network's NFL Live, First Take, Get Up, as well as guest appearances on a variety of other media platforms.

Bob Glauber is the NFL columnist for New York's Newsday and has covered the NFL since 1985. A two-time winner of the New York State Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association, as well as a first-place honoree of the Associated Press Sports Editors, Glauber has served as president of the Professional Football Writers of America since 2018.

Learn more about this author