Keyshawn Johnson dedicated his new book, about his first season
with the New York Jets, to four people: Jesus, his mother, his
daughter and himself. "To myself," the dedication reads in part,
"for not giving a damn about what people think." That noted,
Johnson won't give a damn to learn that as a rookie author, he's
almost as big a loser as he was last year as a rookie football
player. Nor will he give a damn to learn that this article isn't
about him but about his fellow Jets receiver Wayne Chrebet, the
one person--besides Johnson himself, of course--with whom
Johnson seems obsessed.
It's not hard to figure out why in his nasty little memoir, Just
Give Me the Damn Ball! The Fast Times and Hard Knocks of an NFL
Rookie, Johnson refers to Chrebet on no fewer than 25 pages and
reviles him as the coach's "mascot" and "pet" and "the little
dude from Hofstra" who "wouldn't even make anybody else's team."
By outplaying Johnson last season, Chrebet stole the thunder
from him, and in doing so he made the former Southern Cal
All-America look like an overpaid and overpraised prima donna
hardly worth the first pick in the 1996 NFL draft.
If you've never heard of Chrebet, it's because he plays for the
worst team in pro football, a team that lately has gone without
much of a local audience, let alone a national following.
Chrebet is also too humble to publicly malign his teammates and
coaches in order to draw attention to himself, as Johnson has
been only too eager to do. Chrebet is, in fact, the
anti-Keyshawn, a player who puts his team first and who has
built his reputation on something that used to matter more than
"As soon as the Jets start to win, football fans everywhere will
be talking about Wayne Chrebet," says Frank Reich, a quarterback
for the Jets last year who signed with the Detroit Lions as a
free agent in March. "I'm going on my 13th year in this league,
and I've played with some good receivers and watched some good
ones on film, and I feel Wayne is a Pro Bowl receiver. He's got
tremendous physical ability--more, in fact, than most guys in
May 11, 1997
No receiver in NFL history has caught more passes in his first
two years than Chrebet did. In 1995 he had 66 receptions (the
most ever by a Jets rookie and three more than Johnson had last
season), and last year he had 84, breaking by four the two-year
mark of 146 set by the Washington Redskins' Gary Clark in 1985
Chrebet's achievement is even more remarkable when one considers
that he started only nine games last year on a team loaded with
talented receivers; that Johnson replaced him in the lineup
early in the season at the Z, or strongside, spot; and that the
Jets used Chrebet often as a possession receiver, bringing him
off the bench in third-down situations to exploit his
sure-handedness with short passes designed to earn first downs.
Defenses knew Chrebet was going to be thrown the ball, and he
still defied them. He finished the 1996 season with 31
third-down catches, more than any other player in the league. He
also finished with more receptions than veteran Jets receivers
Jeff Graham and Webster Slaughter combined, and with more than
Johnson and Alex Van Dyke, another highly touted rookie, combined.
"Wayne's the one who bails them out whenever they need it," says
Jason Belser, an Indianapolis Colts cornerback who faced the
Jets twice in 1996. "He's their big-play guy. And he'll do
anything for his team. If they need Wayne to block, he'll block.
If they need him to run a route across the middle, he'll run it.
Wayne is fast, too. He's the type of player who in the fourth
quarter is still moving at the same pace as in the first
quarter. Much of that is desire, but there's no denying it: The
guy's got lots of ability."
Even though Chrebet's contribution to the Jets last year was
more significant than Johnson's, Chrebet hasn't enjoyed the
celebrity status accorded to his teammate. After games the
garrulous Johnson entertained questions from scores of reporters
as he changed into designer clothing, while at a locker nearby
Chrebet, hardly noticed, quietly slipped into jeans and a light
sweater. Before Johnson's book came out, Chrebet handled his
teammate with weary bemusement, somewhat as an adult handles an
unruly, precocious child.
He's still dealing with Johnson that way. "To be honest, it
makes me kind of nervous that a grown man thinks about me so
much," Chrebet joked when asked about Johnson's book. "Between
you and me, I think Keyshawn has a crush on me. Why is he
worrying about Wayne Chrebet so much? I thought he was Mr.
Hollywood, the guy who got more than $6 million just to sign.
Big contract, a big house, big everything. What's he bothering
with me for?
"I'm Wayne Chrebet. Who's Wayne Chrebet?"
Today Chrebet is the guy wheeling his leased Lexus through North
Jersey, where he grew up, heading for something to eat at a
place that suits his working-class roots. He stops at a
glorified greasy spoon called Benny's Luncheonette, just down
the road from the office building in the town of Fairlawn where
his mother and father run a collection agency. "Table in back,
Wayne," Benny Erlich says as Chrebet pads through the door.
Chrebet doesn't command a lot of attention. Today nobody but
Erlich seems to know him, and most days at Benny's are no
different. It's the same everywhere else Chrebet goes too. Just
last month, on a flight to Houston, Chrebet swapped sports
sections with the traveler in the seat next to him. The man had
no idea who Chrebet was, and he wasn't bashful about sharing his
less-than-favorable opinion of the Jets. Not once did Chrebet
let on that he was the team's leading receiver. "Amazing how
well I blend in," Chrebet says. "I don't think I'll ever get the
attention. But that's fine with me, as long as I get to play. I
just want to play."
Chrebet doesn't fit the profile of the typical NFL player.
Ignore the scars from turf burns on his hands and forearms, and
forget the fact that at the slim age of 23 he lives in an
expensive high-rise apartment building with sweeping views of
the New York skyline in the distance, and he could be the kid in
your Sunday paper modeling underwear for a local department
store. In appearance, anyway, the most extraordinary thing about
him is how ordinary he is. "Omelette, hash browns," he says to
"Anything in that omelette, hon?"
Chrebet played college ball at Division I-AA Hofstra and walked
on with the Jets after no other team drafted him or gave him a
free-agent deal. He's only 5'10" and 185 pounds, and this goes a
long way toward explaining what he calls "my perception
problem." When Chrebet reported to Jets training camp as a
rookie, the guard at the front gate refused to let him in.
Chrebet argued that he was a member of the team, but the man
waved him away, telling him to come around and bug the players
for autographs some other time. That same summer Chrebet
volunteered to participate in a Jets charity golf tournament,
and a man assigned to his group asked him if he was the caddie.
"Embarrassing," Chrebet says. "But what are you going to do?"
Adding to Chrebet's "perception problem" is his skin color.
Chrebet is white, and he plays a position that is almost
exclusively the domain of black athletes. White wideouts in the
NFL--particularly undersized players like Chrebet--are so rare
that sportswriters routinely refer to them as "throwbacks." In
other words, they're players who, because of their race, recall
the days when receivers Danny Abramowicz and Fred Biletnikoff
were among the game's statistical leaders.
These days white men aren't supposed to be able to run or jump,
but Chrebet belies this stereotype. Although he might not be
thought of as a burner, he consistently covers 40 yards in 4.4
seconds, and he can dunk a basketball thanks to his 36-inch
vertical leap. Chrebet's father, Wayne Sr., is a former
bodybuilder who has held the titles Mr. New Jersey and Mr. East
Coast, among others. Wayne Jr. has a lean, sculpted physique and
carries only 3% body fat. Yet despite his physical gifts, he has
spent his athletic career trying to prove that he deserves a
place on a roster.
"Wayne plays every day as if somebody in authority is going to
tap him on the back and say, 'It's time. Clean out your locker.
Go home,'" says his mother, Paulette. "It all goes back to who
he is and where he's from. Nobody ever wasted millions on Wayne."
In his book Johnson, who is black, suggests that Jets offensive
coordinator Ron Erhardt, Reich and the team's starting
quarterback, Neil O'Donnell, favored Chrebet because he is
white. Chrebet has a different recollection of what happened
last year. "In camp, when Keyshawn finally reported after
holding out for 24 days, Alex, Jeff, Webster and I all
outperformed him on the field," Chrebet says. "There's racism in
the world, I know that, but I don't think it exists on the
football field. Keyshawn's complaining, but the Jets handed him
my starting job. If there really was racism on our team, a white
coach wouldn't have given him my starting job when he hadn't
earned it yet.
"Keyshawn's problem is that he hyped himself up so big that
he'll never be able to live up to it. So what does he do? He
makes an excuse. He takes the attention off himself by blaming
something else--in this instance, race."
Despite his skin color, size and small-time college football
background, Chrebet is destined to become a star if he continues
to perform as he has. He has dazzled too many people around the
league to remain in anyone's shadow much longer.
Before the New England Patriots traveled to the New Jersey
Meadowlands last November for their game with the Jets, Bill
Parcells, who was then coaching the Patriots and has since taken
over the Jets, surprised reporters by saying that the Jets' best
receiver wasn't Johnson or Graham or Slaughter. "Their best
guy," Parcells said, "is Chrebet. He's something."
Not long before Rich Kotite resigned as the Jets' coach last
year, he said that Chrebet is "going to become one of the best
players this league has seen in many, many years....He's
All this is high and heady praise for a fellow who "was about as
long a shot to make it as you could ever be," as Chrebet's
agent, Arthur Weiss, is fond of saying. No college offered
Chrebet a scholarship when he came out of Garfield (N.J.) High
in 1991. His parents had to pay about $18,000 a year for his
education at Hofstra, which, at the time, offered no athletic
scholarships. Chrebet broke a slew of Hofstra receiving records,
and he tied the NCAA mark held by Jerry Rice for touchdown
catches in a single game (five). But to pro scouts these
achievements meant little. At Hofstra, after all, the idea of a
tough Saturday afternoon is a game against Marshall or New
Hampshire, not Michigan or Notre Dame.
"No one in college could cover Wayne," says Brian Clark, a
former Hofstra defensive back. "Even at practice people couldn't
cover him, and we'd all get frustrated and mad about it and
start arguing among ourselves. When we played games, he just
blew by everybody. Guys from the other team would say, 'Who is
Although testimonials such as Clark's were not uncommon, Weiss
could generate little interest in Chrebet among Canadian and
Arena league teams, much less NFL clubs. Weiss and Wayne Chrebet
Sr. sent out highlight tapes of Wayne Jr. to all 30 NFL teams
and roused responses from only a few. Chrebet was so lightly
regarded that he failed to rate an invitation to the scouting
combine. His dream of playing pro ball looked so hopeless that
his closest supporters called themselves the Society of True
Chrebet watched the draft on TV at his family's home in Wanaque,
N.J. "It was a bad time," says Jennifer Chrebet, 26, Wayne's
only sibling, who is a reporter for PEOPLE magazine. "I had a
knot in my stomach. I think Wayne thought that once they got
toward the end and they were picking up unknowns, someone would
take him. He felt more embarrassed than hurt. He thought he was
letting us down."
About two hours after the draft, the phone rang. It was John
Griffin, the coordinator of college scouting for the Jets. He
didn't offer Chrebet a free-agent deal, but he gave him a chance
to demonstrate his skills at a private workout the next day with
the team's receivers coach and the director of player personnel.
The Jets' training facility is on the Hofstra campus in
Hempstead, Long Island. If Chrebet was impressive at the
workout, he would get a shot to make the team. If not, well, at
least he didn't have to suffer through a long trip home.
"If I had to use one word to describe Wayne's workout, it would
be spectacular," says Griffin. "Richard Mann, our receivers
coach, threw him about 50 balls, and Wayne didn't drop one.
Obviously the object of the game is to throw balls that are
either very hard or impossible to catch, but Rich couldn't get
any past him."
Mann, now an assistant with the Baltimore Ravens, says the thing
he liked best about Chrebet was "how alert he was. He was kind
of small, but he was feisty, and there was a hunger you couldn't
ignore. He had excellent hands, too. I thought he was quicker
than he was fast, but it's sometimes better to be quick than
fast. Most of the time a receiver's routes don't require him to
outrun people, anyway. Wayne's got a low center of gravity, and
he's able to come out of cuts real quick."
Two hours after the workout the Jets called Chrebet in his
dormitory room and offered him the standard rookie contract for
the league minimum of $119,000 if he made the team. Weiss talked
the Jets into pitching in a $1,500 bonus, and Chrebet spent half
of that on a Movado wristwatch. Then he bought his mother a pair
of gold hoop earrings and took her out to dinner at a Red
Lobster. Wayne doesn't eat seafood, and he had a tough time
talking Paulette into ordering lobster. Too expensive, she
Chrebet entered camp as the last receiver on the depth chart.
Twelve players crowded the list ahead of him, and it wasn't long
before teammates started calling him Rudy.
At his first practice Chrebet lined up against Aaron Glenn, the
best coverage cornerback on the team. "The first time Wayne
beats Aaron, you think, Well, the grass is wet," says Griffin.
"But then Wayne goes up against a few other quick defensive
backs and beats them, too, and you think, Well, maybe they're
not in shape. But then after he's gone up against everybody and
beaten them all, you go, Hey, wait a minute here."
At the end of camp Chrebet called his parents from the locker
room. Minutes before, he'd studied a list of the last players
let go by the team. His name wasn't on it. "Did they cut you?"
his mother asked.
"I don't know," he said. "I'm not asking."
"Even later that night he still wouldn't say it," Paulette says.
"He was still there in the locker room, and his name was still
up on his locker, and he would not give in that he had made the
During camp and the exhibition season Chrebet stayed at a
friend's apartment, sleeping on the living-room couch. Several
weeks into the 1995 season he was still sleeping on that couch
and still afraid that some team official would pull him aside
with the news that his time was up. "I wasn't sure about the
process of how they got rid of you," Chrebet says. "Finally
Kotite came up to me and said, 'I hear you've been sleeping on
someone's couch.' I told him yeah. He said, 'Listen, kid. You're
going to be around awhile. Go get yourself a place.'" Still not
willing to press his luck, Chrebet worked out a deal with the
guy in whose apartment he was staying. For $300 a month he moved
into the spare bedroom.
"Wayne makes several all-rookie teams and has an incredible
second year," Weiss says, "and I wanted to throw a party for
him. He wouldn't let me. He's still unsure about his status in
the NFL. I told him, 'Wayne, they'll be inducting you into the
Hall of Fame, and you'll finally let us celebrate the fact that
you got into the NFL.'"
After his rookie season the Jets gave Chrebet a three-year, $2
million contract, and he finally moved into a place of his own.
On its face the deal seems rich, but at the same time Johnson
signed a contract with the Jets worth $15 million over six
years. "I guess to most people I'll always be just little old
Wayne Chrebet from little old Hofstra, no matter what I do," he
That, say some NFL people, helps Chrebet more than it hurts him,
especially on the field. "People look at him and say, 'This guy
can't hurt us,'" says Marty Lyons, a former Jets defensive
lineman. "They say that, and then next thing you know, he's got
eight catches. One thing Wayne did last year that he didn't do
as a rookie was stand up to people. He'll get up in your face
and show that he's a professional."
In the week before the sixth game of the year Johnson was
sidelined with a knee injury, and on that Sunday Chrebet
replaced him in the lineup. He caught only three passes, but a
week later, against the Jacksonville Jaguars, he performed so
heroically that afterward Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin described
him to reporters as "just an unbelievable football player. He
made plays no matter what coverage we were in." Chrebet had made
12 catches for 162 yards, the most by any Jets receiver since Al
Toon had 181 yards against the Miami Dolphins in 1988. Chrebet's
catches against Jacksonville also produced a remarkable eight
"I live in the middle of the field, where a lot of receivers
won't go," Chrebet says. "Someone told me when I was in college,
'Make something about you stand out. Whether you shave your head
or have some weird ritual, do something to stand out.' In the
pros I figured I'd catch everything. Go across the middle, get
drilled, catch the ball and get up and act like nothing
happened. Show them toughness. That's what I live by."
After the Jacksonville game, Chrebet never started again in
Johnson's spot at outside receiver, but no one heard him
complain, and when the season ended he still had 21 more catches
than Johnson. "I've been out to lunch and to dinner with Wayne,
and you sort of invite him to talk bad about people, but he
won't do it," Reich says. "He won't go down to that level.
Wayne's got enough confidence in his ability not to have to take
shots at people."
This day at Benny's Luncheonette, Chrebet is finally recognized.
A high school kid comes storming over. His long yellow hair is
tied in a ponytail, and he's wearing a shell necklace over a
T-shirt emblazoned with one of those obnoxious yellow happy
faces. The kid looks more inclined to pick mushrooms in the
woods than to follow pro football. But he thrusts a slip of
paper at Chrebet, clears his throat with painful deliberation
and says, "Are you Wayne Chrebet of the Jets?" Chrebet looks up
from his plate.
"I'd like to get your autograph," the kid says. "I remember the
time you caught that ball between those two guys. You remember
Chrebet takes the paper and signs his name. "You're talking
about the Buffalo game," he tells the kid.
"That was amazing. I don't care what anyone says, you're the
best receiver on the Jets."
The kid waits a long time before saying what comes next, but the
words are packed with heat and conviction, spoken louder than
all those that preceded it: "You're even better than Keyshawn."
Chrebet doesn't nod, doesn't speak, doesn't blink. But finally
he gives a smile as big as the one on the kid's shirt before
quietly going back to his meal.