A few steps from darkness, with the game ball in his hand and a
sunny smile inside his face mask, Wayne Chrebet stopped to handle
some unfinished business. Al Groh, the 56-year-old rookie coach
of the New York Jets, was sprinting after Chrebet, his big-play
wideout and hero of the moment. The two met on their way to the
visitors' locker room tunnel at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium.
Groh put his hands on either side of Chrebet's helmet, pulled his
head close and gave him a hug for Jersey, Long Island and half of
New York City. "Looks like a flashlight was good enough today,"
Groh rasped into Chrebet's earhole and then repeated the phrase
This was the closest either man came to gloating after the Jets'
stunning 21-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday in
a battle of unbeatens, but they can be forgiven. Not every sports
figure is as bold and saucy as Bucs wideout Keyshawn Johnson, who
earlier in the week contrasted himself with Chrebet, his former
teammate and longtime obsession, by saying, "You're trying to
compare a flashlight to a star. Flashlights only last so long. A
star is in the sky forever."
Chrebet refrained from retorting until game day, when he answered
with one of the most satisfying regular-season catches an NFL
receiver will ever pull down. Chrebet's leaping, 18-yard
touchdown catch of halfback Curtis Martin's knuckleball with 52
seconds remaining completed a rousing comeback that ran the Jets'
record to 4-0 and preserved New York's status as the league's
most surprising early-season success story. Now, after yet
another clutch performance from Chrebet, we can say with
certainty that Johnson was right: Chrebet is a flashlight--he's
the Halogen torch you find under the backseat after your car runs
out of gas on a pitch-black road in the middle of nowhere.
Suddenly the Jets, thought to be in rebuilding mode after coach
Bill Parcells retired in January and Johnson was traded for a
pair of first-round draft picks in April, are the AFC's lone
undefeated team, not to mention the league's gutsiest outfit.
Three of New York's victories have come courtesy of last-minute
heroics, and twice the drama king has been Chrebet, whose
twisting sideline scoring reception gave the Jets a 20-19
come-from-behind triumph over the New England Patriots on Sept.
11. Once brushed off as the "team mascot" by Johnson, Chrebet has
346 catches during his five-plus seasons, and the last of those
should finally put this nonsense about his ability to rest.
"Coming into this season, some people still questioned whether I
can make the big catches when the game is on the line," Chrebet
said after returning to his New Jersey house early on Monday.
"Two of the last three weeks, I think I've answered that
question. I mean, it's not like I'm still just getting lucky."
When it comes to bad luck, or at least poor timing, few can
measure up to the misery Johnson experienced on Sunday. In
addition to catching a mere one pass--for one yard, after a
glorified handoff from Bucs quarterback Shaun King--Johnson stood
helpless on the sideline while Tampa Bay, which had led 17-6 with
two minutes left, completed its horrific collapse by allowing the
unthinkable. "That's poetic justice, man," said Jets center Kevin
Mawae. "It goes to show you we've got a flashlight who, at the
biggest point of the game, can shine brighter than anyone on the
field. Wayne's humble, and he kept quiet all week long, but the
rest of us were ready to pop off for him."
As redeeming as Sunday's grand finale was for Chrebet, it had to
be equally satisfying for Groh, whose game-day bravado belies his
blander-than-synchronized-diving image. Once viewed as the second
coming of faceless former New York Giants coach Ray Handley,
Groh, who succeeded Parcells only after heir apparent Bill
Belichick's soap-operatic resignation and flight to New England,
is the wild and wacky coach of the first 4-0 team in franchise
history. With the game on the line, all Groh did was bench
quarterback Vinny Testaverde for a series early in the fourth
quarter, eschew an onside kick after the Jets moved to within
17-14 with 1:54 remaining and, when the defense responded two
plays later by forcing a Mike Alstott fumble, green-light the
call that produced the first game-winning touchdown pass thrown
by an NFL running back in 31 years. (If you came up with the name
Preston Ridlehuber of the 1969 Buffalo Bills, Regis will be
contacting you shortly.) "You've got to take a little risk once
in a while," Groh said after the game. "One time a couple of
years ago, I was lamenting to my broker that I should have pulled
the trigger on buying a certain stock, but I'd missed my chance
again. He said, 'Al, what are you talking about? You're the most
aggressive client I have.'"
Groh, who has also absorbed his share of verbal jabs from
Johnson, was bullish on offensive coordinator Dan Henning's
decision to take the ball out of Testaverde's hands and put it in
those of Martin, one of the game's most underappreciated running
backs. On the first play after safety Victor Green recovered the
fumble caused by inside linebacker Marvin Jones at the Bucs' 24,
Henning called Toss-38 Crack, in which all-purpose back Richie
Anderson went in motion to the right side and Chrebet, from the
right slot, laid a low block on All-Pro linebacker Derrick
Brooks. Martin (18 carries, 90 yards), who'd caught a six-yard
touchdown pass on the Jets' previous possession, took
Testaverde's handoff and ran behind Chrebet's block to the 18.
When Chrebet came back to the huddle, he fixed his eyes on his
buddy Testaverde, the onetime Tampa Bay whipping boy whose torn
Achilles tendon in last year's season opener helped drop New
York, an AFC Championship Game loser in 1998, to an 8-8 also-ran.
Testaverde began speaking intently to Martin, and a realization
gripped Chrebet: The previous play had served as a perfect setup
for the option pass. You've got to be s------- me, Chrebet
thought. He knew what was coming before Testaverde enunciated the
call, and then the nervousness set in. After all, Chrebet would
have to pretend to miss his block on Brooks, leaving the
punishing linebacker a clear path to Martin, and then, in his
words, "get lost in the shuffle" en route to the right corner of
the end zone.
Chrebet has a way of sneaking up on people. "Don't play gin with
him, because he'll set you up," warns his father, also named
Wayne, one of a dozen or so family members and friends who
attended the game. "He'll lead you to believe you have him beat,
and then--wham!--he's won again."
Sure enough, the sting was on: Martin took the handoff and set
his feet. He wasn't even gripping the laces, and the ball came
out of his hand like a lathered-up bar of soap as he prepared to
absorb a furious body slam from Brooks--"the hardest hit I took
all day," Martin would say. The ball nonetheless sailed over the
head of Bucs free safety Damien Robinson and into Chrebet's arms.
After the ensuing extra point and kickoff, Jets defensive end
John Abraham, a rookie chosen with one of the picks acquired in
the Johnson trade, forced King to fumble, and linebacker Bryan
Cox recovered. By that point Keyshawn's many sound bites--not to
mention his middle-finger salute to a CNN/SI camera crew last
Thursday--had come back to bite him in the butt. "They dug deep,"
a subdued Johnson said of his former teammates. "They have the
heart to continue to fight back. What more are you going to say?"
Cut Johnson some slack, for the star will surely shine again.
Tampa Bay remains a Super Bowl threat, and Florida Key, for
better or worse, has enlivened a locker room that already
includes perhaps the NFL's wittiest All-Pro, defensive tackle
Warren Sapp. From afar, Johnson's slaps at Chrebet and Groh may
seem petty and pathetic, and the natural inclination is to tell
him to seek therapy for his obsession. Yet viewed up close and in
context, Johnson's rhetoric is hard to classify as malicious.
There's a charming self-awareness to his desperate quest for
Last Thursday night Johnson hammed it up while sitting with Sapp
in the back room of Sacks, a restaurant and jazz club owned by
Bucs defensive end Chidi Ahanotu. At a rare break in the
conversation, Johnson was asked, Is Chrebet not a good player?
Johnson paused for several seconds. "He can play," Johnson
conceded. "He can play. But here's the question I ask: Does he
line up on every play knowing other teams are geared toward
stopping him and still beat them?"
It's true that the 5'10", 188-pound Chrebet doesn't necessarily
fit the profile of the classic No. 1 receiver, but for now he's
the best wideout the Big Apple has to offer. Chrebet hasn't so
much replaced Johnson as he has compelled a city to rethink its
notion of a star. On a recent night at Manhattan's cavernous Park
Avenue Country Club, Chrebet was approached by a boozy dotcom
executive who made a passionate confession: "I walked around all
night looking for you!" she screamed into his ear. "I went up to
some guy who looked like a football player and asked if he was
you, but he laughed and told me he was Jessie Armstead. Then I
saw another player, but some guy told me he was Tiki somebody. I
mean, I didn't know you from a hole in the wall, but I just had
to meet this Wayne Chrebet!"
How hot is Chrebet? Among the 24 well-wishers who left him
voice-mail messages by the time the Jets' plane had arrived at
JFK airport on Sunday night were two guys from the silver screen
(Jay Mohr and Jerry O'Connell of Jerry Maguire fame), a pair of
diamond dwellers (Chuck Knoblauch and David Wells) and two
gold-record musicians (Bon Jovi guitarist David Bryan and Scott
Stapp, the lead singer of Creed, Chrebet's favorite rock band).
Whatever the scope of his celebrity, Chrebet--like Johnson,
incidentally--owes much of his success to drive and desire. A
notorious late-night workout fiend, Chrebet, in the wake of last
season's disappointment, added a wrinkle to his regimen.
Following weightlifting sessions that would often last past 1
a.m., he'd don a snorkel and a mask, slip into his pool and swim
to exhaustion. "I noticed that I would sometimes tire late in
games because I couldn't control my breathing," he says. "I knew
I needed to improve my stamina if I was going to make the late
catches everyone expects of me. The swimming was a little thing
that paid off."
Chrebet came up big in the season's first week--and it had nothing
to do with football. On Sept. 4, after watching film of the
previous day's 20-16 win over the Green Bay Packers, Chrebet
drove away from the Jets' facility at Hofstra, where he was a
Division I-AA standout, and began thinking of his college
sweetheart, Amy Wick. In May he and Wick had ended a seven-year
relationship. ("May 16, at 9:30 p.m.," Wick says. "I've got the
day X'd out on my calendar.") They'd spoken only twice in the
following five months, but now Chrebet desperately wanted her
company. He pulled out his cell phone and called her.
"Meet me at my house," he implored. She said no. "Come on," he
pleaded. "No way," she said.
Finally, Wick relented, and soon they were standing next to a
pond in his backyard. Chrebet, clutching a single candle, took a
knee and grabbed Wick's right hand. Remember, Chrebet has this
way of sneaking up on people. His was a modest marriage proposal.
"So, do you have my back?" asked Chrebet, too nervous to realize
he'd seized the wrong hand. Wick said yes. "Good," he said
softly. "I've got yours, too."
Suddenly, the awkwardness was gone. "The air never smelled so
fresh," Chrebet recalls. "Things had never seemed so beautiful.
Things were O.K."
A thousand stars shimmered in the evening sky. One very happy man
and his future wife stood beneath them and smiled.
the decision to try the halfback pass.
Chrebet after his game-winning catch.