Back in the Open

Sept. 04, 2006
Sept. 04, 2006

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Sept. 4, 2006

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Back in the Open

Larry Johnson's transformation from enigmatic malcontent to maturing leader has been as quick and dramatic as one of his bursts up the middle

Running Back

This is an article from the Sept. 4, 2006 issue

SARAH McQUEARYwinced when her glass patio door slid shut. Her husband, Ryan, had gone out tothe backyard to grill some filets, and there she was, alone in her spaciousliving room with a sullen young football player slumped on her sofa. It hadseemed like a good idea to the McQuearys--inviting their new neighbor, LarryJohnson, the Chiefs' rookie running back, to dinner on a September evening in2003--but he had barely spoken a word since arriving. Now he sat stone-facedand silent.

Sarah asked howhe liked Kansas City.


She asked how hewas doing with the Chiefs.


Did he have agirlfriend?


Sarah's anxietyincreased with every failed stab at conversation, and her discomfort didn'tease when Ryan rejoined them. The attempt to connect with Johnson so unnervedthe outgoing couple that Ryan and Sarah, who normally enjoy a glass of wineapiece with dinner, put away nearly two bottles of cabernet. As the eveningwound to an awkward close and Johnson prepared to leave, all the McQuearyscould muster was an invitation that their door was always open if he neededanything.

Two weeks laterthey returned home from a shopping trip and heard a strange thumping in theirbasement. The noise grew louder as they hustled downstairs. When they glancedaround a corner, there was their neighbor, Larry Johnson, jogging on theirtreadmill. He casually waved at Sarah and Ryan as though they were longtimepals.

The three of themlaughed as Ryan told that story earlier this summer. Johnson was plopped on thecluttered floor of that same basement, helping Sarah entertain her two-year-olddaughter, Madeline, while Ryan sat near a framed red Chiefs jersey bearingJohnson's signature and the inscription best neighbor ever. Johnson had scoredhis first NFL touchdown in that uniform. He gave it to Ryan after his rookieseason.

What theMcQuearys learned about Johnson not long after that first awkward dinner issomething the Chiefs are now realizing too: Getting him to open up is a slow,often painful process. It takes sincerity and a ton of patience. But if he getsthat, he's likely to become the loose, playful 26-year-old that still walksinto the McQuearys' home unannounced.

No one wassurprised when Herm Edwards, shortly after becoming the Chiefs coach inJanuary, named Johnson his starting back. Last season, when he became thefeatured back after Priest Holmes was injured in October, the 2003 first-roundpick from Penn State rushed for a team-record 1,750 yards and 20 touchdowns,had nine straight 100-yard games and earned a Pro Bowl nod. But when Edwardssaid he expected Johnson to become a team leader as well, that was anothermatter. Johnson was so standoffish during his three seasons that even he viewedEdwards's request as a challenge. "This is the first time a coach has saidhe needs me to do that," Johnson says. "Now I have to say things that Iwouldn't have said before. I can't go out and party like I used to. I'm tryinghard, but I'm also fighting those old demons. I won't lie--I want people tothink better of me."

The Chiefs havenoticed the transformation. For the first time Johnson attended the team'svoluntary off-season conditioning program. When rookie defensive end Tamba Haliarrived at the Kansas City airport for minicamp, Johnson was there to pick himup. He has been talking more with his linemen, even if it's just to discusstheir golf outings. And he's helping second-year fullback Ronnie Cruzunderstand his role as Johnson's new lead blocker.

Most Chiefsplayers had barely spoken to Johnson before this off-season. "The firstcouple years Larry was here, he would be off doing his own thing when the teamgot together," says guard Will Shields, a 14-year veteran. "Now he'spart of the group. You see the running backs gathering around him in practice.You see him interacting with teammates. You definitely see a change."

It's critical tothe Chiefs that Johnson succeed in his new roles as No. 1 back and team leader.Holmes, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, faces an uncertain future because ofthe severe head and neck trauma he suffered in the helmet-to-helmet collisionthat ended his 2005 season early, and Pro Bowl left tackle Willie Roafannounced his retirement in July. It will be up to the 6'1", 230-poundJohnson to make Edwards's run-heavy offense work.

MOST OF whatpeople in Kansas City heard about Johnson before this season was bad news. Hewas charged twice with assault. (In December 2003 he allegedly slapped a womanand threatened her with a gun; the charges were dismissed after Johnsoncompleted a diversion program that included anger-management therapy. Thesecond case, in which he allegedly pushed his ex-girlfriend in a nightclub lastSeptember, was dismissed when the woman recanted. Johnson denied both charges.)In his first two seasons in Kansas City he carped about sitting behind Holmesand Derrick Blaylock (now with the Jets). He also feuded with Edwards'spredecessor, Dick Vermeil, who had wanted to draft a defensive player with the27th pick in '03 but was overruled by general manager Carl Peterson. During the'04 season Vermeil infuriated Johnson by saying the running back needed to"take the diaper off." And after he became a starter last year, he gavefans yet another reason to send him hate mail, saying he felt"uncomfortable" living in Kansas City because it was soconservative.

Those who knowJohnson well see a different side of him. They talk about the day he gave$5,000 to a kid who showed up at his door to raise money for a youth program,and they discuss how Johnson stared wide-eyed at his fellow Pro Bowl playerslast February, so awestruck that his brother, Tony, eventually said, "Youdo realize that you play in the NFL too?" Says Ryan McQueary, "Peoplemight not get a full view of Larry, but even if they just get a glimpse,they'll see the guy we've gotten to know."

Johnson's cautionin opening up is a product of a career in which his patience has beenrepeatedly tested. At State College (Pa.) Area High and at Penn State, wherehis father, Larry Sr., coached the defensive line, Johnson didn't become afull-time starter until he was a senior. (When he did get the call for theNittany Lions, he rushed for 2,087 yards to lead the nation.) "I alwaysfelt like I was a gifted player who kept getting put in the back of theline," says Johnson. "That's when I learned to question my coaches.That's why I started thinking it was me and my father against the world. That'swhere I get my scowl. When it comes to trust, I'm a late bloomer."

Johnson putimmense pressure on himself in his first two years in Kansas City. He was theoldest of three children, the talented son of a respected coach, aperfectionist who viewed a 200-yard game as a disappointment if he fumbledonce. As he languished on the Chiefs' bench, he told his sister, Teresa, thathe feared winding up like other Nittany Lions running backs who flopped in theNFL, guys like Blair Thomas and Curtis Enis.

His discontentwasn't helping his career. He skipped meetings, isolated himself fromteammates, ignored coaches and generally drove the organization crazy. "Wediscussed trading him," Vermeil says. "We thought Larry Johnson mightnot fit in Kansas City."

That impulsepuzzled the McQuearys, who knew Johnson was a nice guy once he came out of hisshell. He'd watch The Bachelor with Sarah, play Xbox games with Ryan and go tothe Dairy Queen with them. After his first career touchdown he invited thecouple to Capital Grille for dinner. He didn't brag about his accomplishmentthat night, but they sensed that he was proud. They also picked up on somethingelse, a quality Johnson often hides: his vulnerability. The McQuearys realizedthat despite his demeanor, Johnson valued a family-oriented atmosphere. Hecherished their support and the fact that they had reached out to him. FormerChiefs fullback Tony Richardson, who signed with the Minnesota Vikings duringthe off-season, forged a similar bond with Johnson the same way. After theDecember 2003 incident Richardson was the first teammate to call him. Beforelong Johnson was listening to Richardson's advice. "Larry had a big brotherin [Richardson], and he had another mommy and daddy in Sarah and Ryan,"says Teresa Johnson. "They helped him stay motivated and strong. Theyhelped him be the guy his real family knows."

THE MOSTimportant lesson Richardson offered Johnson was to have faith in people."He taught me to trust more," Johnson says. "My blockers, mycoaches, everybody." Under Richardson's tutelage, Johnson became a morepatient runner. He quit pressing in his bid to show coaches that he deserved toplay more. After injuries sidelined Holmes and Blaylock in 2004, Johnson rushedfor 581 yards on 120 carries, with three straight 100-yard games in December.At the start of last season he was sharing duties with Holmes, and thriving. AsChiefs running backs coach James Saxon says, "Larry finally realized itwasn't one-on-11 out there."

After Holmes's2005 injury, Johnson carried the Chiefs in the second half of the season. Inhis first start, on Nov. 6, he ran for 107 yards against Oakland. He terrorizedsome of the NFL's top rushing defenses (140 yards against Denver, 131 againstSan Diego) and ripped through lesser units (211 yards against Houston, 201against Cincinnati). And his trust in his coaches and teammates was repaid.With 19 seconds left in the Raiders game, the Chiefs had the ball on theOakland 37, trailing 23--20. Trent Green threw a check-down pass to Johnson,who rumbled to the Raiders' one. Five seconds remained. Rather than do the safething--kick a field goal and head to overtime--Vermeil went for the win. Greenhanded off to Johnson, who plunged into the end zone. "That play," saysTony Johnson, "was the turning point in Larry's career." After theseason Johnson gave Breitling watches, valued at nearly $7,000 each, to thelinemen, tight ends and fullbacks.

The Chiefs areeager to see what Johnson will accomplish this season with 16 starts and hisnewfound maturity. When Peterson returned from a vacation in early July, hefound Johnson lifting weights in the team's indoor facility. Johnson was thereevery weekday until training camp started three weeks later.

That's the kindof example Edwards wants Johnson to set. "I've told Larry he doesn't haveto motivate the team, because that's my job," Edwards says. "But I knowhe's excited. He has a lot of leadership ability. People just don't know aboutit because he hasn't let them get to know him."

He's opening upnow. Says Johnson, "I realize if we're going to be successful. I can't justbe the guy who says, 'Give me the ball and let me get 100 yards.' I have tostart letting people in."

These daysJohnson takes more time to sign autographs. He's joking more with his teammatesin the locker room. His father says Larry "is realizing that the world isopening up to him, that where he's going is so much bigger than where he'sbeen."

Inside Look

Get news andanalysis from Jeffri Chadiha at

"This is the first time a coach has said he needsme to be a leader. I'm trying hard, but I'm also fighting those OLD DEMONS. Iwon't lie--I want people to think better of me."


PHOTOPHOTODAVID E. KLUTHORED ALERT Johnson started just nine games last season and still rushed for 1,750 yards.PHOTOPhotographs by MICHAEL O'NEILLPHOTOPhotographs by MICHAEL O'NEILLWELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD Randy and Sarah McQueary, with daughter Madeline, have helped Johnson come out of his sullen shell.PHOTOPhotographs by MICHAEL O'NEILL