FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- A lot of memories came rushing back when Brandon Marshall reached into his locker Tuesday and pulled out a copy of Keyshawn Johnson's old and controversial book, "Just Give Me the Damn Ball," released in 1997. Marshall said he was planning to give it to Ryan Fitzpatrick as a gag gift.
For those not familiar with it, Johnson -- with ESPN's Shelley Smith -- wrote an explosive book about his rookie season with the New York Jets. They finished 1-15 in 1996, giving Johnson plenty of literary fodder. In the book, he calls fellow receiver Wayne Chrebet a "team mascot," quarterback Neil O'Donnell a "a stiff puppet" and offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt "an old fool."
Could you imagine if this happened in the present day? Skip and Stephen A. would have a week's worth of material on ESPN's "First Take." Even then, in the pre-social media age, it was a huge story, grabbing the back-page headlines in the city's tabloids.
Johnson's book fueled controversy on so many levels, sparking debate on race, locker-room code, the mindset of the modern athlete, etc. Naturally, everyone wondered how the new coach -- Bill Parcells -- would prevent the mess from blowing up his locker room.
Covering the Jets for the New York Daily News, I was able to obtain a copy of the book a few days before its release date. All it took was a simple phone call to the book publisher and, just like that, an overnight package was sitting at my front door. I read it quickly, plucked out the salacious parts and tried to reach Chrebet, O'Donnell, et al for comment. Big mistake.
Word spread quickly that I had the book and Keyshawn's people -- not happy about it -- tried to prevent the paper from publishing material by threatening legal action. It didn't stop us, so that night they released excerpts to various media outlets in New York, ruining my exclusive. Nevertheless, I had the entire book, not just selected parts. It made for a more comprehensive story than those that appeared in the other papers, but losing the scoop hurt. It still hurts.
The next morning, I showed up in the players' parking lot at 6 a.m. to get reaction to the book. This was when they practiced at Hofstra University on Long Island, back in the days when media had easier access to players during the offseason.
I'll never forget the sight of Parcells, in his Cadillac, pulling into his parking spot. He wasn't happy to see me and I remember him muttering something about how "a wall will be going up soon." Sure enough, a few months later, the gate was closed and a barbed-wire fence was erected around the team facility. The wall was up, as Parcells had promised. The place resembled a state penitentiary. Yep, a new sheriff was in town.
Parcells refused to comment on the book that day and he refused to talk about it every time he met the media. If you asked about it in a news conference, you got cut to shreds by his piercing blue eyes. Everyone wondered how the great Parcells would handle the obvious rift that had developed between Johnson and Chrebet, two of his most important players. Would he punish Johnson? Would he mediate a face-to-face sitdown?
We found out when we walked into the locker at the start of the season. There they were, Johnson and Chrebet, sitting side by side. Instead of separating them, Parcells -- ever the psychologist -- assigned them locker stalls next to each other.
And that's a story for another day.