Johnson wrestles his biggest foe: himself

In his sixth NFL season, Chiefs running back Larry Johnson seemingly encounters controversy off the field more often than he sees tacklers on the field. Doug Benc/Getty Images

KANSAS CITY -- Just a few days before the start of training camp in 2006, Kansas City Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson strolled into the team's practice facility and stared at a surprising sight. There was his Pro Bowl running back, Larry Johnson, lifting weights alone. It was a scene that made Peterson smile proudly. While other players were enjoying their remaining time off, his star was preparing for his first full season as the foundation of the Chiefs' offense.

That story speaks to the essence of Johnson -- his determination and work ethic -- and it's one Peterson wished he could savor as he sat in his office last week. Instead, Peterson sank into a cushy leather chair behind a massive oak desk and carefully tried to find the right words to express his disappointment with Johnson, a player whose myriad off-the-field problems now have put his Chiefs career in jeopardy. Peterson talked about all the conversations he's had with Johnson, all the times he'd stood by Johnson when the public scrutinized him and the bond Peterson had forged with the running back in the process.

What Peterson didn't have to say was obvious: He was taking Johnson's current plight personally.

"I can honestly say that there is nobody in this city who has supported Larry as much as I have," Peterson said. "And right now it feels like one of your children has failed you. But my responsibility isn't just to Larry Johnson. It's to this entire team and the Hunt family [the Chiefs owners]. Hopefully, this has all been a wake-up call for him."

The implications in Peterson's words shouldn't be lost on anybody. Johnson, a sixth-year veteran who turns 29 on Nov. 19, clearly has reached a crossroads in Kansas City. He rejoined the Chiefs this week after serving a one-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, but his problems are far from over. In fact, they have the potential to grow increasingly worse over the next few months.

For one, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has reserved the right to punish Johnson again if he is convicted of the two unrelated charges he's currently facing, both for simple assault. Johnson also has to find a way to redeem himself with his team after a series of rules violations -- including being late to meetings as well as flights for games at New England and Carolina -- led to his deactivation for three straight weeks prior to the league's suspension. The likelihood of his remaining with the Chiefs beyond this season also remains very much in doubt. That suspension triggered a conduct clause in the five-year contract extension Johnson signed in August 2007, one that allows the Chiefs to void the $3.75 million he is guaranteed next season. Peterson admits that exercising that option "is a possibility."

What all this means is that Johnson is now engaged in the biggest battle of his career. But this isn't just about an athlete trying to conduct some kind of drastic image makeover. It's about a fight that Johnson clearly has to wage within himself. That's the point that everybody around Johnson -- from coaches to teammates to the people who've seen him in the places where's he found trouble -- makes about him. They're all curious why a player with so much success and financial security would be jeopardizing a career in the fashion that Johnson seemingly has his.

Meanwhile, Peterson is facing a question that should be even more sobering for Johnson. "What I have to think about," Peterson said, "is how many chances do you give a guy before you eventually give up on him?"

If Johnson has a suitable explanation for why he's in this dilemma, he's not offering it publicly at the moment. He and his family declined ESPN.com's interview requests for this story, citing the need to avoid any comments until after he's dealt with two court dates that are set for December. One stems from a Feb. 24 incident in which he allegedly shoved a woman with an open hand in a Kansas City restaurant.

The other stems from an incident at a Kansas City nightclub on Oct. 10, a case with details that, if true, are even more sordid.

According to a police report about the most recent incident, Johnson was at Club Blonde, a Kansas City hot spot, when he spotted a woman whom he had offered to a buy drink a week earlier. The woman had refused then and this time Johnson told a friend of the woman that he wanted to speak to her. When the woman approached Johnson, she claimed, he threatened to kill her boyfriend. As she backed away, Johnson allegedly took a drink and spit it on her face before his two bodyguards tackled her and bouncers escorted her outside.

The woman also claims that Johnson tried to spit on her three more times after he was asked to leave the club by the manager and she has since filed a civil lawsuit.
Kevin E.J. Regan, an attorney for Johnson, told the Associated Press that the allegations were "preposterous," that Johnson did not threaten anyone and that he might file a

"This appears to be a classic incident of someone trying to use the court system to get something for nothing," Regan said.

But while Johnson is keeping quiet -- he has not given his version of the events in either case yet -- there are still plenty of people who have formed their own observations of the enigmatic running back. For the most part, they all see the same things: a moody, combustible young man who has gone too long without facing his inner demons.

"Any time somebody has the kind of problems Larry has, it's usually because of something in their personal life or how they grew up," said Chiefs tight end and longtime teammate Tony Gonzalez, one of the 20 people ESPN.com interviewed for this story.

"I don't know what it is with Larry, but he's always had a chip on his shoulder. And I really don't know where that comes from."

The problem with Johnson is that chip, apparently, is something he can't control. His edge has made him one of the league's best backs, but it's also turned him into a major headache for a rebuilding franchise with a 1-8 record. In fact, one of the biggest reasons the Chiefs benched him is that they don't want his behavior influencing a roster that has 33 players with less than three years' experience each.

Said Peterson: "It's about conducting yourself as a professional, and that stuff isn't professional. When you're doing those things, you're cheating your teammates, the coaches and everybody else associated with this team."

Peterson said the Chiefs could have fined Johnson, but believed that benching him would have a greater impact. That proved to be the case when Edwards told Johnson he wasn't going to dress for an Oct. 19 game against Tennessee. Johnson sat quietly at his locker after receiving the news, and his teammates said he was as down as they'd ever seen him.

"He was pretty shocked," said Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson.

But while the Chiefs can wield some control over Larry Johnson at work, what baffles the team is his behavior off the field. Johnson was accused of aggravated assault and misdemeanor domestic battery in 2003 for allegedly brandishing a gun during an argument with a girlfriend, an incident that led him to enter a domestic violence diversion program in exchange for prosecutors' dropping those charges. Two years later, a woman accused Johnson of pulling her to the exit of a Kansas City nightspot and pushing her to the floor after another argument. Though Johnson wasn't convicted in either incident -- the second woman changed her story and missed three court dates -- they have sullied his reputation.

Johnson's recent behavior has been so disturbing that the NFL had him attend a mandatory, two-day alcohol evaluation program during the week prior to his Chicago visit with Goodell on Oct. 28, according to two league sources and one source inside the team.

"It really starts with poor decision-making," Peterson said. "Larry has put himself in too many similar situations too many times. And the commissioner doesn't need convictions to hand down a suspension. He only needs to see a trend or a pattern, and there's been one developing with Larry over the last four or five years.

"Now I'm pretty sure all those incidents are not all his fault. But as an NFL player and a public figure, you can't keep putting yourself in precarious situations."

Johnson seems to be grasping the value of that wisdom now. In his lone public statement since falling into his latest troubles, he vowed to get his life turned back around.

"This is the first time in my life that I actually woke up and was kind of disgusted with myself and disgusted as far as the way my life and my career is headed right now," Johnson said Oct. 22 in a news conference.

Johnson continued: "I do anticipate seeking help to get better as far as getting my life on track and knowing what I want out of this life -- not necessarily football -- and just work on, as hard as I can, not only being a good football player, but obviously being a son of the National Football League, a son of my own family, hopefully a brother, a father and a future husband."

The problem, however, is that he might not be able to make those necessary changes quickly. It's not like he's dealing with a high ankle sprain or a pulled groin. Johnson is having to face himself for what is likely the first time in his life; for a man with such immense pride, stubbornness and complexity, he might learn how hard it really is to tackle himself.

If you want to understand how many layers Larry Johnson has, you don't need to look hard for substantial evidence. This is the same man who will watch "The Bachelor" in the home of friends Ryan and Sarah McQueary, but then show up at a Kansas City nightclub wearing a Kevlar vest and flanked by personal bodyguards. He's given $1,000 to a boy raising money for the Boys and Girls Club, a kid who just happened to knock on his door while working the Leawood, Kan., neighborhood that day, but Johnson also has complained about how uncomfortable he feels living in a region with such a conservative reputation. And that's just the start.

Johnson's home is filled with impressive artwork that he painted in his spare time, and his musical tastes range from hip-hop to old-school jazz. He delighted teammates with his performance at a rookie show during his first season, when he delivered a dead-on impression of Homey the Clown, the character Damon Wayans popularized on the 1990's sitcom "In Living Color." He's also so spontaneous that he once heard an ice cream truck driving through his suburban neighborhood and raced outside to buy treats for all the kids on his cul-de-sac.

That's the thing about Johnson: You get him around children and he becomes as playful as a puppy. Get him around most adults and it's a different story. Older people see a guy who's constantly frowning and always wary of others.

"Sometimes, in this business, you have to guard yourself," said New York Jets fullback Tony Richardson, who played in Kansas City from 1995 to 2005 and became Johnson's only close friend on the team. "There are people who will take advantage of you. But sometimes Larry keeps that same attitude with everybody. He just doesn't trust a lot of people."

But where Larry has an issue is in the perception that comes with being a black guy who grew up middle-class. I always thought Larry was trying to prove himself to the guys who grew up worse off than him, that he was a street kid who knew about that life.

--An ex-teammate -- who requested anonymity -- regarding Larry Johnson

Another former Chiefs teammate, who asked to remain anonymous, said Johnson's problems go deeper than just simple distrust. Johnson's background -- his father, Larry Sr., is the defensive line coach at Penn State and his mother, Christine, is an educator -- probably plays a role as well.

"The thing about Larry is that he's great if you're dealing with him one-on-one," said the ex-teammate. "He's got good values and he's got a big heart. But where Larry has an issue is in the perception that comes with being a black guy who grew up middle-class. I always thought Larry was trying to prove himself to the guys who grew up worse off than him, that he was a street kid who knew about that life."

While Johnson is the only person who truly can speak to that possibility -- and it was raised by more than one source interviewed for this story -- there are all sorts of red flags throughout his career that suggest a man steamrolling toward some sort of crisis. Johnson and his family have acknowledged in previous interviews that he felt a deep anger and isolation from the first days he ever started playing football. Even as an 8-year-old running back in Pop Warner Football, Johnson ran over opponents and felt disconnected from his teammates. He was a shy loner back then, one who often spent hours with his father watching grainy, black-and-white footage of NFL stars, such as Marion Motley and Jim Brown.

Because Johnson's father was a rising high school football coach in Maryland back in those days, he wanted the oldest of his three children to see the groundbreakers of the NFL, the pioneers who opened doors for other black running backs. The son also listened intently when his parents advised him to move through life with a wary eye. Whenever Johnson entered a room or a new situation, he always walked in slowly, just as his parents encouraged him to do. But as Johnson grew up, he wasn't just walking in slowly any longer; he was openly seeking out potential enemies and finding a world in which friendships would be hard to come by.

When Johnson left a racially diverse Maryland high school and transferred to predominantly white State College Area High School before his junior year -- Larry Sr. had landed a job at Penn State -- he stewed as a second-string back who couldn't understand why coaches were starting the senior who had paid his dues. He was no different as a frustrated backup in college. Johnson once criticized head coach Joe Paterno for the Nittany Lions' conservative game plan in a loss during Johnson's sophomore year and said he thought former Penn State offensive coordinator Fran Ganter was out to get him.

What's astonishing about Johnson is how much he produced when he finally had a chance to play. He ran for 2,159 yards and 29 touchdowns as a high school senior. He ran for 2,087 yards and averaged 7.5 yards per carry in his final season at Penn State. Johnson once said those numbers were all about a bitter kid finally having the chance to make up for lost time.

"I always thought some people misunderstood Larry," said State College Area High School assistant coach Chris Weakland. "He just always wanted to be successful. If he got five yards on one play, he wanted to get 10. He always wanted more from himself."

That was the player the Chiefs expected to get when they selected Johnson 27th overall in the 2003 draft. Peterson saw a great talent from a good family and figured he couldn't lose. It didn't matter that the Chiefs already had a Pro Bowl runner in Priest Holmes (who was coming off a serious hip injury) or that their defense was so lousy that head coach Dick Vermeil lobbied Peterson to use the first-round pick on that side of the football. Johnson was just too good to pass up.

Eventually, the Chiefs realized dealing with a player who was once again being asked to sit might not be such an easy task.

"There are a lot of things that weren't fair to Larry from the first day he got here," Chiefs guard Brian Waters said. "That's not an excuse, but it's true. He was drafted into a situation where he felt like nobody wanted him. The fans thought he was here to replace Priest, who was really popular, and they thought he was responsible for us not getting more help on defense. A lot of people have been waiting for something negative to happen with him -- and they got it."

To be fair, nobody had to wait for Johnson to do something negative. He publicly wondered why the team drafted him, especially since he didn't play as a rookie and rode the bench for six more games during his second season. He'd sit alone in team meetings and send text messages to friends. Johnson's father would tell him that he was handling his frustration the wrong way -- his brother Tony even moved to Kansas City to help him cope -- but it didn't matter. Johnson remained such an irritable presence that Vermeil wanted to trade him at one point.

The only reason the Chiefs didn't give up on Johnson was because of his sheer ability. He gained 581 yards in 2004 after an injury sidelined Holmes for three games. When Holmes suffered a career-threatening neck injury midway through the 2005 season, Johnson responded with even more impressive production: 1,750 yards and a team-record nine straight 100-yard games in just nine starts. But there were still moments when he annoyed teammates and coaches. He'd give half-hearted attempts at blocking blitzing linebackers or carrying out play-action fakes, team sources said.

Johnson also never criticized himself as much as he did everybody else.

"Sometimes you have to go public with your frustration if you want things to change," Gonzalez said. "But you also have to call yourself out, and that's something Larry never did. That's what pissed people off."

Still, there was the belief that Johnson would find happiness when new coach Herm Edwards succeeded the retiring Vermeil following the 2005 season. Edwards had heard all about Johnson's attitude. He knew the young man hated sitting behind Holmes and he believed he could make Johnson happy. So the coach called Johnson into his office during the offseason, shut the door and asked him one question: "Are you ready to carry the ball 30 times a game? Because that's what you're about to do. You're my starter."

Johnson wound up carrying the ball an NFL-record 416 times that season and earned his second Pro Bowl selection with 1,789 yards and 17 touchdowns. He also appeared to be accepting Edwards' challenge to become a leader for the Chiefs. He smiled in the locker room more often. He made more of an effort to interact with his teammates instead of keeping to himself. He even organized informal meetings for the running backs to watch film together, which was a tradition that Richardson had started before he signed with Minnesota following the 2005 season.

"It really seemed like Larry was turning a corner," Richardson said.

That optimism now seems to have been extremely premature.

When Johnson was holding out for a long-term contract extension last offseason, there were skeptics in the organization who wondered about the wisdom of such an investment, especially given his off-the-field history and the pounding that comes with his punishing running style. But Peterson's fondness for Johnson -– along with Johnson's production -- won out. Ever since Peterson made that decision, Johnson's critics have been proven right.

A sprained right foot sidelined Johnson for the final eight games of last season, when he finished with just 559 yards and averaged 3.5 yards per carry. This season he groused about his future with the team after getting just 12 carries for 22 yards in a 23-8 loss to Oakland in Week 2 ... and that was before the Chiefs reportedly found no interest when they tried dealing him before the October trade deadline. If Johnson didn't have enough bad things happening, his engagement to Black Entertainment Television star Julissa Bermudez ended over the summer and his long-time agent, Alvin Keels, resigned two weeks ago.

Though it's apparent that Johnson will need to show plenty of contrition, Edwards said he hasn't taken Johnson's antics personally.

"We can sit here and talk about his problems all day, but my concern is how do we fix this," Edwards said.

"I'm a big believer in actions. I look at how you come to work. How you prepare. How you interact with the team. Either way you look at what's happening here, despite what our record is, we're coming together as a team. And he needs to understand that."

Edwards added that Johnson -- who rushed for 198 yards and two scores in the Week 4 victory over Denver, the Chiefs' only victory -- should be ready to embrace a new role.

Instead of relying on one workhorse back, the Chiefs have moved to a more wide-open, spread-formation attack that plays to the strengths of young quarterback Tyler Thigpen and weapons like Gonzalez and second-year wide receiver Dwayne Bowe. Though Johnson leads the team with 417 rushing yards, he has to prove there's a place for him in a system that seems better suited for rookie Jamaal Charles and second-year runner Kolby Smith, who was placed on the injured reserve list.

The Chiefs also have made no secret that the team has not committed to Johnson beyond this season.

"Right now, he's part of the team, there's no question about that," Peterson said. "The key is how he behaves and what he does going forward. And that he absolutely doesn't have another incident. This really is out of my hands now. The commissioner has made that clear."

What isn't so obvious is why Johnson is now sitting in such a precarious situation. Some people think he might have been better off if Richardson had remained with the team. Richardson was the one teammate whom Johnson openly trusted and he helped soften some of Johnson's abrasiveness.

Others say there was nothing anybody could have done. They see Johnson as a gifted talent who has spent too much time blaming others for his problems while not being held accountable for his own actions.

But while Johnson will be under more scrutiny, he does have plenty of people who want to see him turn his life around. Veterans such as Patrick Surtain, Derrick Johnson and free safety Jarrad Page have been trying to lift his spirits since the trouble started, and Waters said that Johnson "has been more humble because of this."

Johnson also has received supportive text messages from Richardson. Even people he didn't trust, like Vermeil, are in his corner as well.

Said Vermeil: "Larry Johnson does have some problems, but he'll get help and he'll get through them. I'm confident of that. There's too much good in him. I've seen him in my home and in other environments. The only place I haven't really seen him is in the environments where he gets into trouble."

That ultimately is the one issue that has to concern the Chiefs as Johnson copes with his problems.

It's one thing to see how he operates at work. It's quite another when he's back out on the town. That's when Johnson -- the same man who once said he'd run out of things to fight against when he signed his last contract -- will prove how willing he is to fight for his future.

That's how Peterson sees it as well. There is still a part of him that wants to embrace the positives in Johnson. Peterson, who also is host of a local radio show, recalls a time in 2007 when Johnson was a guest. As they sat in the studio, Peterson asked Johnson who his mentors were. Peterson fondly remembers Johnson's listing Johnson's father, Edwards and Peterson as some of the men he most admired.

The irony, of course, is that Johnson already has burned two of those men. Now the Chiefs have to decide if he really deserves another chance.

As Peterson said: "Larry really has accomplished everything he could want at this point in his career. The question now is how does he want to end it."

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.