Posted on Thu, Jun. 21, 2007
AIM JASON WHITLOCK COMMENTARYQ&A WITH Chiefs running back Larry Johnson
sounds offCOMMENTARYLarry Johnson says training camp holdout is possible
Pro Bowl running back sits down with The Star’s Jason Whitlock for an exclusive interview in which Johnson reveals his intent to hold out if the Chiefs don’t give him a new contract before training camp
Larry Johnson believes his two 1,700-yard seasons and his NFL-record 416 carries last season are worth a new contract. Tuesday afternoon during a fascinating, 150-minute discussion with Larry Johnson and his 28-year-old agent, Alvin Keels, I was left with the clear impression that the Pro Bowl running back believes he may be forced to sit out training camp to resolve his contract impasse with the Chiefs.
We met for lunch at the Hereford House in Zona Rosa. The agreement was that Johnson and I could say whatever we wanted without either side getting offended. Keels would referee and chime in whenever he wanted. The conversation never turned combative. But Larry was raw and honest as usual.
“He’s going to test me,” Johnson said of team president Carl Peterson.
Do you think you will have to hold out?
“I’ve talked with Herm (Edwards) about it,” Johnson replied. “Herm said he doesn’t even know the money I’m asking for. He said he doesn’t really care. He said I’ve done a lot in terms of OTAs (organized team activities) and minicamp to buy into the program. He said he’ll talk with Carl and those things will get handled. It all depends on how the upstairs people play it.”
OK, are you prepared for a long holdout?
“I’m prepared,” Johnson said matter-of-factly. “They (my agent and father) got me saving money. I’m hustling to get more money to put in the bank. They already started setting aside different accounts, if that would have to happen. They’re already telling me to be cautious about how I spend, where I go and stuff like that. To make sure that if it goes down like that, then I’ve got to be able to pace myself so I won’t be in trouble.”
There was much to discuss. Larry is on the books to make $1.7 million this season, a paltry sum for a fifth-year player with his resume. Speculation has centered on Johnson seeking a contract that falls between the deals given LaDainian Tomlinson ($21 million in guarantees) and Peyton Manning ($35 million in guarantees).
“The point I’d like to get out,” Keels said, “is that if we were to have to hold out, it would be for the sake of good business, not being greedy. I think the picture that is being painted right now in the eyes of the fans is that we’re coming into this negotiation being greedy. It’s not good business for a player who rushes the ball 416 times in a season, back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons, back-to-back 1,700-yard seasons, back-to-back broken Kansas City Chiefs records, it’s not good business for him to come back in and play for $1.7 million. And that’s a sensitive area because $1.7 million is a lot more than most people in Kansas City make.”
Our conversation extended well beyond football. We talked about Larry’s anger, his relationship with rap music mogul Jay-Z, Larry’s relationship with his teammates and how he would like to help black youths. I’ll share excerpts from our conversation in a question-and-answer format today and on Friday. I’ll offer my opinion on Sunday.
Question: Larry, do you think Carl Peterson has an advantage over you in these negotiations based on the way you’re perceived by the media and fans and the rumors about your astronomical contract demands? And do you think you made a mistake by the way you’ve handled yourself publicly during your first four years in the league?
Johnson: “I take full responsibility for what I did. What I did off the football field was my problem. I’m not stupid; my father is a football coach. I know what, sitting up behind the scenes, they will and won’t use to paint me as the hero of the city or paint me as the prisoner of the state. I know what will happen if we don’t get this deal done in time.”
Keels: “Previous reports of what we are asking for have been a bit misleading. I have heard reports that we are seeking an eight-year deal worth as much as $80 to $90 million or as much guaranteed money as Peyton Manning. Without getting into any specific details, this is not the case. When you take into account the production on the field and the position that my client plays, we are simply seeking a deal that is in line with today’s market, which naturally will be more than a comparable deal that was done years ago. We understand that Larry is under contract for the 2007 season and that the Chiefs aren’t obligated to extend his deal. However, it has been something that the Chiefs have openly commented on that they would like to do. And it goes without saying that from a business standpoint, Larry would like a fair-market contract extension before the start of the season. I can’t say that we are close to a deal now, but Larry wants to be a Chief for life and the Chiefs are a great organization, and I am optimistic that we will come to an agreement.
Question: Larry, do you think the average football fan or sportswriters in general understand why you need such a large contract at this time?
Johnson: “If they really want it to hit home, look at Earl Campbell. He’s not complaining, but he can barely walk. He’s sitting in wheelchairs. He can’t sit at banquets for a long amount of time before he has to leave. It’s sad to have to watch him go through what he has to go through. You look at me; I don’t want to be like that. But I may end up like him. Who knows? I have to be able to plan for that, plan for my kids. I don’t know if I’m going to be running back and forth taking my kids to soccer practice.”
Question: Larry, given that your father is a successful football coach at Penn State and your knowledge of football and the business of football, why didn’t you handle things in a more mature way early in your career?
Johnson: “At the time, I played it different because I seen how the nice guys played it differently, tried to do things differently. I always tried to do it my father’s way and up until high school, it never panned out that way. Even when I was in high school, I worked hard, I waited, and I never got that chance until my senior season. I played at Penn State, played the nice guy, did all I had to do to a point in time when I was just like, ‘this being a nice guy ain’t working.’ I’ve been doing it my father’s way for so long, it gets frustrating because you never see it opening up the way he has painted it out for me to be. So I had to start manipulating. I did a lot of manipulation as far as what I could say or shouldn’t say. Just cause enough stir for people to open their eyes and see what was really going on without me looking like the bad guy or without the organization looking bad.”
Question: Would your father like for you to play it more conservatively?
Johnson: “Yeah, but we’re not dealing with people from my father’s background — you know, hard-working and believing in loyalty and you keep doing the right things and great things will happen for you. You’re not dealing with that these days, especially in this business. Knowing what I had to go through in this city, as far as talking contract numbers, they’re still going to say, ‘Well, LaDainian is better than me, this guy can’t do this. Larry can’t block.’ For a guy who says I’m quote unquote ‘tied to his hip,’ these are the words that are coming from him (Peterson). This isn’t coming from media or people outside the organization. I can deal with that. This is coming from the guy that told me we’re joined at the hip. ‘You can trust me.’ When it comes from that person, you know in terms of trust and loyalty, you know where you really are at with that person.”
Question: Do you feel Carl has sold you out?
Johnson: “Not necessarily he sold me out. He’s just a businessman. It’s hard to be close friends with a guy you go to for money. When you’re asking for the kind of money we’re asking for, it’s hard to be the good guy.”
Question: If you hold out, how do you think your teammates will react?
Johnson: “I watched Brian (Waters) go through his ordeal (trying to get a contract). I watched Eddie Kennison, as far as what he was asking. He told me how he approached his deal. I seen what John Tait went through with his deal. At the end of the day, they (my teammates) understand that I deserve this. Tony Gonzalez agreed that I deserve what I get. If I have to hold out, I don’t know how they would view me. You’d have to ask them.”
Question: Do you think you’re a good teammate?
Johnson: “Only thing that would make me a bad teammate at times is when they see me arguing with coaches in front of them. And that only happened one time. Well, twice — my rookie year and last year. Other than that, I’m hanging out with the young guys, the rookies. Even with Casey (Wiegmann). He’s hard as hell to talk to because you don’t know if he likes you or don’t like you. But I say enough to Casey that he talks to me. No one would say, ‘Damn, I hate Larry’ or ‘I really don’t like him.’ There have been some older guys that have gone in and said that you better calm him down because they saw me have an outburst with a coach.”
Question: What about the complaints from some of your teammates about text messaging in meetings?
Johnson: “You know where that came from? That came from a coach. In reality I’m the last person who sits in the back. Everybody sits in front of me. The only one who sits behind me is a coach. And it only happened in offensive meetings. It didn’t happen in any other meetings. It didn’t come from a player. No one else would know that I’m doing it.”
Question: Do you at least admit it was a mistake to text message during team meetings?
Johnson: “Yeah, it was a mistake. It was me being immature. At first I didn’t do it, but then we started covering the same old stuff week after week. There was nothing new being brought into the system. It was immaturity on my part. After that, I don’t do it anymore. I don’t even sit in the back during offensive meetings. I sit in the front. I get all the running backs sitting beside me. I’m in the first two rows.”
Pick up Friday’s paper and learn how Larry responds when I ask him about handling the responsibility of leadership and being a team’s highest-paid player.