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Sport Imitates Life


November 14, 2009 5:52 AM

Good Riddance, LJ

Sunday's pivotal AFC west showdown with the Oakland Raiders won't be the Kansas City Chiefs' first game without Larry Johnson; it will be their first game after Larry Johnson.

Johnson was released earlier this week after wearing out his welcome and then re-wearing it out in the Midwest's mild-mannered Mecca of barbecue. The reviled Johnson was just 75 yards away from breaking the franchise rushing record held by the revered Priest Holmes, and the timing of Johnson's release is by no means a coincidence.

 


The Chiefs drafted the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Johnson with the 27th pick in the 2003 draft after his relatively quiet 2,000-yard senior season at Penn State University. Johnson then waited his turn behind the perennial pro-bowling Priest until Holmes suffered a season-ending neck injury in the middle of the 2005 season, and then it was Johnson who became a perennial pro-bowler behind one of the best offensive lines in football.

When Holmes went down, then-Kansas City coach Dick Vermeil said publicly to Johnson "It's time to take your diapers off and play, young man...", and perhaps that should've been the world's first warning as to Johnson's nature. LJ responded, however, by finishing what Holmes started, rushing for 1,750 yards and 20 touchdowns despite starting only the final nine games of the '05 season.

Suddenly Holmes seemed expendable as Johnson became the toast of the town, so with the Priest still sidelined and his career in jeopardy the following year, Johnson carried an NFL-record 416 times for a franchise-record 1,789 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2006.

Then LJ held out for a new contract in 2007, and even after he and the frugal front office of the Chiefs agreed on a deal, things would never be the same. Johnson missed half of 2007 and a quarter of 2008 after a foot injury and a series of off-field transgressions, most of which took place in Kansas City nightclubs and most of which involved women, alcohol and/or an abusive reaction from the Chiefs' franchise running back.

Johnson was granted probation from the legal system and given a second chance from his organization, but after a 37-7 loss to San Diego two weeks ago, he called his head coach a fag and questioned his competence and qualifications via twitter. When given a chance to retract the statement in person the following day, Johnson instead reiterated.

He was subsequently suspended by the team for the second time in a calendar year, and he had officially rubbed Chiefs fans the wrong way for the last time. An online petition surfaced during his absence calling for LJ to be released before he could rush for the final 75 yards he needed to top Holmes' franchise record of 6,070.

The petition reportedly received 32,000 signatures over the team's bye-week before the website shut down under voluminous traffic.

32,000.

That's higher than the Kansas City Royals' average attendance over the last decade and a half. That's roughly 40 percent of Arrowhead Stadium's record attendance. That's 32,000 people in a city of two million telling its beloved football franchise it has had enough of its franchise running back.

The Chiefs are a small-market organization with a big-time tradition and a devout following that has endured mediocrity (at best) from its sports teams for over a decade. Kansas City is a simple place with a simple way of life and simple people with simple needs, and if Johnson were still rushing for 1,700 yards a season, they might look the other way once or twice.

With Johnson's production, however, nowhere near its pro-bowl peak of 2005 and 2006 and his off-field behavior bad enough to embarrass a drunk 12-year old, the easily-offended populous of a city that spills into two different states will not look the other way for a fourth or fifth time.

Johnson is the son of a college coach and has been a sheltered star athlete for most of his 30 years, and he simply seems to be a spoiled brat that grew to be a downright stupid man. He did and said almost everything wrong in the locker room and on the town during the prime of his career, and the record he was chasing belonged to a Priestly running back who will always be dear to the Kansas City Chiefs and their fans.

Holmes was a humble, unassuming, low-profile superstar who maintained what seems to be an ultra-efficient life on and off the field.

Holmes entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Baltimore Ravens after spending most of his collegiate career backing up Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams at the University of Texas. 19 running backs, four Longhorns and one Holmes (Miami Hurricane defensive end Kenny Holmes) were taken in the 1997 draft, but none of them had anywhere near the career Priest Holmes had.

The Hunt family, which has owned the Chiefs since they were the Dallas Texans in the old AFL, gathered with new general manager Scott Pioli and did something the old general manager (Karl Peterson) never did: listen to the fans, no matter how fickle they might be at times.

The Chiefs protected their most sacred team record by releasing their most despised team cancer, and they did so just in time. With an offensive line that has become one of the worst in football and their next franchise running back nowhere to be found on the current roster, Johnson's new team rushing record would have stood for years, reminding Kansas City of the mistake it made on a man who makes too many mistakes to be excused.

From Mike Garrett to Christian Okoye to Marcus Allen, the Chiefs have always been a blue-collar team with a proud rushing attack the conservative Midwest could easily rally around. KC was once the only NFL franchise with season ticket holders in all 50 states, and like a responsible congressman who puts his voters' wishes above his own, the Chiefs took another big step in their current rebuilding effort by listening to the fans who've been there through 1,700-yard seasons and 2-14 seasons alike.

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