Chiefs’ Johnson shows softer side on kids Easter outing

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Catching up with elusive runner
Nice guy found at an egg hunt
Chiefs’ Johnson shows softer side on kids Easter outing
By ELIZABETH MERRILL
The Kansas City Star

A dark Mercedes SUV rolled in shortly after 12:30 p.m. Saturday, fashionably late, and the mob subsequently followed. Kids screamed. Mothers fumbled for their cameras.

“That’s him right there,” a dad in a Chiefs jersey said to his young daughter as he pointed to the end of the parking lot.

“Oh my gosh,” she gasped.

Larry Johnson stepped out, a starter after 2 1/2 seasons riding the bench, a star after roughly 10 years of snubs. He scooped up a young boy, twirled him in the air and hustled off to his Easter egg hunt.

If Johnson keeps this up, he’ll ruin his reputation. Remember angry L.J., the brooding, brash, tattooed and tortured soul who yearned to play while Priest Holmes got all the love and the carries? He was fiddling with Easter eggs on Saturday and kissing babies. Remember the large chip on his shoulder?

It was gone Saturday, replaced by a softer, fuzzier side that Johnson doesn’t reveal very often. Last Thanksgiving, he quietly bought food for a shelter downtown and served up dinner minus the cameras. He adopted three families for Christmas. And while L.J. emerged as the hottest young back in the NFL, clicking off nine straight 100-yard games while Holmes was out with a neck injury, he canned the press releases and clammed up with the local media.

He wanted his play on the field to do the talking. But Johnson did talk Saturday afternoon, answering about seven questions before being whisked away by a PR person. He called his late-season tear “fun.” He said he was ready when new coach Herm Edwards told him he’d be the starting running back heading into training camp.

“That’s what I’ve believed since I got here,” Johnson said. “That was going to be my position. It was just a matter of time.”

This will undoubtedly be a huge transition year for Johnson, who’s 26. After spending much of high school, college and the first part of his professional career as the hungry backup bent on proving himself, Johnson now must summon a different motivation. And he’ll do it without his close friend and mentor, veteran fullback Tony Richardson, who recently signed with the Vikings.

Richardson, Johnson said, was like a big brother. He understood his aggressiveness and desire to prove that he was the best. Now Edwards has asked Johnson to be a team leader. Johnson softly said that he’s not the type to bark out orders. If the Chiefs are going to follow him, they’ll do it by watching him.

“He’s been here every day, working, doing the right things, saying the right things,” said Edwards, who showed up to help at Johnson’s charity event Saturday. “And I think that’s important.

“Even this. This is part of the leadership. When you put on something like this and your teammates are involved … these are the things players need to be. It’s part of being a professional.”

Since the start of offseason workouts last month — which are voluntary — Johnson has been around most mornings, trying to build on a Pro Bowl season. He racked up 1,750 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2005, and he did it in just nine starts. Offensive lineman Jordan Black said recently that he senses the Chiefs will revert more to a smash-mouth, run-it-down-your-throat mentality in 2006.

That obviously has something to do with Johnson, who bulled his way through tackles and averaged 5.2 yards a carry.

“We’ve got the best running back in the NFL,” linebacker Boomer Grigsby said. “He is the man, and I don’t think he’s changed in the slightest. He still comes to work every day with the same attitude as he did before, wanting to be the best. What makes him so great is that natural kind of chip he holds on his shoulder in order to run people over.

“I don’t think he’ll ever lose that chip. Never.”

Not even on a carefree spring day when L.J. looked anything but menacing and angry. His mom, Chris, said Johnson has a way with children because his dad used to be an elementary school teacher.

“Everyone was young once and enjoyed Easter egg hunting. I did until I was almost 16 or 17,” Johnson said. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but I love Easter egg hunting.”

He laughed. For one day, he was a kid. And that was OK with L.J.
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