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Larry Johnson has found a new home with the Redskins

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2010; 11:14 PM

This was not Larry Johnson's first Redskins training camp. Growing up in La Plata, Md., Johnson's roots stretched deep into a community filled with passionate football fans, in many cases enemies who lived next door to one another.

"In our area, you were a Redskins fan or Cowboys fan," says the Redskins running back's father, Larry Johnson Sr. "And I wasn't a Cowboys fan."

When his two sons were younger, Johnson Sr. would take them to Redskins' training camp in Carlisle, Pa. A legend of sorts in high school coaching circles, Johnson Sr. would attend coaching clinics during camp while his sons ran around the practice fields, staring up in awe at giants like Charles Mann and Dexter Manley.

"People wonder now about why I sign autographs for such a long time," Johnson says. "Well, it goes back to when I first came to Redskins camp as a kid."

Two decades later, Johnson finds himself back at Redskins training camp this month as an adult, signing his name each day until every request has been satisfied, every photo autographed.

Johnson says the effort is not designed to rehabilitate his image. His turbulent time in Kansas City, where his problems off the field came to overshadow his on-the-field exploits, is past. He isn't in Washington to change people's perceptions. He's here because it's where he feels comfortable. He's here because it feels like home.

"With all the negative things that I've done, it kind of ends up on a positive note with me being in this situation right now," says Johnson, who is set to make his Redskins' debut Saturday against the Baltimore Ravens. "Being here and being accepted by Coach [Mike] Shanahan and [General Manager] Bruce Allen, I have a great shot of succeeding here."

This also could be viewed as Johnson's last shot. Playing a position that favors the young, Johnson is four years removed from his last 1,000-yard season. Around the league, there are those who question his character and those who question his ability to again be an effective runner.

But Johnson says he's where he wants to be: in a position to run like he hasn't run in years.

"He's 30 years old now, he understands where he's at," says Herm Edwards, Kansas City's head coach from 2006 to '08. "He's hearing that he's over the hill . . . that people think he's finished. I think he wants to prove people wrong. And in the past, that's when he's been at his best."

A father's tutelage

Johnson Sr. remembers when his son almost quit the game. He coached his boys when they reached playing age, running those youth practices just like he ran his high school teams, with similar drills, expectations and intensity level.

"I remember one time in practice, Larry and Tony were sitting down, looking for four-leaf clovers," says Johnson Sr. "They were just jumping all over, fooling around. At the dinner table that night, I told them, 'You guys can't do that. I'm coaching you, you have to pay attention like everyone else.' "

He asked his sons whether they wanted to continue with football. They had the same response. "We literally said, 'Okay, we're done,' " says Johnson. "'We'll go back to playing video games."

Johnson Sr. corrected them. He wouldn't let them quit and told them they'd have to learn to battle through adversity.

"I almost lost them, though, because I was telling them they had to be serious all the time about the game," says Johnson Sr. "They just wanted to have fun.

"Larry lived that classic tale of having your dad for a coach," Johnson Sr. continued. "Expected to work the hardest, to be the best. I probably coached him too hard sometimes, trying not to show favoritism to the other kids. So he always felt a little more than others that he constantly had to prove himself."

Johnson's talent was clear. He played youth football against teams across Southern Maryland, raising eyebrows even though he was often two years younger than everyone else on the field.

"You always knew he was different," says Daryl Wills, a teammate on the La Plata Blue Knights. "He had the biggest feet. He was the youngest on the team, but he was probably wearing the biggest shoe. We'd make fun of him all the time, and he'd just laugh."

The learning curve

Johnson's childhood and high school teammates all say the Redskins' running back was a quiet kid. "We never saw Larry," Wills said. "If it wasn't for practice, you wouldn't see Larry out too much."

Johnson could usually be found staring up at an old big-screen television. His father had a collection of NFL Films' VHS tapes that he showed his high school players.

"It was all these old Steve Sabol films: 'Crunch Course,' 'Toughest Running Backs,' everything," Johnson said. "My mom couldn't get me out of the house because I was sitting there watching those over and over, checking out Marion Motley, Ollie Matson, Jim Taylor, Jim Brown, Dickie Post."

But when Johnson enrolled at Westlake High, the Wolverines already had three 1,000-yard rushers on their roster. Johnson's playing time came at linebacker. He was the only sophomore to start.

The Westlake coaching staff, led by Coach Dominic Zaccarelli, had worked under Johnson's father at T.C. Williams, so Johnson caught few breaks in high school.

"They weren't easy on him," said John Peterson, a high school teammate. "They went extra hard on him. He had to earn that spot as a starting linebacker."

Johnson Sr. accepted a job with Penn State in 1996, and his family moved to State College, Pa., where Johnson finished out his high school career.

Early in the Redskins training camp, Johnson spotted a couple of familiar faces in the crowd. When practice ended, he sought out the Redskins fans, who happened to have played alongside him years before at Westlake.

A difficult transition

As a senior at Penn State, Johnson topped 2,000 rushing yards and won the Doak Walker Award, the Maxwell Award and the Walter Camp Award. But despite his college credentials, he never felt wanted in Kansas City, where the Chiefs made him the 27th overall pick in the 2003 NFL draft.

He was joining a team that already had Priest Holmes in the backfield and a head coach who openly desired a defensive player in the draft.

"Priest was the Rocky Balboa of Kansas City. He gave K.C. everything, put them on the map, and then they go and draft this young, snotty kid who played in the Big Ten," Johnson says. "They thought I was there to push Priest out."

Johnson didn't become the team's regular starter until his third season. In the meantime, he didn't carry much good will with the fans or the media. By time the Chiefs finally released him midway through the 2009 season, both sides were finished with each other.

As a member of the Chiefs, Johnson was arrested on four occasions for domestic violence- related incidents. He was most recently in a Kansas City courtroom in July, where a judge admonished him for not fulfilling the terms of a sentence.

In separate 2008 incidents, Johnson allegedly shoved one woman in the side of the head and spit in the face of another. He was convicted of disturbing the peace charges and ordered to perform 40 hours of community service last year. He reportedly had completed only nine hours by the time he went before Municipal Court Judge Joseph Locascio last month.

"I thought you were going to spend time with the kids, and apparently you're not capable or interested in doing that," the judge told him, according to an account in the Kansas City Star.

Locascio reinstated Johnson's probation and has required him to complete his community service with a Washington area nonprofit before next March.

Johnson also complained about playing time with the Chiefs and threatened a training camp holdout. The final straw came last fall, when he criticized coaches on his Twitter account and used an anti-gay epithet around members of the media.

Says Dick Vermeil, Johnson's coach from 2003 to 2005: "He's a great talent. He reminded me of Jim Brown. He's that talented. And he really is a good guy, regardless of what you see and read - a little immature in some of his responses to things, but deep down, he's a good guy."

Johnson says that when he looks back over some of his past actions, it's like staring at someone else. "It's a different guy," he says. "At that time, you're frustrated because things weren't working out. We switched offensive coordinators, you feel yourself failing, you go out more than you need to, you drink more than you need to, things go down from there and you feel helpless. Being in this situation now, I have my head on more straight."

He knows what the negative headlines have done to his reputation. But when he signed mid-season with Cincinnati last year and entered free agency this spring, all he wanted was a fresh start. Washington knew him before his fame and misfortune. He wanted that back.

"These days, as long as it's on the Internet, it'll always be there. It'll never die down," he says. "I'm fine with that. All I can do is live right one day at a time."

Back where he started

On March 11, Johnson visited Redskins Park as a free agent. He spoke with running backs coach Bobby Turner into the night and called his father when he finally got back to the hotel room.

"How'd it go?" Johnson Sr. recalls asking his son. "How'd you feel?"

"Dad, it feels like home," Johnson responded. "Everything about it feels like home for me."

He signed a three-year contract two days later.

Now he's back where he started. Where he and his family would debate Jay Schroeder's value as a quarterback at the dinner table. Where he'd emulate Jim Brown's swagger back to the huddle in the back yard. Where he first fell in love with football.

He is a new father with new responsibilities, a new team and a new sense of purpose. He began his life a Redskins fan and says he intends to end his career a Redskins player.

"Sometimes you call it fate. Sometimes it's out of your hands. I believe things happen for a reason," says Johnson Sr. "I really believe that.

"He's at a stage in his life when maturity kicks in and you realize, 'Hey, what do I have left? It's time to really make this thing work.' "

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