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Flashback time. It was 2003, early in the season. I’m sitting in the front passenger seat of Keyshawn Johnson’s car, parked outside the Tampa Bay Buccaneers complex that players call “One Buc Place.”
We talked for roughly an hour after practice, in what was at the time, largely an off-the-record conversation. The star receiver on a team defending a Super Bowl championship, Johnson vented hard about his relationship with his coach, Jon Gruden, and told me that he had reached a point of no return.
He wanted out. Johnson had just put his house on the market, despite having several years remaining on the eight-year, $56 million extension that made him the NFL’s highest-paid receiver.
He summed up his beef with Gruden that day as follows: I want to strangle him.
This was a few years after the NBA suspended Warriors guard Latrell Sprewell for a year after attacking his coach, P.J. Carlesimo, during an altercation at practice.
“Yeah, I wanted to strangle that (expletive),” Johnson told USA TODAY Sports this week, reflecting in the aftermath of Gruden’s resignation from the Raiders. “That (expletive) tried to make people think I was a true problem, man. That (stuff) was crazy to me. It was like he went out of his way at times to make people have a certain narrative about who I was.
“It’s almost like he deliberately thought he was going to take the love of the game away from me ... like that was his mission, to try to hurt me and ruin my career. That’s what it felt like he was really trying to do. That wasn’t going to happen. He (messed) with the wrong dude.”
Johnson’s tenure with the Bucs ended when Gruden deactivated him (with pay) for the final seven games of the 2003 season and the new GM, Bruce Allen, who at the time succeeded Rich McKay but is now better known his email exchanges with Gruden, swung a trade with the Dallas Cowboys the next spring that reunited the receiver with Bill Parcells.
It is hardly surprising that Johnson, for years a high-profile national broadcaster and currently the co-host of a popular show on ESPN Radio, hasn’t pulled punches in assessing Gruden’s downfall. No player had a dispute with the ex-coach that was as public as the rift with Johnson, the former No. 1 overall pick the Bucs had obtained from the New York Jets two years before Gruden replaced an ousted Tony Dungy.
Gruden resigned on Monday with his reputation destroyed after leaked emails stemming from an investigation of the workplace culture of the Washington Football Team, exposed racist, misogynistic and homophobic rants by the ex-coach, in addition to other vulgar assertions that attacked NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the Bucs owners, during exchanges with Allen, formerly Washington’s president.
“I never take a thrill watching somebody’s demise,” Johnson maintained. “That’s not for me to judge. But he didn’t fool me. He fooled everybody else. I’ve been telling people for 20 years, ‘He’s a bad guy. And he’s a fraud.
“Think about it, man. When you sat in that car with me, how (ticked) I was. This was after our Super Bowl and I didn’t want to be around this dude, didn’t want to be a part of him because I saw how he treated people.”
The fallout for Gruden included the Bucs removing him from the team’s Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium. That likely would have happened even if it wasn’t revealed in the emails, reported by The New York Times, that Gruden suggested to Allen that the Glazers to perform oral sex on him.
The leaked emails, with the initial blast reported by The Wall Street Journal, when Gruden disparaged NFL Players Association chief DeMaurice Smith in a racially-tinged tirade in 2011, came from a trove of 650,000 emails collected as part of the investigation into alleged sexual harassment and other workplace misconduct with Washington’s franchise.
You’re sitting there smiling in their face," Johnson said, speaking of the Glazers. "They gave you a Ring of Honor (ceremony) and you want them to (perform oral sex)? And then Bruce Allen talking about, ‘They probably would.’ This goes back to the fraudulent behavior. You know how they do investigations on players when they go to interview them at the combine? They didn’t do no investigation on his ass.”
Johnson’s disconnect with Gruden began as a football issue stemming from how he was used in the team’s offense. It morphed into a personal issue between two strong-willed personalities that involved classic relationship pitfalls that included mistrust, disrespect, ego and power.
“All I wanted to do was play football, be happy, win games,” Johnson said. “But he wanted to turn it into a power struggle and pissing match.”
Interestingly, Johnson said that at the time he did not view his differences with Gruden as related to race.
“His bigotry? That behavior? I never saw that,” Johnson allowed. “I could never say that the dude was a racist. But I saw how (messed) up he was and how he treated people. That was a bigger issue with me than anything. Just lying to be lying…not being authentic but being problematic. That was an issue when you try to make everybody believe I was the issue and had people believing that (stuff).”
In retrospect, Johnson believes there were indeed racial overtones associated with his rift.
“A coach who is white, against a Black player, for the most part is always going to get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to proving their point because white America wants to listen to the white guy,” Johnson asserts. “White media wants to listen to the white guy, even though I had a bunch of white media friends, like, ‘Yeah, we see the dude.’ But in the end, he could say anything and they would write it because they would believe him based on him winning a Super Bowl.”
Agree with him or not, there’s no dispute that Johnson, who wrote a book titled, "Just Give Me the Damn Ball" after his rookie season, is hardly shy about voicing his opinions. That always made him more human in an environment where many players are so often programmed to avoid deep expressions about hot-button issues.
In light of what’s been exposed recently about Gruden’s opinions, particularly as it relates to race, Johnson says that he can connect the dots to see a pattern. He mentioned that Gruden had just one Black coordinator, Willie Shaw (1998-99), during his head coaching stints and bemoaned that after Gruden returned to the Raiders in 2018, GM Reggie McKenzie, an African-American, was fired and replaced by Mike Mayock, who was widely respected as a draft analyst for the NFL Network but had no previous experience with an NFL team.
“He fired Reggie McKenzie to bring in a white dude that ain’t never ever, ever, ever been in a front office,” Johnson said. “You want to connect the dots even more? Think about who he was sending emails to. Bruce Allen, whose brother George was the Governor of Virginia who had the racial epithet . The apple doesn’t fall too far from that tree. You start to put everything together and that’s who he is."
Listening to Johnson, speaking from Los Angeles, and it’s a lot like sitting next to him in his car outside One Buc Place nearly 20 years ago.
“I can’t take joy watching him fall from the mountaintop,” Johnson insists. “That ain’t in my blood. As much as I despise him, I’m not the judge.”
Regardless, it’s a good thing that Johnson never strangled his former coach.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Keyshawn Johnson on Gruden: ‘He’s a bad guy. And he’s a fraud.'