Chiefs fans wanted Larry Johnson gone. Now they want his autograph

What’s happening with former Chiefs running back Larry Johnson, his thoughts on Kareem Hunt

While Kansas City Chiefs former running back Larry Johnson spent some time with fans at training camp, The Star's Blair Kerkhoff found out what he's doing and his thoughts on Kareem Hunt.
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While Kansas City Chiefs former running back Larry Johnson spent some time with fans at training camp, The Star's Blair Kerkhoff found out what he's doing and his thoughts on Kareem Hunt.

The Larry Johnson who once was the subject of a fan petition imploring the Chiefs to deactivate him so he couldn’t break the team’s career rushing record might not recognize the Larry Johnson who attended training camp on Sunday at Missouri Western.

Signing football and helmets and posing for photographs with children and adults as his young daughter, Jaylen, sat quietly nearby, Johnson looked — and felt — the part of a former star player returning to his old team.

But it’s taken Johnson several years to reach this point — including his involvement in an artistic-based development program for disadvantaged youths — after a career that was productive but also often at odds with the team and city.

Everyone seemed ready to move on when Johnson was waived during the 2009 season.

That time appeared distant Sunday. Johnson greeted every well-wisher and accommodated every request, just as he envisioned he’d be doing once his career ended ... after meeting some conditions.

“It was going to take a lot of time and soul-searching and me owning up to the problems I caused in (Kansas City),” Johnson said. “That was one thing: I wanted to get back in the good graces. Not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I missed the purity of hanging out with kids, signing autographs. You like seeing people happy.”

Johnson seemed anything but happy while with the Chiefs, who took him out of Penn State in the first round of the 2003 draft. He was Priest Holmes’ successor and lived up to expectations by setting a team record for rushing yards in consecutive seasons.

In 2005 and 2006, Johnson ran for 3,539 yards and 37 touchdowns, more than half of the totals in his career. In 2006, he set an NFL record with 416 rushing attempts and made the All-Pro team.

But there were off-field incidents throughout his time in Kansas City, including multiple arrests for assault charges against women. He was released just as he was coming off a two-week suspension for, as the Chiefs said at the time, conduct detrimental to the team, mostly for his actions on social media.

Among his troubles on Twitter were mocking coach Todd Haley’s lack of playing experience and using a gay slur.

Fans had enough. The petition read, “We are asking you, as fans of this team, this organization, and the pride that this city has in the Chiefs, please deactivate Larry Johnson. Please do not let his name sit atop the all-time rushing leaders in Kansas City Chiefs history. He has never represented anything close to the values that we have for our Chiefs.”

The fans got their wish. When he was waived, Johnson stood second to Holmes on the franchise’s career rushing list. Both men have since been passed by Jamaal Charles.

Johnson, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., believes he suffers from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disorder.

“I’ve had short-term memory loss, erratic behavior,” Johnson said. “I can control it now. My impulses in the past were to go out partying and drinking. That’s where I got into my troubles.”

And there is this: “I’m not around bad people anymore, not in toxic relationships,” Johnson said. “It’s more about me being very, very self-aware with myself, knowing what my issues were.”

Last year, Johnson, 38, got involved with The Motivational Edge, a nonprofit after-school organization in Miami, and he wants to bring the program to Kansas City.

On its website, The Motivational Edge says it specializes in therapeutic arts instruction and focuses on mentoring, job-readiness and life-skills development. Johnson told his story to young people there last year and became more deeply involved.

“Being retired and kind of bored, I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Johnson said. “I knew I couldn’t do nine to five, just sit at an office. I’d rather help kids. … But I couldn’t help kids unless I helped myself first.

“That’s why I talk about my issues … the stuff I got arrested for. It’s to help kids not make the same mistakes I had made.”