When Jon Gruden looks at Antonio Brown’s cryogenically frost-bitten feet or hears him threaten to retire and leave $30.125 million on the rubbing table if the NFL doesn't let him wear a 10-year old helmet, the Oakland Raiders' coach must feel as if -- as Yogi Berra once put it -- it's déjà vu all over again.
The mercurial, four-time All-Pro wide receiver who arrived at his first Raiders’ training camp in a hot air balloon (which seemed fitting in a lot of ways, frankly) and has practiced exactly one day since is not, you see, anything new to poor Gruden.
Diva receivers are nothing new in the NFL either, you see. As nuts as Brown’s antics may seem to some, Gruden had to deal with one of the first diva wide receivers way back in 2003 when Keyshawn Johnson’s endless antics and complaints led to a sideline blow up between the two.
Gruden’s response was to deactivate Johnson for the final six games of the season, effectively telling him to go on vacation with pay before trading him to Dallas the next season.
Johnson may not have been the NFL’s first true diva wideout, but he once claimed to be saying, “I wrote the book on diva receivers. Truly, when you break it down, I was the first guy in the last 15 years of receivers who did all that stuff. I threw my helmet to the ground when no one was doing that.’’
Heck, fewer than six months after the end of a disappointing rookie season with the New York Jets in 1996, he wrote a book entitled “Just Give Me The Damn Ball.’’
Dude, they were trying to!
So as odd as Brown’s recent behavior has been both in his final year in Pittsburgh (remember him beefing with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger before a late-season game and then showing up on FOX’s “The Masked Singer’’ as a rapper disguised in a hippo costume?), and now in his first days with the Raiders, pro football history is littered with the wacky wideout.
Remember Chad “OchoCinco’’ Johnson on the sidelines sporting a yellow sport coat that said “Future HOF 20??’’ on the back after scoring a touchdown on Monday Night Football in 2007? Or how about when he launched “The Ochocinco News Network?’’ Or did you forget he once raced a horse, but only after it agreed to give him a 110-yard head start?
How about Randy Moss mooning Packer fans? When asked if he’d pay his fine by check, he said he was so rich he’d do it with “straight cash, homey.’’
The list goes on and on. Andre Rison, Michael Irvin. How about Plaxico Burress shooting himself in the leg with a gun he’d stuffed in the band of his sweatpants for protection before he sat down at a New York nightclub? BANG! Bob Marley wasn’t wailing “I Shot the Sheriff,’’ but he should have been.
And then there’s the diva of wide receiving divas – Terrell Owens. Who will forget him scoring a touchdown and then grabbing some pom pons from a cheerleader and joining in her dance routine?
Or grabbing a container of popcorn from a startled fan and throwing it in his own face? Or posing boldly on the star at midfield in Dallas, only to get flattened by a seething George Teague?
Or how about the ultimate Hall-of-Fame diva wide receiver move of all-time? The man boycotted his own Hall-of-Fame induction ceremony in Canton. Now that’s a diva.
Why are these guys like this? Is it that their job is so fraught with danger every time they run across the middle knowing decapitation is still a possibility … even with today’s stricter rules … that they lose their minds periodically to compensate for the stress?
Is it because they walk a tightrope each Sunday between grabbing glory with a one-handed catch and leaving with a concussed brain delivered by some unseen tackler?
Are they nuts because they’re nuts, or do they play a position where you have to be nuts to excel at it? Maybe a little of both. But don’t think for a minute that Antonio Brown is an outlier.
Larry Fitzgerald, the always composed and gentlemanly Cardinals’ wide receiver, is the one who’s the outlier.
Antonio Brown? Just the latest in a twisted line of diva receivers at least 20 years long. No, the insanity didn’t start with Antonio Brown, and it won’t end with him, either. But you can’t blame Jon Gruden if he goes back to his training camp room at night and thinks, “Wasn’t Keyshawn Johnson enough punishment for one coach to endure? What did I do to deserve his clone in frozen feet and hippo costume, sending out a search party seeking to find a 10-year old Schutt Air Advantage helmet that hasn’t been manufactured in, well, 10 years?"
Jon Gruden doesn’t know, but he does know two things: Life ain’t fair, and diva receivers are nothing new. Especially to him.