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Johnson returns from foot injury to practice with Chiefs

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Larry Johnson took a short swing pass, dodged a defender and streaked 50 yards downfield, running hard and fast, free and easy.

Sure, it was only a team workout and anyone who actually had tried to tackle the highest paid player in team history would have risked getting cut right on the spot.

But the foot injury that shelved Kansas City's two-time Pro Bowl running back for the final eight games last year seemed fully healed.

From all appearances, L.J. is back.

"It felt good to come out here and still be able to come out and run," Johnson said after the 90-minute practice on Tuesday. "Body-wise, I'm 100 percent."

It's taken a long time for the rough-and-tumble running back to say that. After rushing for more than 1,750 yards in both 2005 and 2006, he missed most of training camp in a contract dispute last season and never fully regained his stride. His season ended on Oct. 4 when a Green Bay linebacker jumped onto his back and rode him to the Arrowhead Stadium turf late in the fourth quarter.

Johnson was slow to get up and then hobbled to the sideline. The Chiefs went on to lose that game and eight more, ending their season on a nine-game losing skid and finished 4-12 while the running back who'd just signed a $45 million contract sat and stewed.

By the time doctors decided a bone in the right foot was broken, the season was lost.

"No one knew what it was," Johnson said. "It was so swollen, they didn't know it was a fracture. They didn't know if the bone had shifted. It was a little bit of both."

Johnson practiced outdoors three days last week. Then on Tuesday, he met with the media for the first time since the injury.

"They wouldn't have me practice if they weren't sure I that I was able to play or even practice," he said. "It felt good just to be out here. Everybody knew my foot was all right. I had fun coming out here practicing."

There seemed to be nothing bothering Johnson as he ran the plays.

"You guys saw him," coach Herm Edwards told reporters. "He's fine."

No one has said the Chiefs' nine-game slide, their longest in any non-strike year, was solely due to the loss of Johnson. Plenty of other problems also haunted Edwards' second year in Kansas City, including an aging offensive line that yielded a league-high 55 sacks and made life miserable for second-year quarterback Brodie Croyle. But taking Johnson out of the backfield took away the heart out of an already shaky attack and left it without hope.

"When I was playing, everybody's main emphasis was stopping the run," Johnson said. "Then when you didn't have me back there, those last couple of games it was like, `all hell's going to break loose. You might as well just blitz him.'

"That's what happened. Of course, you lose that little bit of excitement. I like to rant and rave on the sideline and get everybody pumped up. I think they were kind of missing that. It was like everybody was down and was just trying to get through the season."

Although he didn't have surgery, it was late winter even before Johnson could work out.

"I'd say it was about February," he said. "I did a little bit. In March and April I started to do a little bit more. As soon as we got to offseason workouts, I was able to do a lot more as far as cutting and running straight ahead. That's what they were more concerned about. Was I able to go side-to-side without any problems?"

The answer seems to be yes.

"Sometimes you don't even think about it," he said. "You just make cuts and don't even think about it. To be able to do that and not be so hesitant, like `Oh, I don't want to hurt myself again,' It felt good just to go out here and run loose. You want to run those plays and be able to cut and show the younger guys you're not that old and you still can play with the best of them. It's fun being out here doing that."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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