KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -The sharp metal cleats of 300-pound men clattered on the hard cement walkway, inches away from the tiny, helpless unseen kitten.

Barely old enough to have its eyes open, the animal had apparently strayed out of some dark crevice of Arrowhead Stadium. Most of the players, as they hurried in from practice, didn’t even notice the furry little bundle at their feet. Possibly a few did not care.

But just in time, a pair of strong hands reached down and gently lifted it to safety.

Larry Johnson may have saved a life. Then, after carrying the kitten into the locker room and carefully sheltering it in his stall, Johnson took his little friend home and brightened a child’s day with an unexpected gift.

So this is Kansas City’s surly, brooding running back? This is the tough Pro Bowler so many people think is only out for himself?

Well, if people thought the kitty incident was a shocker, they should have been at Herman Edwards’ weekly news conference Tuesday morning when Johnson brought down the house with an uncanny and totally unexpected impersonation of his head coach.

Decked out in Edwards’ trademark NFL sweatshirt, shorts and red cap pulled low over his face, Johnson walked in unannounced, sat down at the elevated desk in the front of the room and regaled his audience. He had Edwards’ familiar gestures, expressions and inflection down pat.

So remarkable was his act, a few people thought at first it actually was the coach.

“We have to play this game to WIN,” he thundered. After a few minutes, he arose to the sounds of laughter and applause and left the room, waving with a self-conscious grin. Even the coach, holding his 1-year-old daughter in the back of the room and waiting his turn, was laughing out loud.

So what’s going on here? Has sullen Johnson turned into lighthearted Larry?

To a large extent, yes, apparently he has. For the first time in his career, Larry Johnson seems happy. He feels secure. He’s even becoming a team leader.

But why? It can’t be simply because he knows he’s arrived as a star. He knew that last year. When Priest Holmes went down with head and neck trauma that still has him sidelined, Johnson seized his opportunity, running for more than 100 yards in nine straight games and setting a Chiefs record with 1,750 yards rushing.

But to many people, he still seemed preoccupied and withdrawn.

Then, slowly, after Edwards replaced Dick Vermeil as head coach last winter, that began to change. In one of their first meetings, Edwards made a point of reassuring his moody young running back that he, not Holmes, was going to be his starter.

“I think you have to earn his trust,” said Edwards. “You do with every player.”

Chiefs president Carl Peterson also got to see Johnson’s impersonation of his coach and was laughing as hard as everyone.

“He has a great sense of humor, and I’m glad people can finally see that,” Peterson said. “The head coach is the key. Larry is very comfortable with Herm Edwards.”

A rare package of size, strength, speed and agility, the 230-pound Johnson is again proving he’s one of the best in the league. With a team-record 39 carries against Seattle last week (too many, Edwards says), he ran for three touchdowns and scored a fourth on a tackle-breaking catch and run.

After a slow start, he’s third in the league with 644 yards rushing, second among non-kickers with 60 points and No. 1 in yards from scrimmage with 973. He’s a primary reason the Chiefs (4-3) have survived the loss of quarterback Trent Green and remained alive in the playoff hunt.

He’s learned when to plow ahead, when to lower his shoulder and crash into tacklers, and when to be patient. At the launch of a season-long 39-yard run against the Seahawks, he actually stood flat-footed still for a split second after the handoff, waiting for a crease to come open. Off the field, he’ll probably never be the most approachable star in the league.

Asked about his newfound happiness, he indicated, politely, that it really was not a subject he cared to discuss.

Nevertheless, one might say that in one important sense, Edwards has done for Johnson what Johnson did for the kitten.

He didn’t save his life, but he helped change it for the better.

AP-ES-11-02-06 1719EST

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