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Shelley Smith-Keyshawn Johnson friendship spans babysitting, triumphs, tears, filmmaking

EDITOR’S NOTE: SportsCenter reporter Shelley Smith and ESPN NFL analyst Keyshawn Johnson have enjoyed a friendship that bridges three decades and dates back to when Johnson was high school football star and Smith was reporting for Sports Illustrated. Smith worked with Johnson on his new 30-for-30 film “Trojan War” detailing the reemergence of the University of Southern California’s football program in the early 2000s. Smith takes Front Row inside her friendship with Johnson, whom she once employed as a babysitter.

Almost exactly 20 years ago, wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a Heisman Trophy candidate starring for the surging USC Trojans.

I was an SI staffer then and wrote a back-of-magazine piece entitled, “My Babysitter, the Football Star.”

I wrote about our fairly unusual friendship that was forged just after the 1990s Los Angeles riots when I was doing a story for the magazine on his former high school. He, and his best friend, Reynaldo (Skeats) Spalding, who was playing at Iowa, both needed work; I needed a babysitter for my daughter Dylann, who was then entering first grade and beginning her soccer career. It was a partnership destined for greatness.

Tonight, it comes full circle as Keyshawn’s 30 for 30 film “Trojan War” will air on ESPN (9 p.m. ET).

That same little girl he babysat, Dylann Tharp, is now 29 and was a co-producer on the two-year-project. She worked with our fabulous director/producer Aaron Rahsaan Thomas and producer/editor Mario Diaz and myself as consulting producer.

There is the Trojan family and there is the Keyshawn-Skeats-Dylann-and-me family. It’s unique, for sure.

For more than 20 years, we’ve all stayed close, through births (Keyshawn’s four kids, Skeats’ daughter) and deaths (Keyshawn’s mother, brother and uncle), significant others and the breakups of significant others, too many to name.

We know one another’s parents and siblings and friends and family gatherings are filled with so much laughter and great memories, even as we make more.

Most recently we celebrated Keyshawn’s wedding to Jennifer and muscled through my battle with breast cancer. Both Keyshawn and Skeats and their families were up front and center with their support and love during my battle.

Two years ago when Keyshawn and his business partner, Brian Kelly, pitched the idea to ESPN about a 30 for 30 on the glory and magic of the Pete Carroll years at USC (which I covered for ESPN), I jumped on board and so did Dylann, who has been a freelance producer for a few years, mainly with NFL Network.

I’ll never forget our first production meeting, looking at Dylann, all grown, offering ideas and suggestions to Keyshawn about how this whole thing would work.

For the next two years, she’d get an experience of a lifetime — tracking down footage and people and setting up interviews complete with nightmarish logistics.

She and I interviewed former USC quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart and flew to Seattle to get former USC coach and current Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. She did a lot of the interviews solo; in the ultimate proof that, yes, this indeed has come full circle, she interviewed Keyshawn himself.

Our production team spent countless hours planning how we could convince USC’s former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush to be part of the film.

Arron and Mario made a sample “sizzle” reel of what the film would be about and how he fit in — and we even got Snoop to intervene. In the end, Reggie – who is in business with Keyshawn (who asked Reggie repeatedly to participate) – just didn’t want to re-visit that time period, even as special as it was.

It didn’t end well for Reggie and USC — we got that — but we were hoping he’d want to talk anyway. He was nice about it, but politely declined.

When the premier was held in Los Angeles on Oct. 7, our production team was together again. Keyshawn’s son, Keyshawn Jr., came along (he’s a top wide receiver at Calabasas High and is being highly recruited) as was Jennifer, Skeats and Keyshawn’s brother, Michael.

We would have loved Keyshawn’s mom, Gwen, and his brother Dennis and uncle Ron to be there as well, but they were no doubt beaming at his accomplishment from above.

Dylann and I sat together and squeezed hands whenever the crowd laughed or cheered. Seeing our work on the big screen and in front of about 200 people was amazing and extremely fulfilling.

We took pictures, of course, and you can see how through the years how Dylann grew and was raised by both Skeats and Keyshawn, who are two of the most loyal people I know. She has become a tremendous young woman and now an accredited filmmaker. I know great things are ahead for her.

We are an unlikely family, but one that has flourished. That’s what families do.

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