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Major label sneaker brands usually spend big money on basketball players. Football players? Not so much. Back in 1996, Keyshawn Johnson and adidas broke the mold by releasing the adidas Key Trainer, the first signature model designed for and endorsed by a wide receiver. Baring the nickname of the #1 Draft Pick, Keyshawn joined the likes of Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal by becoming one of the only athletes to receive a signature shoe as a rookie. With a big name, big game and big personality, Keyshawn endorsed the Key Trainer on turf and on TV as a Jet, becoming an All-Pro player and accomplished author (Just Give Me The Damn Ball) within his first three seasons.

Now a successful analyst for ESPN, the talented wide receiver still has a grip on the football, but he hasn’t had a foot in the sneaker game for quite some time. This Saturday, that all changes with the retro return of the Key Trainer. How did the Key Trainer come about in ’96 and how did the retro come to life in 2014? We spoke to Keyshawn to find out.

Nice Kicks: Back in 1996, you were the first wide receiver in over a decade to go #1 overall in the draft. You were also the first wide receiver to endorse a signature shoe. Did those accomplishments feel like breakthroughs or hurdles at the time?

Keyshawn Johnson: No, I didn’t even really look at it like that. The tennis shoe market for signature shoes started to go in that direction. With Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, you had a bunch of guys connected to a particular shoe, but not necessarily a signature with their name on it. I thought it was the time.

Nice Kicks: What made adidas the right company for you to partner with?

Keyshawn Johnson: The company as a whole was really good to me and my family. At the time, I was a Nike kid growing up. I played basketball in Nikes and went to a Nike school with USC. Adidas said they weren’t going to allow me to get away and wanted to make it special. Peter Moore stepped up to the plate and made sure that from a brand standpoint I was involved. They had just signed Kobe Bryant, too. Kobe was a rookie, I was a rookie, and we were gonna do some big things for adidas together.

Nice Kicks: What memories standout from your early days working with Kobe?

Keyshawn Johnson: Me and Kobe were flying to Oregon together on a private jet. We were signing stuff for adidas. I used to sign my whole name, Keyshawn Johnson, and he would always sign Kobe 8 or KB8. We had the same amount of items, but he finished first. He goes, “If you’re gonna learn how to do this right and be a star, you’ve got to shorten your name.” To this day, I tell the story all the time because it was hilarious. Neither one of us had done anything. He hadn’t made a shot and I hadn’t caught a ball.

Nice Kicks: Not a lot of athletes are involved in their retro campaigns. What was your reaction when adidas contacted you about the return of the Key Trainer?

Keyshawn Johnson: Once I learned what they were wanting to do, I said, “Okay, cool. Let’s figure it out.” Everybody else is bringing out their old shoes, and I don’t think very many people, especially the younger generation, even realize that I had signature shoes. Outside of Michael Jordan, when the game is over, who else continues to push shoes? To bring it back out I thought was cool.

Nice Kicks: As an athlete and as a commentator, you’ve always been a measured balance of performance and personality. How does the Key Trainer represent that?

Keyshawn Johnson: It’s just purely more personality. That was one of the things I wanted to touch upon when we first started designing the shoe back in ’96. I wanted to make sure that this shoe had some personality to it and that it wouldn’t just be known as a training shoe. If you decided that you didn’t want to wear it as a training shoe, you could just wear it out. Basketball players had basketball shoes and you could wear those out. Football was just cleats. I wanted to create a training shoe that had my personality. That’s what they were able to do with the new technology.

Nice Kicks: From a style standpoint, how do you see yourself rocking the Key Trainer retro in 2014?

Keyshawn Johnson: The same way I I did it back then – pretty much anywhere, with anything, at any time. You can still wear it as a training shoe, but it’s more fashionable now.

The adidas Key Trainer releases on April 5th online at adidas and at select adidas Originals accounts nationwide.

Vault commercials via ESPN and Soletopia. Lead image art by Cameron White, photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images via Zimbio.

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