Tragedy struck yesterday as former New York Jets Running Back Joe McKnight was gunned down in Louisiana. As eyewitnesses have their accounts trickle in, it seems like this was something that could’ve easily been avoided and did not have to happen the way it did. With the tenor of the country the way it is, you can’t help but initially question why a 54 year old white man felt he had to ignore a young black man’s apology, shoot this young black man once, drag him out of his car, and unload what eyewitnesses said was three more shots while standing over him.
We don’t know what McKnight’s murderer was thinking, and we don’t know if there will be things that come out in the next couple of days that provide some kind of context in a social media era that sorely needs context due to the echo chamber that currently exists. At best, it was a road rage incident that turned deadly and at worst it was an execution of a 28 year old young man who was a brother, a teammate, and a friend.
I had the pleasure of meeting Joe McKnight in 2009 during the Lupus Walk that was held at MetLife Stadium. Jets players were going around saying hello to a lot of the younger children that were present after the walk concluded. Rex Ryan had actually joined us during the walk and so a crowd had mobilized around Rex like a bubble leading him back to the 50 yard line. The players were as gravitated to Rex as the fans, but Joe walked over to a group of Jet fans that were playing a touch football game and told one young boy that he reminded him of Reggie Bush. The young boy smiled the biggest smile and then ran back to tell his friends. I walked over to Joe and introduced myself and we chatted for a bit about the season, USC, playing for Rex, and the veterans on the team.
I know that there is this weird expectation nowadays between fans and athletes where we believe they owe us their time. In some ways, I’m sure they feel obligated to talk to us but I’ve always been impressed by the players that actually want to talk to us. Joe was incredibly gracious. He was very reflective of his time at USC and playing for Pete Carroll. He said that when he was recruited the only player better than him in the US was QB Jimmy Claussen and how that fueled him because he thought Claussen was only ranked higher because he was a QB.
He said Carroll and Ryan are straightshooters and that he always appreciated how straight forward they were with him. “If I let them down,” he said, “I would know it.” He said that desire to please them and his teammates fueled him to get in shape, and to try and be the best teammate that he could even if he didn’t always listen to the veteran players’s advice. He asked me if I wanted a picture and, if you notice I’m talking to him it is about how he isn’t taller than I am so maybe I could take his spot on the kick return team, now looking at that picture knowing he’s gone is incredibly humbling.
McKnight was supposed to be the second coming of Reggie Bush, electric with the ball, and I still remember his 100 yard kick return against the Texans and his dynamic game running the ball against the Bills in the last game of the 2010 season as memories of him as a player that will stay with me. While those memories are great, I choose to remember the guy who went over to a couple of kids with Lupus, told them they could be better than him, and genuinely meant it. You’ve seen coaches and players express sentiments about Joe McKnight the person The things on the football field are unfortunately the focus for some, but how he touched those around him outside the yard markers is really how he should be remembered.
Photo Credit: Dalbin Osorio