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Joe McKnight will report to the New York Jets' rookie minicamp this weekend, and, for perhaps the first time in his football life, he won't be treated like a rock star.
He's OK with that. After everything he has experienced -- from raising the spirits of his Louisiana hometown in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to carrying the weight of unrealistic expectations at USC -- he's tired of the heavy lifting.
All he wants is to play football. He just wants to be Joe again. Which, of course, raises the question: Where did Joe go?
Joe used to be poetry with a football in his hands. He was so dynamic during a legendary prep career in New Orleans, he made grizzled college recruiters behave like teenage boys on their first date. Joe averaged nearly 16 yards per carry as a senior at John Curtis Christian High School, where he scored 22 touchdowns five different ways: running, receiving, returning punts, returning kickoffs and intercepting passes. Everybody assumed he'd win the Heisman Trophy someday; the only question was how many times.
Turns out the only Heismans he saw were the seven trophies on display in USC's Heritage Hall.
|Joe McKnight hopes to take off immediately for the Jets.|
Considering all the pre-college hype, Joe's three-year career at USC was unfulfilling. The Jets got him with a fourth-round pick, so no one is expecting miracles. His job is to replace the popular Leon Washington as an all-purpose back, so he's not walking into a high-pressure situation. That's probably a good thing.
"Joe has come up a hard road, but he's got all kinds of special abilities," former USC coach Pete Carroll told ESPNNewYork.com from his new office in the Seattle Seahawks' facility. "He'll fit right in. That role won't be too big for him at all."
From the time he started as a 5-year-old on the pee-wee level, Joe was so gifted that he became bigger than the games. But his life changed before his junior year in high school when New Orleans was devastated by Katrina. Joe evacuated to Shreveport when the levees broke, and wound up separated from his mother for a month. She had evacuated to Baton Rouge.
Football season was coming, but Joe couldn't get home. His house was destroyed by the hurricane. He enrolled at Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport, but only played two games. He eventually got back to New Orleans -- what was left of it -- and back to his team. He still had no home. He moved in with his high school coach, J.T. Curtis, and they leaned on football and each other, hoping their team could heal the community's broken soul. In the Deep South, high school football can inspire like a Sunday-morning sermon.
In the first game after Katrina, Joe gave the town something to cheer about. After a slow start, what you'd expect after several weeks without practice, he turned a nowhere, off-tackle run into a 60-yard touchdown. He disappeared into a crowd of defenders, like Clark Kent into a phone booth, and came out as a blur. The applause lasted for more than a year, as Joe piled up ridiculous numbers and led Curtis to a state championship.
"That run," said Curtis, whose father founded the school, "is one I don't think I'll ever forget."
When it came time to pick a college, most of the local folks assumed -- more like wished, prayed and hoped -- Joe would choose LSU. It was only natural, right? USC also wanted him badly, as did Ole Miss. In "Meat Market," a book by ESPN The Magazine's Bruce Feldman that chronicles recruiting wars in the SEC, Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron says, "If he comes to Oxford, we'll change the bricks on Manning Way to McKnight Way."
Joe's decision to attend USC was regarded by the local folk as an act of treason. That spring, at a Mardi Gras parade, the Curtis High marching band was jeered because Joe had spurned LSU. Joe's mother, Jennifer McKnight, said she still gets an occasional dirty look in public. Ditto Curtis.
"Some people are still angry at me," he said. "They think it was my job to make sure he picked LSU."
Even after he picked USC, televised live, Joe still couldn't run from great expectations. In L.A., he was hailed as the next Reggie Bush. The former Heisman winner, drafted by Joe's hometown Saints in 2006, was a breathtaking open-field runner. So was Joe. Bush could line up in different positions and catch the ball like a polished wide receiver. So could Joe. The Reggie talk was relentless, and it followed Joe for the better part of his college career.
"It's totally unfair for anybody," Carroll said of the Bush comparisons. "Reggie was one of the greatest college players to ever play. Of course we wanted to see if we could find the next one. We thought Joe had all those abilities."
By his own admission, Joe started to believe he was Reggie. As a freshman, he tried to make every play a highlight, making a fancy move when a routine move would have sufficed. The production wasn't there, and those close to him became concerned he was obsessed with being Reggie Bush. Carroll took some of the blame, saying "we kind of messed him up early on" by trying to rush him into a prominent role. Even his mother noticed Joe wasn't right.
"They looked at him to be the next Reggie Bush, not realizing that Reggie is Reggie and Joe is Joe," she said. "They needed to let Joe be Joe. Once he realized that, and let the game come to him, he was fine. When they played Ohio State, that was Joe, not Reggie."
That was in September, when Joe -- never known as the toughest inside runner -- attacked the fierce Ohio State defense for 32 yards on five carries on a late, game-winning drive. Unfortunately, there weren't many games like that in his USC career. He was slowed in his first two seasons by a variety of injuries -- dislocated toes, a sprained knee and banged-up fingers. He was a part-time player in USC's deep stable of backs.
"Every year, we had great running backs come," McKnight said. "We never had a chance to show what we were about."
The knock on Joe was that he was immature and didn't like to play hurt, criticisms that followed him into the NFL draft. One general manager, speaking on the condition of anonymity, called him "a Ferrari that was always in the shop."
The slights weren't only coming from coaches and scouts. According to people close to him, Joe did need to work on himself. They say he finally realized he needed to change on Feb. 3, 2009, when his son, Jaiden, was born. Having a child while he was still in college "made him get his head on straight," his mother said. Sometimes that is a cliché in sports -- how many perspective-changing childbirths have we read about? -- but Jaiden's birth really did seem to have a positive impact on Joe.
For a change, he stayed healthy. He won the starting tailback job and rushed for 1,014 yards (6.2 per carry), becoming the first USC back to rush for 1,000 since 2005. Two backs did it that year: LenDale White and some guy named Reggie. For the first time since childhood Joe was Joe, running free, running for Joe, not chasing an icon.
"It took me a while to get that out of my head," McKnight said of the Bush comparisons. "I mean, it's a lot of pressure. I tried to live up to the expectations."
Joe never got a chance to take a final bow at USC, as he was suspended before the Emerald Bowl when it was discovered he was driving an SUV registered to a Santa Monica businessman. The businessman said he bought it for Joe's girlfriend, whom he employed, as a favor. USC investigated for possible NCAA violations.
Goodbye, USC. Hello, NFL draft.
Despite questions about his durability and character, the Jets liked Joe so much they traded up to select him. The other shoe dropped when they traded Washington to Carroll, who curiously passed on Joe in the fourth round, one spot ahead of where the Jets took him. Carroll said he had a greater need on defense, so he picked Oregon defensive back Walter Thurmond.
The man who knows Joe best, Curtis, believes the best is yet to come.
"I think he's going to explode on the professional level," he said. "Now he can just play."
The Jets don't see him as the next Reggie Bush. They don't expect him to be the next Leon Washington. They just want him to be Joe, the Joe from 2009.
Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.