Introduced as “Conan, The Offensive Lineman,” Dennis McKnight lifted himself up, muscles bulging from goatee to toe. And in front of him was one tough audience, a group of San Diego’s most feared juvenile delinquents. LeRoy had beaten up his neighbors. Sam had beaten up his sister. Ken had ripped off a drug store. All did drugs.
But Conan communicated. Get it together, he said. Don’t be a criminal, he said.
“You can do it if you want it, but only if you want it bad enough,” he would say, speaking, although nobody knew it, from life experience.
Over and done with, he walked toward them, their eyes amazed by his size, and they wondered how he’d become so wise. Conan, who last shaved several years ago, looked just like one of them. But he was not one of them. He was meek, really.
One by one, he spoke to them individually and idealistically. A boy, perhaps no more than 12, came up and complained about a mess at home. Dad hit mom. Mom cried. Dad hit him. Then, everyone cried.
Conan, touched, sat down alone with the boy for nearly an hour, taking his visit into overtime. The supervising police officers did not disturb, because as one of them would say later: “He didn’t want to leave. He wanted to do something for that kid. I just wish more people in our society were like Dennis McKnight.”
Maybe you wish more people had Dennis McKnight’s sensitivity in dealing with youngsters, a sensitivity which belies his super-macho image as the Chargers’ Conanesque right guard.
But you don’t wish his childhood on anyone. He was beaten as a kid. His mom was, too. And his old man, an alcoholic, was the one who did the beating. Then, his old man left one day. Forever.
McKnight, at the time, was age 12.
Today, because he wanted it badly enough, he is his own person, complete with identity and philosophy. He is a rare one, one who honestly couldn’t care what the jerk next door thinks. In training camp this year, his hair was shoulder-pad length. He has since cut it a couple inches, but it is still there blowing wild and free from under his helmet.
For he is wild and free, too. He drives a white pickup truck, the big red, white and blue bumper sticker standing out:
“Help keep America clean. Support your local Hell’s Angels group.”
Hell’s Angels? Here’s a policeman’s profound definition: “They’re a motorcycle group that started out as hell-raisers, selling dope,” said George Varella of the San Diego Police department, who also is McKnight’s good friend. “There are chapters throughout the United States. They deal in guns, dope, prostitution. But Dennis is completely opposite from all that.”
Still, although he is not an advocate of the illegal aspects of the Hell’s Angels, he is a pretty good copycat of looks and legal interests.
He owns a Harley Davidson and on his back is a T-shirt that says “A Way Of Life--Harley Davidson.” On his hip is a tattoo that says (surprise) “Harley Davidson.”
The beard, after all these years, looks scruffy.
The goatee goes with it.
The country music blares from the truck:
You’re the reason God made Oklahoma.
You’re the reason God made Oklahoma.
You’re the reason God made Oklahoma.
And I’m sure missing you.
For the proper perspective, we take you to his wife for a description of her husband:
“Foreboding,” said Jodi McKnight, Mrs. Conan. “If you saw him out somewhere, you probably wouldn’t mess around with him, not with how he looks.
“But, gosh, how can I say this. There’re are two sides. The football side and the big humanitarian side. Most wouldn’t see the private side.”
Unless you talk to him. The get-up is loud, but the voice is soft.
“He’s one of the straightest guys I’ve ever known in football,” teammate Ed White said.
Said Conan: “I like motorcycles, and Harley Davidsons in particular. I enjoy having long hair, and people think that’s my image. ‘He’s a biker and a wild guy.’ Stuff like that. But, hell, I don’t get drunk. I don’t go to parties. I ride my bike as an enjoyment. People always associate me with the Hell’s Angels because I watch the movie and have the bumper sticker on my truck. But, you know, I like things like that.
“I’m not saying I want to be one of those kind of people, but I can. . . .you know . . .I can . . .I don’t know . . .That’s the kind of life style they have, and I think it’s all right.
“Jodi, my wife, always says if she were to meet me now, she’d stay away because she’d be afraid. Because of the goatee and the long hair and the biker T-shirts and stuff. But that’s the way I like to look. I’m not into dressing nice, stuff like that. I just enjoy that look. If I could, I’d wear a ponytail. But I don’t consider myself a bad person or a freak or anything. That’s the image I like.
“I guess I like things that are different. I can appreciate a person for being himself. I respect people that don’t conform. If you want to be a biker or a hippie, and if you’re afraid because society will look down on you, that’s wrong.
“I’m that way because I’m myself. I’m a nice guy. I don’t go around and raise hell in bars or do drugs or beat up people. I’m just kind of myself.”
At first, he was somebody else, a child living in Dallas, Texas, where his father Grover McKnight drove a truck and drove a family crazy.
“He was in trouble with the police,” Dennis McKnight said. “And we were always kind of hiding out. We were on the run a lot of years, and I felt like a criminal myself.”
The idea that Marie McKnight, his mother, could marry such a man seems ludicrous. She is the kind that touches. She meets a stranger and she hugs them. She God-blesses them.
“I met his mother once,” said Dick Lewis, a special assistant to the San Diego Police Chief who travels with the Chargers for security reasons. “She’s dynamite. The first time I met her, she embraced me and my partner. I said: ‘God, here’s a caring person.’ I can see how Dennis is the way he is. She had to touch you, be close to you.”
Her brother warned her about Grover. Don’t marry him, he said. Don’t ruin your life, he said. She shook her head and took Grover’s hand in matrimony.
“I can’t figure (why she went through with it) myself,” Marie says today. “I always treated people like I thought they’d treat me. It was a mistake. We all make them.
“I don’t really like to talk about it because it was a hard time in my life. I’d come from a good family and had never met people like that.”
She’d been married before to a man named Bud Cain. Her dream was to have a child by him, a boy especially. They had met in World War II, when he was stationed near her hometown on Staten Island, N.Y. He couldn’t have children, though.
And he died of a heart attack.
She wanted a son and married Grover McKnight.
He beat them and left them. Dennis was 12. Marie took him with her to New York, where her brothers and sisters lived. She would raise him without alimony or much of her own money. But she raised him. She was over-protective, naturally, for this was her one and only son. He was her dream.
And what resulted was an introverted, insecure boy.
“I lived such a sheltered life because my dad left me and my mom,” he said. “My mom was really protective of me. And she did a great job of raising me because a lot of times, a kid without a father could turn out to be a hoodlum, you know.
“And she did a great job, and in turn, that made me a little withdrawn, you know, as far as going to parties. I’d always be with the guys. And I really never went much for the girls. I had an inferiority complex. I thought I was ugly and nobody would like me.”
This is when a son needs a dad, or even a big brother.
Dennis McKnight, with no other alternative, turned to the big screen.
Movies literally changed his life.
ROCKY I--He saw it the summer before his senior year with a girl, no less. Her name was Jodi, a cheerleader. Previously, he had gone out with a friend of hers, but, as he put it, “I wasn’t a real great date.” He kept calling Jodi to say: “Why doesn’t this girl like me? Can you talk to her for me?”
Eventually, Jodi told someone else: “If the guy wants to go out with somebody, I’ll go out with him.”
Word got back to Dennis, who invited her to see Rocky.
“I remember sitting in the theater,” McKnight said. “I had to drag her to see it, because she thought it was just a boxing movie, but when Rocky brought Adrian to his apartment for the first time and took off his shirt and leaned up against the chin up bar, his arms were so big. I looked over to her, and she (Jodi) just kind of gave out a big sigh. I said that’s what I’m going to do. And it was within the next week that I went down and joined a gym and started lifting.
“When I saw that movie, I said to myself: ‘I can do anything I want as long as I work as hard as he did.’ That’s when I really started lifting weights. I started training hard. You know, I got into the whole Rocky bit. The gloves without the fingers, the sweat shirts, and in class I started talking like Rocky-- ‘Eh, yoooo.’ And people started calling me Rocky.”
He wanted to be a pro football player. He kept telling this to everyone.
“Yeah, he wanted to be a pro football player,” his high school coach, Joe Ryan, said. “And I had doubts that he’d play for the varsity. When he talked about playing pro football, you figured he was daydreaming.”
He became the starting offensive center. And he wanted to go to Rutgers. The scout from Rutgers, however, said: “I doubt he’s good enough to play for Wagner College.”
He kept lifting. Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, saw some of his game films and offered a scholarship over the phone. Marie was afraid to let her son go, but she wouldn’t stand in his way.
After five days at Drake, he wanted to go home to Jodi, to Marie, to New York.
“My offensive line coach threatened to beat him up if he left,” Ryan said.
Dennis Darnell, Drake’s offensive line coach, told him: “I’ll help you pack your bags. You keep talking about going home, well, that’s it. I’ll take you to the airport. Let’s go.”
Nothing like giving a kid a guilt trip.
Finally, Jodi talked him out of it. She said he should give it a chance, and she also said she’d marry him if he stayed.
That clinched it.
And Conan had a crew cut.
“With (head coach) Chuck Shelton, it was his way or highway,” McKnight said. “I had to conform. Either you did it his way or you weren’t on the team. There was no hair below the lower lip and no hair to the collar. There was no excuse for being late to a meeting. If you were on academic probation, there was a mandatory study table. You’d have to be at the library three nights a week. If you didn’t show, you had to get up at 6 a.m. and run. You know, it helps prepare you for life.”
As a freshman, though, McKnight ran the 40-yard dash in 5.1 seconds, not exactly the way to prepare for the NFL.
CONAN, THE BARBARIAN--Arnold Schwarzenegger fascinated him. Still does. McKnight got a call a year ago to audition for a bit part in the second Conan movie, and he did it only because he’d have a chance of meeting Arnie baby.
Really, though, Schwarzenegger inspired him to get bigger, quicker. Now, McKnight runs a 4.75 40-yard dash.
“To me, my first introduction to weightlifting was the body building end of it,” McKnight said. “Not really the strength part so much. He (Schwarzenegger) was the best there ever was, and it’s only natural that if you’re going to emulate somebody, you want to emulate the best.
“The very first time I started lifting, I could tell it was something for me. In high school, I was kind of a wimpy dude. I never went out until my senior year. I’d always stay home and I just felt inferior. . . . Then when I started lifting weights, I said: ‘I’ve found something now that I’ll really take advantage of.’ I got all the muscle books on Arnold, and I became entrenched. I wanted to look like that, and I still do.
“I kind of went into a shell. I said: ‘I’ll show all those people. When I walk around, people will say, ‘Jesus, look at that guy.’ That’s what weightlifting did for me. It gave me a confidence about myself that I’d never had with football or anything else.”
An honorable mention All-American his senior year at Drake, he was passed over in the NFL draft.
“If I’d been drafting, I’m not sure I would’ve picked him either,” said Darnell, his coach and friend.
Cleveland signed him as a free agent, but waived him even though he’d been in just four plays in three exhibition games.
“I tried to talk him out of trying again,” said Darnell, who took McKnight with him to Southeast Missouri State as a graduate assistant. “I thought it was time for him to get on with his life.”
ROCKY III--"I thought it was real coincidental,” McKnight said, “that the year I came out here (to San Diego) to try out, Rocky III had come out. And, you know, the whole bit about the ‘Eye of the Tiger.’ That kind of rejuvenated me and my desire for training.”
A Charger scout had told offensive line coach Dave Levy about McKnight, saying only that he was a decent snapper for field goals and punts. Levy called and asked if McKnight would like to try out.
McKnight asked Darnell what he thought.
“I don’t think you’ll make it,” Darnell said.
But they trained anyway, working especially hard on the running aspect. Darnell, using the old guilt-trip method, would say: “If you can’t run five miles, you can’t. Don’t worry about it.”
McKnight ran five miles every day.
“He was willing to do those things six days a week,” Darnell said. “His commitment was total. He never missed a day.”
He made the team.
Now, he starts.
HELL’S ANGELS--He saw the documentary, and it inspired him to look like a hood. He also kept talking about Schwarzenegger, and his teammates nicknamed him “Conan.”
“The image goes along with the nickname, and everything else involved is a gimmick,” McKnight said. “But I enjoy it. I like being called Conan. It makes me feel good. It makes me feel different or something. And, you know, it makes me feel like the character, like I have to live up to my name and reputation. I have to be tough, and when I’m in there, I have to play hard and do the best I can.”
Conan coaxed that little juvenile delinquent to cope with his family problems. Simply, he just told the kid his own life story. For Dennis McKnight had once been bitter, too. He’d once told a friend in his high school weight room: “I’d like to go down to Texas and beat the hell out of him.”
He was talking about his own father.
Today, he says: “I don’t really like to get into that (his father) too much, but he had a rough childhood himself. He wasn’t raised by his real parents. He never finished school. Hell, he was working and driving a truck when he was 15, 16 years old. And he had a rough life that carried over to his adulthood. He had a bad temper. And he had a problem with alcohol.
“He tried to call when me and my mom first moved to New York. But he used to beat me a lot and would beat my mom. It might sound cruel, but I have no real great desire to see him. I don’t wish any harm to him, but I just don’t have any real desire. You know, you can only kick a dog so many times and expect him to come back and love you.”
Still, Conan, The Offensive Lineman, made it.
Isn’t there a lesson to be learned from that?