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Charger Lineman Isn’t Invincible Anymore : Football: One play in the 1989 preseason changed Dennis McKnight’s thinking, his career and his life.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dennis McKnight had begun to think he was indestructible.

For seven seasons, the Chargers put him at center, guard or tackle, and he hammered away at the guy on the other side of the line. He wasn’t a bury-you-to-the-turf type, but he was steady and persistent. Few people reached the quarterback by going past McKnight.

Entering the 1989 preseason, he had started 77 consecutive games and was a Pro Bowl alternate in 1988. The thought never entered his mind that he would do anything but play 16 or 17 seasons. And it surely wouldn’t be him who was knocked out of a game with an injury--it would be the other guy, the one who didn’t train as hard as he did.

But one play changed his thinking, his career and his life. In the final exhibition against Phoenix last season, McKnight suffered a torn quadriceps tendon and was out the rest of the year.

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Now, as he slowly begins to rediscover the form that drew attention in 1988, thoughts of invincibility are long gone.

“You never know,” says McKnight, whose Chargers will play the Rams at Anaheim Stadium Saturday night. “I know I’m still a good player, but if I don’t fit into schemes or future plans, then hey, things can happen.”

McKnight is the only player remaining on this team to have worn a Charger uniform in the NFL playoffs. He can tell by looking around him that he isn’t one of the kids anymore. The other faces are younger, the legs a bit more spry.

“I do feel older,” he says. “It is a sign that the end is coming. I’m appreciating and enjoying things more now. I won’t hate practice as much. I think when the season starts, I’ll enjoy it more.”

And that’s because he came awfully close to seeing his football career slip through his fingers. The night he was hurt, he overheard the doctor whisper: “Boy, it’s too bad Conan’s done.”

Conan is the nickname McKnight was given by his teammates for his dedication in the weight room. Fittingly, long hours of lifting brought him back to the field this year.

Certainly, there was a lot more to deal with than physical training. The hours he didn’t spend rehabilitating his leg went by slowly. All sorts of thoughts came to mind. Could he come back? If not, what then? How would he support his family?

“You don’t sleep at night, so millions of things run through your head,” he says. “All of a sudden it’s like ‘Wow, I’m human.’ ”

To help him cope with the injury, McKnight’s two closest friends on the team, Don Macek, who retired at the end of last season, and tackle Joel Patten would come by his house after each game and take him out on the town. Football was never discussed.

“The biggest thing he needed was not to talk about football,” Patten said. “He needed to be one of the guys again.”

This year, he isn’t really one of the guys anymore, and he knows it. The younger players stay up at night to watch television or play games. A veteran such as McKnight, who has had four knee operations and will be 31 in September, needs to store up his stamina for two-a-day workouts.

“I just don’t have the energy to stay up,” he says.

The first few days of camp this season weren’t kind to McKnight, who worried constantly that he wouldn’t pick up the new blocking schemes and that he was headed for a quick trip to the cut list. His wife, Jodi, and Patten kept telling him it was only the first week and that he should be patient.

“All I did,” Patten says with a laugh, “was take the gun away.”

Gradually, things began to fall into place. “That first week I was depressed,” McKnight says. “But now it’s like that didn’t even exist. I have my old confidence back.”

The biggest threat to McKnight’s career is Larry Williams, a Plan B free agent acquired in March, 1989.


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