Blue Bayou

Times Staff Writer

Reggie Bush went from USC to New Orleans and the “next” Reggie is going from New Orleans to USC.

Reverse direction, isn’t that what the great tailbacks do?

If this seems like tossing an expectations piano on the back of a kid days removed from his senior prom, well, 1) no one seems to mind and 2) maybe you haven’t seen Joe McKnight’s highlights on YouTube.

To suggest, as some have, that McKnight’s Internet scrapbook doesn’t measure up to Bush’s montage from La Mesa Helix High is to argue the merits of strawberry ice cream versus chocolate.


Maybe Bush’s knee-jerk moves separated more opposing linebackers from their cleats. Maybe Bush was a tick faster. Maybe he had a better film editor.

In person, granted, McKnight doesn’t necessarily strike you as USC’s eighth Heisman Trophy winner.

Plopped down in his high school coach’s office, between classes, he is wearing a fire engine-red polo shirt, jeans and tan work boots. He is not particularly tall (6 feet), big (190 pounds) or imposing.

USC’s extraction of McKnight out of Louisiana, however, has been equated to a Bayou Brink’s Robbery.

J.T. Curtis, football coach at the John Curtis Christian School, and son of the man who founded the private school in 1962, was supposed to deliver the goods to Louisiana State.

“For Joe to go to LSU, I’m the hero, but that wasn’t what Joe wanted to do,” Curtis barked from behind his desk. “I was not disloyal to my state. I was loyal to my player.”

The backlash has been, in the finest Southern football tradition, unkind.

“Some said I didn’t have any state pride by not staying home,” McKnight said. “Some would say that I’ll go out there [to USC] and sit on the bench for three years.”

And the ultimate insult: “Some said I was scared to play in the SEC.”

Louisiana has not taken this well.

While performing in this year’s Mardi Gras parade, the Curtis School’s marching band got jeered.

A member of the band came back and informed J.T.: “You’re marching in the next one! They want to kill you and Joe.”

Curtis has been told he is “the most hated guy in the LSU community.”

John Curtis Christian, located in Jefferson Parish about 10 miles from downtown New Orleans, has won 21 state football titles since 1975, including last year’s 2A division crown.

It is now also known as the school that let Joe go.

Could McKnight be that good?

Bob Toledo’s first order of business as the new Tulane coach was to personally pay a visit to McKnight.

“I made him tell me no, that he’s not coming to Tulane,” Toledo said. “He’s another Reggie Bush. He’s that good. I saw the video.”

McKnight announced his plans to attend USC live on cable television, in ceremonies that lacked only a lion tamer. An almost immediate ruckus ensued when McKnight mentioned during his news conference that USC Coach Pete Carroll, during the recruiting process, had patched in Bush with McKnight on a conference call -- an NCAA violation.

McKnight quickly recanted.

“I misspoke,” he repeated again during a recent interview. “As far as I know it’s over.”

The recruitment of McKnight will be part of a book, “Meat Market,” by ESPN’s Bruce Feldman, to be published next fall.

The University of Mississippi, coached by former USC assistant Ed Orgeron, whose relentless recruiting helped infuse the Trojans’ rankings rise, spent months in an ultimately failed pursuit of McKnight.

USC put former NFL star Ken Norton Jr., a Trojans assistant coach, in charge of Operation Tailback Conquest. “From our very first conversation, we just hit it off,” Norton said.

Norton described the chase as “challenging” and “fun.”

“From the onset, it was not like I was recruiting him like we were the third-best school recruiting him,” Norton said. “From day one, to me, he was a Trojan. I recruited him as if he was a Trojan.”

Somebody’s bound to pay for this in Baton Rouge.

Standing in the carport of a downtown New Orleans hotel after a speaking engagement, LSU Coach Les Miles would have rather talked about his bunions. “I wish him the very best,” Miles, through slightly clenched teeth, said of McKnight. “I spend time talking about my players and my recruits. Joe is a tremendous talent.”

USC already has nine tailbacks on the roster, all of them prep superstars, so why not make it an even 10? One of McKnight’s new teammates will be the nation’s No. 2-rated running back, Marc Tyler of Westlake Village Oaks Christian.

McKnight, interested in sports broadcasting, says he was lured west by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

Those Heisman trophies in Heritage Hall also caught his eye. “Yeah,” McKnight said with a grin, “I saw that.”

Norton said of all the players he has recruited, McKnight was as savvy and informed as they come.

When he first contacted McKnight, the young star’s first response was, “What took so long?”

McKnight also possessed a contrarian streak.

“I think he got so sick of everyone telling him to go to LSU,” said Feldman, who chronicled McKnight’s recruitment.

Like many top prospects choosing USC these days, McKnight was not scared off by the depth on the Trojans’ depth chart. “The best players go there,” he said.

So who first anointed McKnight as the “next” Reggie?

“I first heard that from Coach Norton,” McKnight said. “Then Coach Carroll told me and it just took off from there.”

Norton distances himself from the proclamation only to this extent:

“If he’s the next Reggie Bush, that’s terrific,” Norton said. “We just knew he was a very good football player. We like exceptional football players on our team.”

Curtis used McKnight much the way USC deployed Bush -- putting the player in multiple positions to best maximize his skills.

McKnight actually spent his first two high school years playing defense, with some thinking he had a future at cornerback in the NFL.

McKnight arrived at Curtis, a private school that offers kindergarten through 12th-grade education, in the third grade. He was raised by his mother, Jennifer, and has an older sister, Johanna, who plays basketball at the University of Richmond, and younger brother, Jonathan, a freshman at Curtis (yes, he plays football and yes, he’s a prospect).

Joe McKnight began dropping jaws in the Curtis school’s youth tackle football league.

“When Joe was in the fifth grade it was obvious,” J.T. Curtis said. “Now what you didn’t know at that point was, is he going to grow, is he going to get tall?”

McKnight was primed for his breakout season in 2005 until Hurricane Katrina hit on a Labor Day weekend that changed everything.

The Saturday before Katrina hit, McKnight evacuated with family friends to Shreveport. Separated from his mother, who was in Baton Rouge, McKnight thought he’d be back at football practice on Monday.

He ended up in Shreveport for a month, at a hotel, living on vouchers. He had no contact with his mother or his coach. “They were saying a lot of crazy stuff,” McKnight recalled. “They were saying school was going to be closed for a year.”

McKnight said he was buying groceries at a market when he was approached by a man asking if he was attending high school.

Wondering when he’d ever get back to the New Orleans area -- “They were saying people were out there killing people,” he said. “I didn’t really want to come back home” -- McKnight enrolled at Evangel Christian, the school that produced USC quarterback John David Booty.

McKnight played two games for Evangel before learning his old school was set to reopen.

With McKnight’s house ruined by flooding, he moved in with Curtis while his mother and younger brother secured a small, one-bedroom apartment.

Playing a Katrina-shortened schedule, McKnight scored 22 touchdowns (nine rushing, five receiving, four punt returns, three interceptions, one kickoff return) and averaged 18 yards a play in leading his team to the state championship.

John Curtis repeated as champion in 2006, with McKnight scoring 30 touchdowns in exceedingly economical fashion.

On a talented team, McKnight was often used as a decoy. He totaled only 45 carries as a senior, averaging 15.8 yards a run with 14 touchdowns.

“You can’t look at carries,” his head coach said. “You have to look at yards per carry.”

McKnight also averaged an astonishing 30.6 yards a catch on 24 receptions.

USC is getting a consummate team player with relatively low mileage.

“Joe was not the featured player on this team,” Curtis said. "... He doesn’t need to be given a special pair of shoes and rubbed on the back and told how wonderful he is, because that hasn’t been how he’s been raised.”

McKnight can’t wait to get to California to begin the next episode of his reality series.

He is set to graduate Friday and plans to enroll in summer school courses at USC in late June.

The next Reggie?

“That’s what other people say,” McKnight counterpunched. “If you go off of what other people say, it might destroy you.”

So is he?

“So many intangibles go into that,” said Curtis, attempting to corral the subject. “Are you asking me do I think he has the gifts that would allow him to do that? I’m going to tell you emphatically, yes.”

McKnight says he’s ready to take on the multitudes of Trojans tailbacks already on campus.

“All it’s going to do is make me better,” he said of the competition.

There’s nothing to hold back now.

Said Norton: “He’s ready to turn it loose.”



Begin text of infobox

Louisiana lightning

Joe McKnight scored 30 touchdowns for John Curtis Christian in River Ridge, La., during his senior season, despite touching the ball only 69 times on offense:

*--* RUSHING: Carries Yards Avg. Long TD Yds./Game Totals 45 709 15.8 71 14 50.6 RECEIVING: Rec. Yards Avg. Long TD Yds./Game Totals 24 735 30.6 80 13 52.5


*--* PUNT RETURNS: No. Yards Avg. Long Totals 12 268 22.3 58 KICKOFF RETURNS: No. Yards Avg. Long Totals 5 170 34.0 60