If I were Joe McKnight, I wouldn’t be here.
With his football chops, I’d be down south. Maybe at Miami or Louisiana State -- possibly starting, probably a star.
But Joe McKnight, arguably the most heralded high school football player in the country, came here to be among us -- at USC, a freshman tailback swaddled in heavy expectations.
Some said he’d be the next Reggie Bush.
Now he’s almost an afterthought.
Three games in and he has touched the ball only 17 times, almost all of them in mop-up duty. He has shown flashes of brilliance, moments when he has cut across the field like a blade through butter. But he also has fumbled, crumbled and looked confused.
“Joe,” I told him, after practice this week, “maybe you shouldn’t have come to Southern Cal. Convince me I’m wrong.”
Most big-time schools have a running back, maybe two, with propulsive speed and serious hopes for the NFL. This year, USC has at least six, counting McKnight. Next year? Six again, maybe more. He might never break out of this traffic jam and become what he could be at many other major universities right now: The Man.
Two beats of silence. Then: “This was the right decision.”
McKnight doesn’t stop there: “I didn’t want to go to a place where it was just given to me. I would rather come here than to a place where you just get the top spot without even doing that much. I’ve always had that kind of mentality.”
He is 19. He stands about 6 feet tall, weighs roughly 190 pounds, has slim hips, thin legs, dark eyes and an earnest expression.
He grew up in a soggy, tough neighborhood just outside New Orleans. His father wasn’t around. His mother struggled. By his teens, he was a transient, bouncing around from his mother’s place to his cousin’s house to the homes of friends.
“He learned to be self-reliant and to believe in himself,” says Neal Thompson, who spent a year with him and his team at John Curtis Christian School for a book, “Hurricane Season.”
McKnight developed self-discipline and a stern maturity, Thompson says, realizing he had a gift and was honing it. Without being told, he threw on a weighted vest, went alone to a nearby track in the hot southern sun and ran sprints. When that was over, he lifted weights.
By his junior year, his flashy runs had become famous among college football scouts.
Then Katrina hit.
He fled to Shreveport, La., with friends. It took weeks for things to return to normal, although normal was like living in a city destroyed by war. He ended up staying with his high school coach.
“The hurricane and its aftermath was total chaos,” the coach, J.T. Curtis, says. “But out of that, Joe matured. I do believe it gave him a perspective most kids don’t have.”
In a season pieced together after the hurricane, McKnight, a junior, led his team to a state championship, then as a senior to first place again.
Just about every big college came calling. When he spurned LSU to become a Trojan, some Louisianians called him a traitor. After he told a news conference that he had talked to Reggie Bush, an ex-Trojan, he found himself at the center of an investigation run by USC compliance officials. Talking to a former player during recruiting is potentially a rule violation.
McKnight said he misspoke.
The investigators continued to pry.
He arrived in Los Angeles last summer, hoping to get away from it all, to take classes, work out and study the playbook.
Right off, he grew homesick.
USC’s first game, against Idaho, was a blowout for his team. But McKnight, wearing Number 4, didn’t measure up. He fumbled, seemed unsteady.
“I just went back to my dorm room and closed the door,” he said. “I didn’t answer the phone. I didn’t want to talk to no one. Didn’t want to see anybody. . . . I just sat and thought.”
Finally, he convinced himself that the next week would be better. But against Nebraska, on national TV, he fumbled again.
“I worried so much about it . . . [and] what the coaches were thinking of me. . . . ‘Maybe we should sit him. Maybe we shouldn’t play him this season.’ ”
He reached out. He talked to his new teammates and coaches. Everyone said this was about patience: He needed to stop worrying, stop thinking, start having fun.
Last Saturday, against Washington State, he played a bit more like the old Joe McKnight. There were moments when he swept past tacklers, shifted gears and ran like no one else on this team can -- in a quick, effortless burst of wind. A sudden storm.
“I feel good,” he said this week. But his voice still wasn’t fully confident. It was the low, shy voice of a teenager. “I know, if I put everything into this, it’s going to turn out fine. This is going to make me stronger. Make me a better person.”
He trotted off the field, skinny and tired, his cleats skimming the grass as he sidestepped a group of reporters.
I hope I’m wrong, that he’s right, that coming here will end up being the right decision.