Joe McKnight Embodied USC’s ‘Fight On’ Spirit Until The End

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 01: Joe McKnight /

Joe McKnight, who was killed Thursday afternoon in New Orleans, embodied the Fight On spirit of a USC Trojan until the end.

Joe McKnight’s career did not go as planned.

He was not the second coming of Reggie Bush.

He was never an NFL star.

But he was a Trojan, one who embodied the spirit of Fight On.

McKnight’s life did not go as planned. Because it ended far too soon.

The 28-year-old running back was senselessly murdered on Thursday afternoon in New Orleans, gunned down at a busy intersection in broad daylight, a victim of an apparent “road rage incident.”

When tragedy strikes, mourning and remembering are inextricably linked.

McKnight was a man beneath the pads — a son, a brother, a father. But as football fans, we knew him as No. 4.

So we remember him in the cardinal and gold of a Trojan uniform.

We remember the promise of the 2008 Rose Bowl, as he picked up a deflected back pass on the dribble and ran for a 65-yard gain. He had 127 yards rushing, 45 yards receiving and a touchdown in that game. That was the final outing of his bright freshman season, when he earned an All-Pac-12 honorable mention.

And we remember The Drive, the one often credited to freshman quarterback Matt Barkley, but the one which always should have been and henceforth should be referred to as The Joe McKnight Drive.

On that night at the Horseshoe in Columbus when USC’s offense had little success, particularly on the ground, against the Ohio State Buckeyes, McKnight found his second gear. He accounted for 53 of the Trojans’ 86 yards on that game-winning drive, turning a second-and-19 into a manageable third-and-eight, and then that into a first down.

And when Stafon Johnson ran in the winning score, it was McKnight who punched the bubble screen into the endzone for the two-point conversion.

McKnight’s journey had a low for every high, however. He left the Trojans after the 2009 season under the specter of NCAA compliance issues and was selected in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft by the New York Jets.

The path was not smooth in the pros, as McKnight dealt with fitness and fumbling issues. When he did finally make his first and only NFL start as a rookie, he replicated some of that Rose Bowl magic, running for 158 yards.

Though he carved a place for himself as a special teams performer in New York, blocking a punt and returning two kickoffs for a touchdown, he was released before the start of the 2013 season after a string of injuries and behavioral issues.

The football story might have ended there for McKnight, who spent the year out of the league, but he signed with the Chiefs ahead of the 2014 season.

Another setback after offseason knee surgery had his future in doubt once more, but he came back in time to make his mark for Kansas City, however, briefly.

In the best game of his NFL career, McKnight caught six passes for 64 yards and two touchdowns, helping the Chiefs defeat the Dolphins.

Days later, he ruptured his Achilles during practice and just as quickly as it began, his comeback was over.

Such was McKnight’s lot in life, but the running back kept fighting.

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After two years out of football, McKnight attempted another comeback in the Canadian Football League. He signed with the Edmonton Eskimos but his first foray in the CFL was disastrous — fumbling two punts to fuel a near-comeback by the Saskatchewan Roughriders in his second game up north.

The Eskimos demoted McKnight to their practice squad then released him after four weeks.

Another potential ending, but not quite.

McKnight signed on with those same Roughriders in mid-September and made his first career CFL start in mid-October. He gained 150 yards in his re-debut, averaging 8.8 yards per carry and earning the CFL Top Performer Award for his efforts.

Another comeback was on for McKnight, who was in contact with the Minnesota Vikings according to his brother.

Sadly, it was his last.