I Hated Joe McKnight: Why the USC Legend Will Never be Forgotten


I hated Joe McKnight. But no one hates a football player without respecting them.

October 20, 2007 – Notre Dame trails the USC Trojans 31-0 with 11:09 left in a game all Irish fans wanted to nothing more than to end. It’s first and ten on USC’s 49-yard line after USC accepted a face mask penalty on a 1-yard run.

USC lines up in the I-formation and sends the tight end in motion. Mark Sanchez snaps the ball and hands number four, Joe McKnight, the ball behind the full-back. McKnight takes off outside the tackle. No stopping him. For the first time in my life, I hated Joe McKnight.

I still remember the words I said when I watched him sprint into the end zone and the commentators talk of how Pete Carroll knew he was going to be special. “F*** this guy!” My mom sitting behind me on the couch yelled at me to watch my mouth. When I was younger, I always watched Notre Dame games as close to the television as I could. Sometimes, when I feel like they really need it, I still sit in my grandma’s rocking chair maybe three feet away from my living room TV.

I hated Joe McKnight. The freshman out of Louisiana that people said is the second coming of Reggie Bush. Yeah, because the world needed another Reggie Bush. No. Football didn’t need Reggie Bush, and they didn’t need Joe McKnight. USC just needed to stop beating Notre Dame.

November 29, 2008 – Joe McKnight is lined up behind Mark Sanchez in the I-formation. It’s the second quarter with 9:13 left in the half. At this point in the season, I’ve had just about enough of Notre Dame’s losing. Joe McKnight gets the ball, and I swear to God it was deja vu. McKnight takes off down the left sideline in and out of defenders, untouched for a 55-yard touchdown.

This time, the commentator begins to compare him to Reggie Bush. “Here we go. Here we f***ing go,” I screamed. I don’t know why, but my mom always seemed to catch me swearing at Notre Dame games. She never caught my brother when yelling at the Xbox, but she always caught me cursing out the Fighting Irish.

I wasn’t old enough to start understanding sports yet. At that time, I watched Notre Dame on Saturdays and the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sundays. If you beat either of those teams, I hated you, simple as that. At that time, though, I didn’t realize what hate was. I thought that if you were better than the teams I rooted for that you were an enemy.

Something happened, though. Somehow, someway, I saw sports differently. I remember the game that changed my perspective. Most people remember the player, but I remember the game.

The New England Patriots were playing the Buffalo Bills in the opening game of the 2009 season. There was 2:10 left in the fourth quarter, and the Patriots were trailing 24-13. As a Steelers fan, I was thrilled. There’s no one in the NFL more hated than Tom Brady and the Patriots. That changed pretty quick. In two minutes and ten seconds, Tom Brady lead the Patriots to victory.

Brady connected with Benjamin Watson for an 18-yard touchdown. On the kickoff, the unthinkable happened. The football Gods showed me the light. The Bills fumbled. Tom Brady had 31-yards and a minute and six seconds to score. In my head, all I could think about was how easy this was for Brady. He’s the best quarterback in the NFL. This is a breeze.

You know when you realize something so shocking you have a look on your face like you’ve just seen a ghost. But you hope no one sees you because it’s a self-revelation and would make no sense to others. Yep, that’s exactly what happened.

For the first time in my life I realized, this man is the best quarterback in the NFL. He’s the best quarterback on the planet. How, as a sports fan, can I hate the best? It’s easy; people hate success. When someone or something is better than the team or person you love, you resent them. That doesn’t mean you don’t respect them, though.

April 22, 2010 – The NFL Draft begins. The only two people I cared about were Dez Bryant and Golden Tate. Bryant because I dreamed of the Steelers drafting him, having him join Ben Roethlisberger and being the next superstar of Pittsburgh. Tate because there was no question who my favorite player in the draft was. Golden Tate was this little wide receiver who made plays never thought possible.

I still remember spending Halloween 2009 at my buddy Tom’s house. We decided that we’d give out candy, until the first kid knocked on the door and we realized there was no candy to give. Don’t worry, we gave the kid a Trix yogurt. Notre Dame was playing Washington State and as boring as the game was going to be, we figured it wouldn’t be a bad night to watch it. In the last play of the first half, Golden State jumped over 11 defensive players and caught a 50-yard touchdown.

I knew Golden Tate was going to get drafted. I knew the Steelers weren’t going to pick Dez Bryant. I didn’t know what was going to happen to Joe McKnight. I never thought I’d want a USC player to become a Steeler. But Reshard Mendenhall wasn’t an every down running back, and Willie Parker’s Steelers career was coming to an end.

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I was playing NCAA ’09 Road to Glory. Noah Strackbein, the 5’11” quarterback from Jessup, PA who lead Dunmore High School to the State Championship. I went to Valley View, but NCAA only recognized certain schools and Dunmore was closest to me. I had a decision make. Where is this gunslinger going to college? This was the first time I felt as though my Notre Dame fandom took a blow. I decided to go to USC. They had Damien Williams and a great defense. But that wasn’t why I chose the school. I wanted to play with Joe McKnight. He was almost unstoppable on the game.

McKnight fell to the fourth round and was drafted by the New York Jets. He was the most celebrated fourth-round pick of the draft. Jets fans were pumped to have a compliment for Thomas Jones.

I smiled when I heard his name get called. This was it. The moment I finally accepted that I hated Joe McKnight. But to hate him, I needed to respect him. Respect him more than I respected almost any other player. Because when it comes to sports, you don’t hate someone because of who they are. You hate them because when they step on the field you know they’re going to be one of the best.

People don’t hate LeBron James or Tom Brady because the actually dislike them. No sports fan feels the deep hatred for Kobe Bryant or Peyton Manning just because they’re good. When you get angry just because someone says, “Kobe is the GOAT,” it isn’t because you disagree. It’s because you’re so fumed that he isn’t on your team. You respect these players more than you respect anyone in the game. You don’t hate the third-string quarterback for the Patriots. No one gets upset when the bench guy scores 30-points.

People hate success. But they respect it. Joe McKnight earned my hatred. Because when he stepped on the field, this Reggie Bush wannabe. This man who was destined to ruin Notre Dame football. Did everything he was supposed to.

I hated Joe McKnight. But man, did I respect him.