Shawn Knight is oblivious to the fact that the NFL Draft will be held later this week even though he was once a first-round draft pick himself. For that matter, since retiring from the game more than a decade ago, he claims he hasn't watched a single game on TV, not even the Super Bowl or Janet Jackson.
The former BYU All-American hasn't looked back since his perplexing venture into professional football, but he could tell a cautionary tale to other high-round picks about the great expectations they face, the inexact science of evaluating players and the cold business world that is the pro game.
He was a flop as a pro, but, to be fair, he was damaged goods before he was ever drafted. He hung on for four painful years and then began the career he had planned before pro football called helping others recover from injury.
He never saw himself as a pro football player until late in his college career. He was scheduled to start as a sophomore at BYU, but on the last play of the last day of two-a-day practices, he broke an ankle and watched from the sideline as BYU won the national title.
He didn't just break the ankle; he suffered what's known as a spiral avulsion facture in which the ligament pulled off a chunk of bone.
"From that point on it was arthritic," he says.
He was unspectacular in a starting role the following year, especially compared to the team's other defensive end, Jason Buck, everybody's All-American. Everything changed as a senior. With Buck double-teamed half the season, Knight collected 17 sacks. He was 6-foot-6, 288 pounds and unstoppable. Well, almost. In the Freedom Bowl he suffered another foot/ankle injury. Trainers taped and shot it up, and sent him back into the game, but the damage was permanent.
The scouts didn't care at the time. Before the bowl game, they timed his 40 at 4.78, a time he had never approached before or since "It was just one of those magical days," he says. That's all they needed to see. The New Orleans Saints made him the 11th pick of the draft, one pick behind Rod Woodson. He signed a four-year contract worth $1.6 million.
And that was just about the last anybody heard of him. The injury cost him a step and made it difficult to cut. And, too, he was a bruising, physical player who lacked the subtler, finesse skills he needed against equally bruising players. The Saints tried to move him inside, but he was too long, an easy target for blockers trying to get under his pads.
To make matters worse, on the recommendation of his agent he missed nearly the entire training camp in a contract dispute. Then came a 24-day players strike.
Playing mostly on passing downs, he had no tackles in 10 games.
Somehow he made the all-rookie team "I think they ran out of other players to give it to," he says to earn a $35,000 bonus from the Saints. Near the end of the season, he re-injured his ankle and missed the playoffs.
After the season, the Saints traded Knight to the Broncos. A year later he was cut by the Broncos and signed by the Cardinals. A dislocated shoulder sidelined him for two months. A year later, he signed with the Vikings, but the ankle was only getting worse. He was the last player cut by the Vikings, losing his spot to future All-Pro John Randall.
"It came down to me and him I think they picked right," says Knight.
He played for a year for Sacramento of the World League. He gave the NFL one more try, signing with the Chiefs, but that lasted two weeks. "I had so much tape on my ankle it was pretty clear I was done," he says. "I couldn't walk anymore."
He had 22 tackles in three NFL seasons.
"I was naive about the NFL," he says. "I thought I was still playing a game. BYU was so good and so fun. We were family. They nurtured you, respected you and you did your best and that's all they asked. Then when I got to the pros, I almost didn't recognize the game.
The coaches were very caustic. They were all over you, screaming at you. There's so much pressure on them to win."
After football, he earned a master's degree in physical therapy and worked in that field for six years. Then, unable to resist the lure of more money and flexible hours, he became a salesman for medical equipment; first, knee braces, then pacemakers, now high-tech gynecological equipment. He spends part of each day in surgery, showing doctors how to use the technology.
"I have a good life," says the 39-year-old Knight, who has four kids with wife Dana and lives in Park City.
Of course everywhere he goes, he's asked the same question: Did you play football? He's still the same size as his playing days, except, he notes, "My neck was 22 inches, and now it's 20 inches. The extra two inches slid to my waist."
Knight, a humorous, easygoing, articulate man, says this about his playing days: "I wish I had had a better NFL career. At the same time, I did everything I could. My ankle is still screwed up. It's huge. It's just a big calcified block."
Is it really true he hasn't watched an NFL game since retiring from the game? "How much fun is it to watch another guy sweat?" he asks. "But I would go out and play again for BYU.
"I have one reoccurring dream. Sometimes I'm at work, sometimes I'm out jogging, but a BYU academic adviser tracks me down and says, 'Shawn, guess what? We made a mistake. You still have another year of eligibility left. Do you want to come play?' ""I'll bet I've had this dream 30 times. It's like the best day of my life in this dream. Then I wake up and I'm depressed because it wasn't real. That's how much I enjoyed BYU."
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