Confidence has replaced the embarrassment and frustration of last year, and defensive end Shawn Knight is enjoying football again.
Knight, picked by the New Orleans Saints in the first round of the 1987 draft, was in for only 51 plays in all of last season and finished without a tackle or a sack.Despite his miserable statistics, he was named to an all-rookie team picked by sportswriters nationally.
On Monday, as the Saints opened preseason camp at The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Knight looked like what the Saints expected when they drafted him. He dominated the offensive linemen assigned to block him.
"Yeah, and tomorrow he may beat my butt. I hope not, but it's happened before," Knight said. "But I am having a lot more fun than I was having last year. Football is a game again," he said.
Knight and Coach Jim Mora attribute last year's disappointment to Knight having missed all of preseason camp in a negotiating holdout. Three weeks after Knight reported, the NFL went on strike, and he missed more work.
"Four weeks on and four weeks off didn't cut it," he said. "There were a couple of times last year when I really questioned myself. I knew I could do it, but I couldn't figure out why I wasn't doing it. I didn't exactly lack faith in myself, but I felt frustrated."
It wasn't a new experience for him. He was a skinny tennis player for hsi first two years in high school, 6-foot-6 and 180 pounds. "I never thoguht of football. I wanted to go to Wimbledon," he said.
Stung by the disappointment of a bad day in a major tournament, he chucked tennis and went out for football, hoping to win a college scholarship that way. He reported for football after preseason practice had already begun in his junior year. Although he grew to 220 pounds and became a starter, he didn't really play well enough to win his scholarship at Brigham Young, he said.
"They didn't recruit me because I was a good player," he said. But the college recruiters liked his hustle and work habits and saw potential he didn't know he had.
"In college, I didn't even feel I was any good until about the fourth game of my senior season," he said. "My junior year, the first year I started, I had three sacks. My senior year, I had 17. Four games into the season, I had somewhere in the neighborhood of eight or nine sacks, and I said, `Hey! I might be OK."'
The Saints saw in Knight some of the same things the Brigham Young recruiters saw, and made him their top choice when conventional wisdom said they should use a No.1 on a wide receiver.
Knight said the lack of practice time was particularly damaging to him.
"I'd be lying if I claimed I was ever a super athlete. I've never been the quickest person in the world. I always just worked my tail off, and that enabled me to overcome that," he said.
"It was always enough, until I got here. Everyone hustles and works here."