Da’Jon McKnight is a former wide receiver for the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
A native of Dallas, Texas, McKnight has always been around the game of football.
“Football is very big down in Texas,” McKnight says. “When people think of football in Texas, they think the whole town shuts down on Fridays.”
But in a bustling metropolis like Dallas, not even the beloved game of football can disrupt the usual flow of the city.
That’s because life moves quickly in a place with a population of 1.3 million people, with McKnight adding that this frenetic pace even extends to the way the youth compete for athletic superiority.
“In Dallas, it’s almost like every kid is an athlete. Every kid is competing in some type of sport, even if it’s racing down the street or trying to see who can touch the highest part of a backboard,” McKnight explains.
“The same can be said for the neighborhood I grew up in. It was an extremely competitive environment.”
McKnight adds that although his childhood felt like a constant competition among his peers, his upbringing was still normal because he lived in a relatively safe part of the city.
“I wouldn’t say that I grew up in the toughest environment. My neighborhood was probably somewhere in the middle, in terms of dangers and threats. We were middle-class, but if you crossed a particular set of railroad tracks, you were suddenly in a bad part of Dallas,” he shares.
McKnight then credits his parents for instilling in him values of honor and integrity, while also acknowledging that he benefitted from being raised in a two-parent household, a privilege that not all of his contemporaries experienced.
“Growing up with my mom and dad was a crucial part of me becoming the man that I am today. I was able to learn how to be a man through watching how my dad behaved, and then my mom also had a strong character,” McKnight says.
“Their presence was the golden ticket for the success that I have had so far in my life.”
As for McKnight’s athletic prowess, much of that can be attributed to his father, a Battle Creek, Michigan product who relished the opportunity to play all different types of sports when he was a kid.
“My dad’s philosophy was to never stay in only one sport,” McKnight shares, yet ironically, McKnight says that growing up his main focus was on evolving solely as a basketball player.
“I always played above my level when I was younger,” McKnight remarks. “My mindset was I was going to play college basketball and then go to the pros, but I didn’t play just for fun. I played because I loved the sport.”
Heading into his junior year at Skyline High School in Dallas, McKnight was one of the top-ranked basketball players in the state of Texas, despite the fact that he played for an old-school head coach who preached fundamentals and derided any form of showmanship or flashy playmaking.
In addition to demanding his players follow a strict regimen on the court, McKnight’s high school basketball coach also wouldn’t allow his players to participate in other sports, or fashion trends.
“He was super old-fashioned. I mean, you couldn’t have facial hair, wear earrings, or have baggy clothes. He was the kind of guy who wore suits to every game,” McKnight says, but he also praises his former coach for playing a pivotal role in his development.
“I give him a lot of credit because he helped us learn how to be men at an early age.”
For those close to McKnight, it appeared that the basketball phenom would spend the latter half of his high school career working toward earning a scholarship, but during his junior year the school’s athletic department underwent a few changes that would soon alter the trajectory of McKnight’s future.
Specifically, the new regime instituted a policy that allowed kids to be able to play multiple sports, a move that would enable talented athletes like McKnight to dabble in other activities if they so desired.
Unsurprisingly, this policy irritated McKnight’s basketball coach, but across the building, Skyline’s football staff was salivating over the prospect of having athletes like McKnight join their program.
McKnight says he was initially reticent to play football because he didn’t want to compromise his position on the basketball team, but soon the football coaches approached his father and urged him to convince McKnight to become part of the team.
Even with a full-court press being thrown at McKnight, it took a small in-class behavior violation and subsequent detention before McKnight entertained the football coaches’ pleas.
Essentially, football coaches told McKnight that he could avoid being punished for his minor but inconvenient blunder if he gave football a chance.
Soon after, McKnight ditched the confines of detention and joined the football team for a short practice.
Standing a few inches over six feet and carrying a muscular and explosive frame, coaches immediately had McKnight working with the wide receivers to see if he had the coordination to play the position.
“My hands were pretty good,” McKnight humbly recalls of that first practice.
“The head coach then came over and gave me a helmet, some gloves, and told me that this was where I was going to be for the rest of the day.”
At the conclusion of practice, a giddy coaching staff implored McKnight to join the team, assuring him that his standing with the basketball team would not be affected in any way.
“You’re protected,” the coaches said that day.
McKnight eventually agreed to join the football team, just in time for the renowned spring practices that occur annually throughout the state of Texas.
By the time the Skyline spring game took place, McKnight had taken enough reps to become comfortable with the offense, resulting in him putting on a clinic during the spring game in front of a few dozen spectators, a few of which included scouts from Division-I universities.
Shortly after that game, McKnight then received a scholarship offer from Tim Brewster, the then-head coach at the University of Minnesota.
“That was the first scholarship offer I had ever received, let alone an offer from a Big-10 school,” McKnight says.
This quickly forced the lifelong hooper to reconsider his athletic future, a thought process that became more complicated as other Division-I programs learned of McKnight’s potential on the gridiron and inundated him with requests for exploratory conversations regarding where he would attend college.
“It was a big eye-opener for me. From there, I figured football might just be my calling,” McKnight says.
A few months later, following the conclusion of the football and basketball seasons, McKnight had fully committed himself to playing football at the Division-I level.
After contemplating several offers, the wideout ultimately decided to accept an offer from the University of Minnesota after learning that three of his high school teammates would also be heading north.
“We all committed in the same month to the Gophers [University of Minnesota],” McKnight says, adding that trekking to Minnesota with familiar faces assuaged his fear of going to a school and not knowing anyone.
“I was scared of going to college by myself, so I knew if I went to Minnesota with my friends that it would make for an easier transition into classes and football.”
Once on campus, McKnight had to overcome some of the stigmas that came attached with his two-star ranking on Rivals, a website that projects how individual players will fare at the collegiate level.
“To the naked eye, I was at the bottom of the barrel in terms of potential,” McKnight says.
“But to the trained eye, I had the most potential because of how raw I was.”
As McKnight slowly began to immerse himself in his craft, he steadily became more fluent in the finer points of route running and situational football, in the process tapping into the potential that Tim Brewster and his coaching staff had initially forecasted.
Still, developing as a football player didn’t immediately equate to getting snaps on Saturday afternoons.
Standing in the way of McKnight’s evolution as a Big-10 wide receiver was teammate Eric Decker, an all-conference stud who amassed over 3,000 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns during his stellar collegiate career.
“My freshman and sophomore seasons primarily consisted of me sitting in the back of team meetings and learning from the guys ahead of me, namely Eric Decker,” McKnight says.
While getting consistent reps on gameday did not come easy for McKnight, he still was able to learn from the sidelines by observing how Decker carried himself.
This included everything from how Decker broke out of post routes, to the way he meticulously studied opponents during film sessions.
McKnight admits that it was humbling to realize that there was so much about the game of football he still had to learn.
“After camp or practices, I would go home and study because I was so far behind some of my other teammates. I had the athleticism. I could catch, run, and jump, but my football IQ just wasn’t there yet,” McKnight says.
Through his first two seasons, McKnight had only caught 20 passes, but after the Gophers 2009 season ended, Eric Decker graduated and was drafted by the Denver Broncos.
Replacing Decker’s production would be a challenge for the Gophers, but McKnight worked diligently in the offseason to continue transforming his body in the weight room and ascertain the intricacies of being a wide receiver.
Then, when the 2010 season arrived, McKnight was ready to capitalize on the vacancy created by Decker’s departure.
What followed for McKnight was a breakout junior campaign where he compiled 48 catches for 750 yards, plus 10 touchdowns.
More impressively, McKnight accomplished all this while dealing with a sports hernia suffered early in the season.
These gaudy numbers elevated McKnight into the discussion of one of the top receivers in the country, but his NFL prospects were hampered by the fact that head coach Tim Brewster was fired midway through the team’s disappointing 3-9 season.
“Brewster was great because he recruited me, was very personable, and welcomed me to the university. He even won over my mom during the recruiting process, and he also kept his promises. I’m forever grateful for that,” McKnight says of his former coach.
At the same time, McKnight is not shy about revealing that having offensive coordinator Jeff Horton replace Brewster was a boon for his personal success.
“Coach Horton let me flourish in the system, which got me noticed more by NFL scouts because I was scoring more touchdowns,” McKnight says.
Following the 2010 season, McKnight was eager to recover from his sports hernia and begin preparing for his senior year.
In the meantime, Jeff Horton was not retained as head coach, and the university eventually hired Jerry Kill to overhaul the football program.
As the longtime coach of Northern Illinois, a non-Power Five school, there were many people who were skeptical about Kill’s ability to translate his mid-major success to the Big-10 level, including McKnight and some of his teammates.
“I was personally concerned because in the past Coach Kill had only worked with smaller receivers. That meant that his system would be based around working with smaller personnel,” McKnight says.
“I also was worried that he was going to bring in his own talent, and because of my sports hernia, I figured it was possible that his recruits were going to come in and take my spot in the spring.”
Fortunately, McKnight’s concerns were alleviated when Coach Kill sat him down and indicated that McKnight would remain a starter at wide receiver, provided he kept his grades up and sufficiently recovered from his injury.
“Coach Kill was good to me,” McKnight says. “He respected me and he gave me an opportunity to keep my starting spot.”
With a plethora of NFL scouts tracking his progress, McKnight remained steadfast in his preparation for the upcoming season, but during the team’s spring game, adversity would once again rear its ugly head.
“I was blocking on a run play, and then a third-stringer tried to prove himself on film by running into me with his head down. He knocked me over and my foot got stuck in the ground,” McKnight recalls.
“My life flashed before my eyes. I thought that my career was over.”
Thankfully, McKnight avoided rupturing his ACL and was instead diagnosed with a twisted knee, an injury that doctors assured him would not jeopardize his senior season if he stuck to the treatment program they prescribed.
Unfortunately, despite rest and physical therapy, McKnight’s knee did not improve as doctors had hoped.
This resulted in a sordid mix of emotions for McKnight, who feared that his lower-body ailment would compromise his ability to perform on the field and subsequently be drafted by an NFL team.
“I played my entire senior season with a kneecap that was dislocated and had cartilage that would waste away every time I practiced or played a game,” McKnight says, adding that trainers were routinely draining his knee in hopes of remedying the stiffness around the affected area.
“I also used to get a shot for the pain before every game. I was using Tylenol after every practice, and I went through five or six knee braces throughout the whole season.”
McKnight had every excuse to allow his on-field performance to suffer, but instead the wideout persevered through the hardships, in turn racking up nearly identical numbers to the year before.
In a November 2011 road tilt with Big-10 powerhouse Michigan State, McKnight torched the Spartans secondary for 9 catches, 173 yards, and 3 touchdowns, including a 64-yard romp to the end zone that quieted the nearly 75,000 onlookers who attended the game in East Lansing.
Considering McKnight’s numbers that season were on par with those from his junior year, it’s fair to wonder how much better he would have performed if not for the nagging knee injury.
Some also speculate that Coach Kill’s run-heavy offense limited McKnight’s statistical output.
McKnight acknowledges that sometimes he does think about what could have been, but reiterates that Coach Kill was professional in the way he handled his situation.
“I commend Coach Kill for providing me with the tools to be the best player I could be and to capitalize on the opportunity,” McKnight says.
“If I was healthy, Coach Kill would have gotten me to the pros.”
Ultimately, by the time McKnight left the University of Minnesota, he had fallen off the radar of many NFL teams who were turned off by the Gophers once again dismal 3-9 record that prevented McKnight and other teammates with NFL aspirations from playing in a bowl game on national TV.
Before the NFL Draft commenced, McKnight had a chance to win over some of the scouts who had previously lost interest, but with his knee injury still plaguing his explosiveness, McKnight did not perform well at various minicamps.
By the time the NFL Draft finally rolled around, McKnight’s agent was optimistic that a team would take a chance on him, but what followed were three painful days of McKnight waiting for a phone call that never came.
“That was one of the most heartbreaking days of my life because everyone thought I was going to get drafted,” McKnight says.
Every year, there are a litany of collegiate standouts who see their dreams of making the NFL go unrealized.
In some cases, these athletes struggle with disassociating from their identity as a football player and becoming a regular member of society.
For McKnight, even though his dreams of playing on Sundays didn’t materialize, the Dallas native has still left his mark, albeit in a different kind of way.
McKnight now works for Creative Care Resources, a Twin Cities-based health care service that assists young children who are living with autism.
“My major was youth studies, so I like to work with troubled kids,” McKnight says.
“I like the feeling that comes with helping troubled youth and that is why I have stayed with Creative Care Resources all these years.”
But there is also a deeper reason behind McKnight’s career choice, one that hits different when you remember how thankful he is for the upbringing he had.
“I have seen that these individuals don’t have a lot of support and that people write them off because they have a disability,” he says.
“I was blessed with parents who put time and effort into raising their children, but if I had crappy parents, I would not be where I am today.”
This desire to help others who rarely make it into the collective consciousness of the mainstream is just one more reason why McKnight posits that he will remain in this line of work for the foreseeable future, because for him, passion trumps any pay increase that may come by transitioning into a different career.
“Working with these kids every day and seeing them progress is why I am still in this line of work.” QS
To get in touch with Da’Jon McKnight, connect with him on LinkedIn today!
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