For Rhema McKnight, Notre Dame adversity shaped current success

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Rhema McKnight doesn’t waste time dwelling on the future he might have had.

Hypotheticals, after all, won’t take him back to that play against Michigan in 2005, the one where a ligament in his right knee tore after another player rolled over his leg. They won’t give him back the 10 games he missed, especially the one against the team he was “virtually born to hate.”

Growing up near Los Angeles, families are presented with a choice: USC or UCLA. McKnight was raised to pull for the latter, which made his sideline view of Notre Dame’s 34-31 home loss to USC — later dubbed the “Bush Push” game — all the more unbearable.

“I constantly get reminded, ‘We would have won if you had played in that game,’” McKnight says. “It was a great game, but I hate that reminder.”

McKnight can’t change that result, just as he can’t change the swift rejection that followed his departure from Notre Dame. Despite a resurgent 2006 season, the 6-foot-2, 212-pound wide receiver went undrafted in the NFL, as concerns about his knee overshadowed a dazzling career.

“I think everybody was surprised,” McKnight says. “But there was so much more that plays into all of the stuff you see when it comes to the NFL and the draft. My injury was really significant. When you’re at the combine and you have a significant injury like that, teams pick and prod at you. They want to take x-rays and MRIs and everything like that.

“It was tough…me believing, and others that knew the game believing that I was going to be a top pick — probably second, third round. It was a tough transition.”

Instead, he signed as an undrafted free agent with the New Orleans Saints, only to be released.

Next, he signed with the San Diego Chargers, then was released again.

And just like that, it was over.

Given the circumstances, McKnight could have felt resentment, spewing bitterness at a game that embraced him, then left him behind. If not for a single misstep, everything might have been different.

The "Bush Push." The draft. The NFL. Everything.

But somehow, despite all of that, McKnight is satisfied with the future he has. He’s filled with fond memories, and few lingering regrets.

He’s focused on what the injury gave him, rather than what it took.

Most immediately, it gave him perspective. For McKnight, football had always come so easily — a natural outlet for his rare athleticism. He didn’t start playing in an organized league until his sophomore year La Palma Kennedy High School, and right away, he was good. Suddenly, Pete Carroll and Steve Spurrier were visiting. Suddenly, he was boarding a plane for Notre Dame.

“One of my favorite memories is my first time walking into that stadium as a recruit,” Mcknight says. “I actually got flown out the night after a basketball game. I still had my ankles taped and uniform on (when I got on the plane).

“I walked into the stadium that morning. Just that feeling I got walking into that stadium, it’s a real feeling you get. You feel tradition. You feel like you belong. You feel like family when you walk in there.”

Suddenly, almost effortlessly, he was leading Notre Dame in receiving in his sophomore and junior seasons.

When he stepped on a football field, Rhema McKnight was used to succeeding.

“He had such a natural feel for the game of football,” said his quarterback, Brady Quinn. “Extremely shifty and could stop on a dime. He possessed great hands and when focused, could catch anything. He was the guy I threw my first TD pass to my freshman year.”

And suddenly, in the wake of the injury, he was out — forced to sit and watch while his teammates thrived without him.

He had to step back to leap forward.

“Taking that time off allowed me to see the game from a different perspective,” McKnight said. “If anything, I became a player-coach at that time. I got to really see what my coaches were talking about as far as getting out of breaks. I got a chance to watch the DBs we were playing against every year — what they’re looking for, what they’re keying on.

“It definitely helped me going into my fifth year, allowing me to have the fifth year that I had. I really attribute it to that time I had off my senior season.”

When McKnight returned to action in 2006, he did so as a different player — a wiser, more efficient weapon wrapped in the same athletic package. The result, of course, was a breakthrough — 67 catches, 907 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns, more than double the seven scores he had accumulated in his previous four seasons combined.

He was a better individual player, which in turn made him a better teammate.

“The game became easier, because I had an opportunity to step back and just watch it for a whole year,” McKnight said. “When a play was called, I knew even better what my keys were in order to be successful on my route on that play. I could tell another young player, ‘Hey, on this route, if they’re in this coverage, you need to pay attention and get ready for the ball, because it’s probably going to come to you.’

“I was able to not only be an athlete on the field, but I was able to be a coach as well.”

In a weird way, the injury he suffered nearly a decade ago provided McKnight with the tools he uses today.

Without it, there may not be a “Rhema McKnight Football Academy” at all.

“That one year definitely helped me a lot in regards to where I am today with being able to teach the kids the things that I was able to sit back and see,” McKnight said. “To see those kids grow and develop nowadays, it’s a pretty good feeling.”

These days, McKnight is perpetually busy, working as a project manager and chief estimator for a construction company in Orange County, Calif., by day, and helping to develop quarterbacks and wide receivers at the football academy he launched nearly two years ago at night.

Someday, he hopes to expand the academy throughout the country — to keep meeting kids that remind him of himself — to organize camps and tournaments for prospective athletes from coast to coast.

“That’s why I love doing it,” McKnight says. “I see myself at a young age, confident in my abilities. You see that confidence in these kids.

“When you can take that confidence and then teach them the skill and the knowledge of the game, it’s a tremendous thing to see them grow and develop throughout the years.”

In the moments between his dueling jobs, McKnight raises 7-year-old twin daughters — Jaelyn and Jordyn. They are already budding athletes, he says, track and soccer stars with a future — fingers crossed — at Notre Dame.

Soon, he plans to take them there, to show his daughters the place where he still gets recognized nearly a decade after leaving the field; the place where he survived harsh Midwest winters away from the California sun; the place where a freak injury altered his future and changed him for the better.

“I’m almost 10 years removed from playing at Notre Dame, and I can just walk around that campus and people look at me,” McKnight says. “These young kids look at me and say, ‘Hey, that’s that McKnight guy. That’s No. 5. He was pretty good.’

“It’s such an awesome feeling. I’m hopeful that my daughters can go to the University of Notre Dame and leave a legacy like that where they can be remembered.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame senior tight end Marcus Freeman and wide receiver Rhema McKnight celebrate during an Irish game. (Marcus Marter)
Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn (10) and wide receiver Rhema McKnight (5) chant "Beat SC" following the Irish 41-9 victory over Army in a football game Saturday, Nov. 18, 2006, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)
Notre Dame wide receiver Rhema McKnight  high fives an entire row of the marching band as the Irish beat Purdue on Sept. 30, 2006.
Rhema McKnight celebrates after defeating Michigan State 40-37 Saturday, September 23, in East Lansing, MI. (Marcus Marter)