Knockout: The game sweeping through the Notre Dame football locker room

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Te’von Coney claims to be the best player on the team.

He even calls himself, “Champ.”

Though the linebacker could argue he’s the best football player on Notre Dame’s roster, that’s not the competition he’s referencing. Instead, Coney’s self-proclaimed dominance comes from a game that’s swept through the Irish locker room.

Coney called the game “Knockout,” though the name’s not that important. A Google search of “Knockout game” brings disturbing results that are completely unrelated. It’s not the classic basketball game either.

The Irish version of Knockout has become so prevalent that it’s unavoidable when players are killing time. In the locker room, on the plane or outside hotel rooms, teammates have been challenging each other to a game of Knockout.

The game’s simple, but only after the rules are explained. Imagine a mashup of rock-paper-scissors and fake boxing. All you need are two competitors.

One competitor throws while the other tries to dodge. The thrower’s job is to point up/down or right/left. The dodger has to try to guess which direction the thrower will point and move his head in the opposite direction. If the dodger moves the same direction the thrower pointed, that’s a point for the thrower. If the dodger moves the opposite direction, the roles reverse and that player becomes the thrower.

Three points in a row complete a knockout. The winner takes bragging rights and likely has someone else waiting to challenge him.

The origins of the game aren’t clear. Coney said he first remembers seeing safeties Devin Studstill and Alohi Gilman playing it. But it’s become so popular in the locker room now, nearly everyone takes part.

“It’s intense,” said cornerback Julian Love. “Everybody on the team plays … It’s kind of crazy.”

Specialists like kicker Justin Yoon play Knockout. Even the offensive line, which tends to do its own thing, has some competitors like Robert Hainsey and Liam Eichenberg.

Coney swears his title as the best on the team has been earned.

“I’m by far the best person on the team,” Coney said. “I’ve been voted that.”

Wide receiver Miles Boykin wasn’t buying it.

“I’m not going to comment on it,” Boykin said. “I have beaten Te’von though. My first time playing I beat him.”

Boykin suggested Studstill has the best Knockout game. Studstill received Love’s vote too.

“Devin Studstill is my favorite to watch,” Love said. “He’s very dramatic and elaborate with his techniques.”

And yes, there are techniques. Controversial ones too. Love had plenty of thoughts on the philosophy behind Knockout.

At its core, as Love explained, Knockout is a guessing game like rock-paper-scissors. Both players are making decisions at exactly the same time. But as the game has become more competitive in the locker room, Love said a few players have stretched the rules slightly.

That faction, which includes Coney, defensive end Daelin Hayes, safety Jalen Elliott and rover Asmar Bilal, according to Love, has started to use reaction time to gain an extra advantage. Instead of guessing which direction their opponent will point, they try to read the movement and react quickly enough that it doesn’t look like cheating.

“They don’t like to talk about it,” Love said. “They play the reaction game. They’re trying to see where your hands go and then react to it. Those guys react, so they’re good at it. They think that’s how the game’s played.”

That’s where judges come into play. Teammates are typically gathered around the two Knockout competitors and will weigh in on if a reaction was late or if the thrower is being too deceiving.

“There are discussions,” Love said. “Te’von probably has the best record because he plays a different brand of the game, and he’s the best reactor. He’ll argue with you until he gets a good call.”

I didn’t possess any video of @NDFootball’s “Knockout” game when I wrote about it a couple weeks ago. Te’von Coney shared some on his IG story last night. Story here:

— Tyler James (@TJamesNDI) December 4, 2018Their own game

The last time Notre Dame went undefeated, “Trick Shot Monday” became the game of choice for the 2012 Irish.

The game was equally simple, though it involved less head-to-head competition. Each Monday, a group of Irish players would try to be the first to make a pingpong ball into a cup in a variety of elaborate shots. The tradition became a social media sensation with Notre Dame’s in-house video department filming Trick Shot Monday and sharing it online.

The tradition even extended to the week of the BCS National Championship game. A few Irish players used the national championship trophy as a backdrop for the final shots of the season.

The Trick Shot Monday tradition still lives. A handful of players — typically including wide receiver Chris Finke and walk-on linebackers Jimmy Thompson and Devyn Spruell — are still filmed carrying out the wacky shots. This week, Thompson bounced a shot off a desk in the auditorium of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex from a few rows back and made it into the Gatorade cup connected to a custom-made backboard.

The Knockout game hasn’t received the same in-house production from Notre Dame. You can see footage of matchups on the disappearing Instagram or Snapchat stories from players on the team, but the game hasn’t been publicized in any formal way by the football program. That doesn’t mean it’s not important.

“Literally after every time we get in the locker room, a game’s starting up, everybody’s gassing (encouraging) it,” Love said. “On the plane, everybody’s on the aisle playing. They’re going up and down the aisle challenging people.”

It’s a good distraction from practice, school work or the pressure that comes with an undefeated season.

“We’re enjoying this process and enjoying each other’s company,” Coney said. “That’s just something we do to have fun with each other.”

Love was surprised that the game has lasted this long. It’s become a staple of the team and a way for teammates to bond.

“We were playing in the beginning of the season,” Love said. “Then we had the bye week. It was slow for maybe a day or two after we got back from the bye week, because nobody’s playing at home. But it’s still going so strong. It’s a much better game. We’re doing our thing.”

Notre Dame football players found some time to play a few rounds of knockout during the Cotton Bowl media day. Read the story from @TJamesNDI on the locker room game from earlier this season here:

— Michael Caterina (@MLCaterina) December 27, 2018Still competing

Knockout competitions have spawned leagues and tournaments within Notre Dame’s locker room.

The Major League is for the best of the best. Love also referenced a Europe League and a D League for lesser competitors. Love joked that as a decent player, he spent some time playing in “Europe.”

“Then I came over and I hold my own for sure – a little above .500,” Love said. “We play a good brand of Knockout. A lot of guys play a lot more. I try to stay out of the spotlight until somebody challenges me.”

But Coney? He’ll take on all comers.

Earlier this week, Coney said a current tournament had advanced to the final four: Coney, Gilman, defensive end Khalid Kareem and nickelback Nick Coleman.

Though most of the players mentioned on Tuesday were defensive players, Coney said Boykin and fellow wide receiver Chase Claypool have some Knockout skills too.

His toughest challenger has been Elliott.

“He’s the more consistent player, who when I play against him, we have a little bit of a battle going on, a competition,” Coney said.

That sense of competition is why the game has stuck in Notre Dame’s locker room. A room full of competitive football players have embraced having another outlet to challenge each other.

The skills don’t necessarily translate to the football field, but Knockout keeps the Irish sharp.

“It’s reaction time, having fun, trying to compete and wanting to win,” Coney said. “That’s the only thing that can be related to football is the eagerness to want to be the best like we all want to be the best on the field.”

But Coney’s the best. Just ask him.

Notre Dame linebacker Te’von Coney claims to be the team’s best player in a locker room game called “Knockout.”
Notre Dame’s Devin Studstill is a favorite to watch playing a game of Knockout. “He’s very dramatic and elaborate with his techniques,’’ says teammate Julian Love.