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The Life, Death, and Legend of Joe McKnight

The former running back once carried South Louisiana's hopes and dreams. Just years later, he was shot dead miles from home. The people around him still reflect on what was—and what could have been.

Joe McKnight Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to The South Week at The Ringer. We’re celebrating — and reporting on — the richness of the region. You’ll find stories from all over the map, exploring topics such as the enduring legacy of Confederate monuments in Richmond and Montgomery, the evolution of Charleston barbecue, and the intersection of faith and football in Lubbock. We’re also ranking the best Southern rap albums, imagining the André 3000 mixtape we all deserve, and arguing about what even constitutes the South anymore. In the words of two great Southerners, nothin’ is for sure, nothin’ is for certain, nothin’ lasts forever.

The traffic in New Orleans is dreadful. Drivers don’t ruin your day on purpose; they just fight losing battles against their instinct to get over without signaling, or so you tell yourself to keep calm. But when it rains — and it rains often and heavily in New Orleans — forget it. Thankfully, that’s not today. That was on a Saturday.

On the Crescent City Connection, which carries U.S. 90 from the East Bank of the Mississippi River to the west, the weather is as clear as can be expected on a late summer afternoon. Still, as skyscraper-sized storm clouds loom above the barges tugging along downstream make plain, you can’t expect much. A little ways off the General De Gaulle exit, on the stretch of Behrman Highway leading up to Holmes Boulevard, a costly game of cat and mouse happened in the afternoon hours of December 1, 2016. This intersection, next to a Shell station, is where Joe McKnight, the Joe McKnight, was shot dead during a traffic dispute. A man named Ronald Gasser admitted the shooting to police; in November, he will be tried on a second-degree murder charge.

The distinction between “shot dead” and “murdered” is a thin one of outsize importance, and a court date has been set to determine whether it was the latter or just the former. Just. Either way, save for the dampened sound of cars whizzing by, it’s quiet on this part of Behrman Highway, and there are no flowers. No roadside memorial for the man whom Tyrann Mathieu, at least one pedicab driver, two bellhops, I, and several of my old friends from South Louisiana who moved on to make lives elsewhere would describe as our Reggie Bush. Not anymore. “We think a black man was lynched yesterday,” New Orleans NAACP president Morris Reed said, as his and the West Jefferson chapters took to the streets and made themselves heard the day after McKnight’s death.

Everyone knew about Joe McKnight. It was close to impossible not to. Coming out of South Louisiana’s John Curtis Christian High School in 2007, he was the best running back in the state, the top-ranked prospect in the nation, and possibly the best player in the world, though you could clear the delusional leap between the last two only if you were from anywhere south of Interstate 20. He represented us — everyone, really, whether you went to John Curtis or not. We wanted him to succeed.

And the way he died was so painfully ordinary.

Micah Peters

“That next day we were going out of town, basically a few hours up north to play a game,” Jonathan English tells me of the day he and his friend Joe McKnight first heard Kanye West’s Late Registration. English, nicknamed “Tank,” can’t remember which playoff game it was, but he’s reasonably certain it was a championship, and in his defense they’d won a few. This was when Tank played for the John Curtis Christian Patriots, a team that was manifestly too much for everyone else in their prospective class. The Patriots won the chip every year Tank was in high school.

Tank is a social worker now. But he remembers borrowing Coach’s Suburban — coach J.T. Curtis, he means, who’s entering his 49th year as the head coach at JCC — and driving it a few miles west to a Circuit City in Kenner that’s since closed. He and Joe bought a copy of Late Registration, and then the two sat right there in the parking lot, listening from start to finish. This was December 2005, when they were juniors. It’s one of the easier things to say about someone, that they loved music; it’s what you reach for when you can’t think of much else while trying to ground the memory of a person, to recall what made them most themselves. But rare is the enthusiasm and dedication it takes to sit through an album in the parking lot of the store where you bought it, so it’s hard not to assume Joe really did. Or at the very least, he really loved Tank.

Tank and Joe met in John Curtis’s lower school, in the fourth grade. They played in the same Kenner recreational parks, and they rode the same bus route to school in River Ridge. John Curtis is a small private school, and there weren’t many black kids, “so we had no choice but to get to know each other,” Tank says. They found that they shared a sense of humor — Tank was the goofy one — but more often than not they’d comfortably share silence. “Me and Joe could be in a room together, and we might say 10 words, but we had a good time.”

Hurricane Katrina ripped out normalcy root and stem in August 2005. By the time the playoffs rolled around, some 400,000 residents of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast were living somewhere other than home. Driving back into the city from the I-10, you could see flattened cypresses, rooftops checkered with blue tarps, and FEMA trailers sitting just off of the interstate. Seventy percent of New Orleans’s occupied housing — 134,000 units — was damaged in the storm. But John Curtis was still going to have its football season.

Tank and Joe stayed with Coach after the hurricane, which explains the Suburban they drove to Circuit City. Two years later after their silent parking lot listening session, The Orange County Register ran a piece with an anecdote about Lydia Curtis, Coach’s wife. Fed up with the pair of boys never saying much of anything during those days under her roof, Lydia made a rule: At least once a day Tank and Joe had to speak, even if it was to just say, “Good morning.”

“Miss Lydia, she’s a talkative person, so at the dinner table or something we can’t just sit down and eat,” Tank says. “It was like pulling teeth for her, I guess, because me and Joe are like mutes.”

Are. It’s possible that Tank just misspoke, but it’s been only eight months. Joe’s passing, both the senselessness and the cruel finality of it, is still difficult to process. Wondering whether justice will be done is one thing; but what about the posts that no longer pop up on Instagram, or that weekly phone call that no longer comes? The nickname “Tank” itself feels obscurantist. A persona protected, shuttered so tightly that emotion rarely escapes. But remembering how he and Joe could say nothing and understand each other narrows Tank’s eyes with a wide smile. Then he turns wistful. Joe had been doing a lot of growing up in those final months.

“You could see a change was coming,” Tank says. “That’s why it’s so sad what happened.”

Micah Peters

The September 29, 2006, game between John Curtis and Hoover High was an event. A nationally televised event, on ESPNU. The 11th-ranked team in the country against the first. Curtis laid claim to 20 state championships at the time; Hoover had won five of Alabama’s last six in the state’s Class 6A. The Patriots would face a real test against the big boys, as it were, and it looked like Curtis would fail when it went down 14–0 in the first quarter.

“I remember there was a lot of curse words,” Tank, a defensive tackle, says about a defense that would allow no more points in that game. “And I punched a few people in the chest. But that was about it, that was all that was needed.”

John Curtis won, 28–14. The Patriots announced themselves on the national stage, and Joe, who scored two touchdowns, cemented his status as a superstar.

Bodies aren’t made to play football, or even to withstand it, but it’s hard to imagine that Joe was made for anything else. At 6 feet and 190 pounds, he could be a running back, receiver, and cornerback; he was just as fast running backward as he was going forward. John Curtis won the 2005 championship game handily, beating St. Charles Catholic High School, 31–6. Joe scored three touchdowns in that game — four if you count the one that was called back for a penalty.

As Joe’s national profile rose, he began to carry more than just his own hopes and dreams. He was making it for everybody.

“He was the next Reggie Bush, New Orleans Reggie Bush,” recalls Lamont Simmons, who shared a trainer with McKnight. “His name’s good, you know what I’m saying?”

Jonas English, Tank’s older brother, called Joe “Primetime” because on the football field Joe looked like Deion Sanders. He still has a photo of Primetime set as the background on his phone. Joe could be arrogant, Jonas says — he knew how good he was. “But the thing about [Joe],” says Jonas, who now works in courts security for the sheriff’s department in Orleans Parish, was that “he was selfless.”

Micah Peters

Scouts had been high on Joe since he was a freshman. He would get a full ride somewhere, that much was clear, but he wanted to ensure that his teammates would get scholarships, too. So he set about cutting together highlight tapes for each player in his senior class, and asked Jonas to write the letters that would go out along with the reels. Jacob Dufrene, an outside linebacker, landed at Kentucky. Andrew Nierman, a center, played at Tulane. Colby Arceneaux went to Ole Miss, Preston Numa to Purdue, and so on and so forth. Tank himself got several scholarship offers. “That came from Joe,” Jonas says.

Joe’s dad was a professional boxer, but he’d been out of the picture since Joe was in diapers. His mother had three kids to provide for, and eventually lost the family’s apartment to debt. So Joe found himself at Jonas’s house often, and “family friend” soon became “family.” It hurts Jonas to know that his little brother — the one he’s not related to; he has to clarify this more than once — is gone. But Jonas suspects it hurts Tank more. “He hasn’t let it out yet,” Jonas says. “We all send Facebook quotes, Instagram pictures or whatever. … You hate to talk [about Joe] in the past tense.”

Since the mid-’90s, New Orleans has had partial claim to an awful mantle: “murder capital” of the United States. This was especially true in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, New Orleans had a per-capita murder rate of at least 63.5 homicides per 100,000 residents, according to FBI statistics. That was more than 30 percent higher than the next-closest American city, Gary, Indiana, at 48.3 per 100,000.

A decade later, not much has changed. In 2015, Louisiana had the highest per-capita murder rate in the nation. The Times-Picayune tallied New Orleans’s 2016 murders at 176, though the police department’s official count is 174. One death was ruled a justifiable homicide; one woman was nine months pregnant when she was shot and run over multiple times in November.

The racial disparities and tensions in policing are no less harrowing. Take for instance, Gretna, which sits just south of New Orleans. Both Gretna and Terrytown (where the shooting happened) are in Jefferson Parish, where Gasser was held in custody and then released in the wee hours of Friday morning. An excerpt from a June 2016 Fusion analysis of FBI data:

In 2013, the Gretna police department made 6,566 adult arrests, or a little more than one for every three of Gretna’s roughly 18,000 residents (although arrests include non-residents). That’s about 14 times the arrest rate in the typical American town, according to a Fusion analysis of FBI data. And in a city that is about a third African-American, two-thirds of those arrested in Gretna are black — an overall rate of roughly eight arrests for every nine black adults. Think about that for a second; if you happen to work in an office, try to visualize eight out of nine of your colleagues getting pulled away in handcuffs.

“A policeman is what we call a Body Snatcher,” says Simmons, who drove to the intersection as soon as he heard the news come over the radio, seeking a firsthand account of the events.

There were plenty. It was early afternoon on a mostly sunny day, the broadest of daylight, at a busy intersection. But virtually no one agrees on what happened. A road rage dispute between Joe McKnight and Ronald Gasser came to a bloody conclusion, which, aside from Gasser being the only one of the two men who was armed, is all that can be said for certain. Either McKnight was the aggressor, or Gasser was. They argued, or didn’t, then multiple shots rang out, and Joe lay flat on the pavement. Either Gasser stood over him, or he didn’t. Gasser may or may not have said, “I told you don’t fuck with me.” But the facts remain: McKnight’s autopsy indicated he was shot three times. The paramedics couldn’t save him. The police did not recover a weapon on him.

“My brother unarmed,” Simmons says, recounting the afternoon’s events. “I’m pretty sure he doing decent, he’s not worried about whether he’s gotta eat tonight. Joe got a lotta people that love him.

“You living like that, you ain’t looking for no fights.”

The day Joe died, linebacker Duke Riley — a John Curtis and LSU alum — wrote a long message on Facebook, thanking him for leading by example, for showing Riley “another way out.”

“P.S. I still want to be you, that will never change,” Riley wrote. He ended the message with “heroes get remembered, legends never die,” and punctuated it with a clenched-fist emoji.

Riley, whom the Atlanta Falcons selected with the 75th overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft, was one of the many local stars to describe Joe’s significance to Louisiana, among them Eric Reid, Delvin Breaux, and Jeremy Hill. Joe ascended to folk hero status long before Leonard Fournette, now with the Jaguars and formerly the state’s most sought-after prospect since McKnight. But whereas Leonard stayed home and enrolled at LSU, Joe went west for college; he grew up infatuated with USC, and dreamed of being like O.J. Simpson (the football player, not … everything else) and Reggie Bush. “He loved LSU, but he wasn’t a Tiger,” Jonas says.

Joe got a lot of recruiting calls, and they all came to Jonas’s phone. Names like Nick Saban, Ken Norton Jr., and Ed Orgeron, all asking for Primetime. One day, Jonas remembers a voice on the other end: “‘I’m Coach Carroll, I’m calling to speak to Joe McKnight.’”

Joe committed to the Trojans more than 10 years ago. His time at USC was occasionally dazzling but frustratingly uneven. There was no doubt about his talent, but his gifts sometimes betrayed him. After a shaky freshman year, a 206 all-purpose-yard performance in the 2008 Rose Bowl renewed his promise. But Joe’s sophomore season, which started with a peculiarly aggressive case of “jock itch,” saw him suffer a number of other strange and unfortunate injuries. He also buried his grandmother that year. His junior season, he was spotted whipping around Santa Monica in a car he shouldn’t have been able to afford. The school scratched the late-model Land Rover SUV and found suspected improper benefits beneath. So USC launched an investigation, and then held Joe from the 2009 Emerald Bowl, which would have been his final game as a Trojan. He finished his college career with 2,213 rushing yards, despite sharing touches with four other running backs. McKnight declared for the draft soon after.

He was selected in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL draft by the New York Jets. A prep with gleaming potential who had somewhat underdelivered in college, Joe didn’t get off to the most auspicious start as a pro. A 2010 headline, from Fox Sports: “Jets rookie McKnight drops passes, vomits, cramps up.”

Even with context, it’s easy to make assumptions about commitment, discipline, and all the other qualities that factor into a player’s worth to a team. Joe threw up in his inaugural NFL practice, and while it wasn’t the end of the world, it was also not ideal.

“He just got all hyped up,” J.T. Curtis said of his former player and house guest, chalking the mishap up to anxious energy. “He was never a guy that tested well on the first day because of nerves.” Rex Ryan thought McKnight looked good that day when he wasn’t throwing up, and the Jets head coach used McKnight on special teams. You might recall McKnight’s 107-yard return against the Baltimore Ravens in 2011, or the 100-yarder against the Houston Texans the following year. He struggled to find consistency, but Joe was special; anyone could see that.

There were lowlights, too. He sparred with critics on Twitter. During training camp in 2012, D’Anton Lynn — son of then–running backs coach Anthony Lynn — shoved Joe out of bounds. Joe threw the ball at him, and they got to it right there on the sideline. Jonas remembers hearing about the fight all over ESPN Radio on his way home from work. Joe called Jonas before Jonas had the chance to call him.

“Big brother, he had it coming to him!”

“Dude, that’s the coach’s son, dude! You can lose playing time!”

“Man, look, I couldn’t let it happen to me like that. He flipped me out of the blue.”

Wyatt Harris runs a training facility called Sonic Boom. The space is a warehouse in Jefferson, about 10 miles outside Kenner, and is full of tires, ladders, medicine balls, drum fans, and artificial turf. On the front door there’s a sign that says, in large impact lettering, “At BOOM, we bully bullies.”

Tank trained here first, in his senior year of high school. Even back then, Wyatt had tried to get his hands on Joe. He was a challenge, a natural talent, and Wyatt could do so many things with him. “I always said, ‘Man, when you get tired of doing that P.E. stuff with them other trainers, you come let me know,’” Wyatt recalls.

Wyatt Harris, right, with a trainee.
Micah Peters

Joe came to Wyatt in the summer before his sophomore year at USC, looking to rid himself of bad habits he couldn’t get away with on the field anymore. They were mainly corrections that people not maniacal about football wouldn’t notice: making subtle readjustments to his first step, keeping his head steady, maintaining his explosiveness. “We’re not working out, we’re training,’’ Wyatt says, getting amped up just thinking about it. “I’m trying to fix problems — I’m looking for anything you do wrong, the smallest, minute thing.”

There are only so many ways to describe Wyatt before you get to “drill sergeant.” He’s brawny and earnest and animated. If you needed someone to drag you kicking and screaming out of a state of complacency, you could do worse. He’s trained the likes of Early Doucet, Robert Meachem, and Devery Henderson. As Tank remembers it, when Joe reported to Wyatt for offseason training before his final season with the Jets, he threw up every day for nearly two weeks. “[Wyatt] crazy, I’m not going back,” Joe would say. But he always went back. Wyatt thinks that if he’d committed to being a cornerback, Joe might’ve been a Hall of Famer. “If he played DB, man — I’m talking Heisman Trophy–type stuff.”

It was also around Joe’s freshman year at USC that he met Michelle Beltran; together, the two of them made Jaiden McKnight. He has a face the word “no” rebounds off of, with pinchable cheeks, a round nose, and a forehead he’ll grow into. Tank visited Joe and Michelle in New Jersey once, when Joe was with the Jets and Jaiden was 3 or 4. Jaiden didn’t know much, but he did know Toys R Us, and each time Joe drove past one with Jaiden in the car, they’d have to stop. But they were getting only one thing.

One thing would always turn into three things, somehow. “He wanted Jaiden to have everything and more,” Tank says. “Everybody, even if you’re rich, you want your kid to have more than you had.”

Joe and Michelle had split by the time he returned to New Orleans for the final time, after his second spell in the Canadian Football League in 2016. He was working a regular day job as an assistant at Choices Behavioral Health and Wellness, a mental health care facility, mentoring a group of troubled youth on the West Bank. He helped train kids with Wyatt. He still made time to FaceTime Jaiden every night — sometimes to help with his homework, sometimes just to catch up with his best friend. When Jaiden would come to visit, he’d occasionally feature in Joe’s workout videos. “He’s a great father,” Jonas says. “I’m 37 years old and I learned fatherhood from him.”

At 28, he hadn’t given up on football, but for the first time he was conceiving of a life after it. How it could be different, what it might look like. After years of traveling for this team and that team, he was thinking of putting down roots, of buying a house he and Jaiden could return to.

Jaiden still has those workout videos on his iPad. But his best friend is gone.

Joe posted a screenshot to Instagram on December 1, 2016, not knowing it’d be his last. He was listening to Al Green, “Tired of Being Alone.” Jonas commented, “Boy what you know about that?”

Both were estranged from the mothers of their children at this point, but trying to do the right thing. They were talking and texting as regularly as ever. Earlier that year, in April, Will Smith, who’d helped bring the Lombardi Trophy to New Orleans as a defensive end for the Saints, had been splayed out on Felicity Street and Sophie Wright Place in the Lower Garden District, over nothing. It had been weighing on Joe, Smith’s unceremonious death. Smith deserved more.

Courtesy of Jonas English

Joe felt he deserved more, too. He had been waived by the Jets in 2013, and after a year out of the league was picked up by the Kansas City Chiefs. A torn Achilles and two years later, he was in the CFL, playing for the Edmonton Eskimos. His faith was low. “God let me down,” he told Jonas one night. “All I want to do is be great. I’ve been great my whole life and now I’m fighting for everything and I’m not getting my just due.” And so Jonas ministered to him, and gave him a prayer to pray.

So Joe prayed that prayer, and God began to bless him. Not right away, nor in the ways that he expected, like the gospel song goes. Joe was released from the Eskimos, but found a new team that same season, the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

That mild December Thursday, Jonas’s phone rang. It was Joe, who had news he wouldn’t share yet, though Jonas would later find out from Joe’s agent: He’d been asked to go in for a physical with the Minnesota Vikings.

Ronald Gasser was released from custody less than 24 hours after McKnight’s death. Gasser wasn’t immediately charged.

“Killed that man,” Lamont Simmons says of Gasser. “Killed that man, then went home the same night.”

It wasn’t the first time Gasser had been accused of being involved in a violent incident on the road. In 2006 he allegedly got into a road-rage confrontation in the gas station parking lot mere yards from his fatal encounter with Joe McKnight, who was unarmed, 10 years later.

“There were two people at that red light, man. There were no cars in front of either one of them. Why not drive off?” Jonas wonders. “[Gasser] had a history of doing that. He had a history of doing those things to people.”

How many incidents do there need to be until they’re no longer considered isolated? At what point do those isolated incidents become a trend? And when does that trend begin to define what you are?

These aren’t questions solely for Gasser. The “Stand Your Ground” law, which removes the “duty to retreat” before claiming self-defense as a justification for leveling force against a perceived threat, is quintessentially, distinctly, stupidly American. The doctrine fashions a gun into the morally superior last word in an argument, one that a nonwhite person is disproportionately likely to be on the losing side of. I’m in the right, and you are dead. It’s a terrible confluence of factors: civilians registered to carry and authorized to use lethal force against any threat — real or imagined. McKnight was just talking with his hands. He did not move closer to the vehicle, according to eyewitness Andrew Bailey, who also said he saw Gasser swing the gun at everyone who approached to check on Joe afterward.

Gasser’s attorneys claimed that Joe had steroids and marijuana in his system, which contributed to “erratic behavior” at the time of the shooting. But they waited until April, more than four months after the shooting, to identify this “threat” that they suggested justified Gasser’s use of force. Only two people really know the truth about what happened, and one of them isn’t around to defend himself.

Within 12 hours of Will Smith’s death, Cardell Hayes, the shooter, was arrested on a second-degree murder charge. But Gasser wasn’t charged in McKnight’s death until the following Monday, and the initial charge was manslaughter. Nearly two months later, the charge was upgraded to second-degree murder.

“I don’t know why they wouldn’t arrest [Gasser],” Ben LaBranche, a defense attorney in Baton Rouge, told The Times-Picayune in December. “It’s a very similar case to Cardell Hayes and they booked him immediately.”

Tank isn’t so confused: “I definitely know the system is set up for people like Ronald Gasser.”

“I ain’t gonna get into all that, man,” Wyatt adds. “Just more of the same.”

Jonas thinks the charge would have been elevated sooner than February had the shooting happened just a few miles farther east. “If that case was in Orleans Parish, it would have been tried and whatever happened, would have happened already,” he says. “[Jefferson Parish] is playing games.”

Jefferson Parish officials argue otherwise. “Everybody wants to make this about race. This isn’t about race,” Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand said in one of two tone-deaf press conferences in the wake of the shooting. Normand announced his retirement in July. He’s considering a future in talk radio.

Nearly 400 people showed for Joe’s funeral. Family, friends, fans, old rivals, and teammates alike. Mark Sanchez, Bart Scott, and Antonio Cromartie were among the pallbearers. Michelle and Jaiden were there, and J.T., too. The Free Spirit Brass Band played “I’ll Fly Away.”

Wyatt just couldn’t be at his former trainee’s service. “I was tore up from that one, dude,” he says. “I was really tore up, not like I wouldn’t be tore up from anybody else I trained, but everybody I trained don’t … don’t love me.”

Joe respected Wyatt. Joe loved him. Joe was honest with him. Joe wouldn’t hurt a fly. And now Joe is gone.

Sometimes, Jonas goes out to that light at Behrman and Holmes. There’s a gas station with boarded windows across the intersection from the Shell station. The weeds have overtaken the cracked, baked pavement, but the station is still there, quiet. It’s a good spot from which one can watch traffic pass, think, and cry, if need be.

Gasser’s trial is scheduled to start November 7, but Jonas questions whether the date will hold firm. Come what may, he’s organizing a celebration of Joe’s life for December 2 — a fundraiser, where all the proceeds will go to Kenner’s recreational parks and programs, like Joe would’ve wanted. He remembers his little brother, the phenom, the beacon, the legend, the father, in ways big and small.

“I live in LaPlace, Louisiana,” he says. “When I cross over to Kenner, when I’m driving my car, I can kind of see his mom’s house off the interstate and I just put the number four up in the air.”

Four. That was Joe’s number.

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