The nation's No. 2 college football recruit, the one with three football factories and three fan bases hanging on his national signing day decision, the one they call the "next Reggie Bush," doesn't have a house.
The place he and his family called home was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Then the levees broke and everyone scattered until he – Joe McKnight – returned to River Ridge, La., just west of New Orleans, and moved into a spare bedroom at his high school coach's house. Eventually his mother and younger brother returned too, but with all the hardship, all the insurance red tape, all they could muster was a tiny, tiny apartment.
So McKnight, all these months later, is still living apart from his family, with his high school coach, "rather than sleeping on a sofa," the coach, J.T. Curtis, said.
All of which brings a rather unique question to these final, furious hours of the often underhanded business of college football recruiting.
What happens when the nation's top remaining recruit – not only capable of demanding virtually anything he wants (money, cars, yes, even a house) on the lively, under-the-table recruiting market, but almost assuredly already offered them – actually needs all of those things, desperately?
"I think if a guy has his hand out and is looking for something, as has happened in the past, there are plenty of places more than willing to give it to him," said Curtis, who in a 33-year career has sent nearly 170 players on to Division I-A, including 11 to the NFL. "Fortunately, that is not Joe's priority."
There is no indication of any rule breaking going on here – either from the three finalists Louisiana State, Ole Miss or Southern California (USC ultimately was McKnight's choice Wednesday) or any of the other 50 or so programs that tried to get the running back's signature Wednesday. But let's be honest, college coaches and boosters have certainly paid players far worse than McKnight to come to their campus. In college, he'll certainly play against (if not alongside) kids getting paid.
Then there are the agents, looking to get in early and lock up a potential NFL client. It is a little ironic they compare this kid to Reggie Bush. Certainly his family could use the kind of house that a fledgling San Diego marketing agent opened up to Bush's family during his final year at USC.
But because of the way we develop football players in this country – on college campuses not in minor leagues – McKnight can do little to help his family right now without risking his eligibility. McKnight, who remained in seclusion before announcing his decision, wasn't available to comment for this story.
His high school coach is confident that everything is on the NCAA's up and up, but, then again, he certainly knows the drill. During his coaching career in SEC country, he's watched the NCAA hit the league's football programs 23 separate times for major violations. And he isn’t naïve to agents, either.
McKnight is certainly an intriguing prospect, 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds with 4.3 speed. His high school team at John Curtis Christian (founded by the coach's father) was so dominant he didn't play much but he did manage to score a touchdown 39.1 percent of the time he touched the ball on offense. Then he returned three punts for scores for good measure.
In winning consecutive state championships, he ran so many circles around so many defenders that he became a schoolboy legend on the Bayou and sent college recruiters into a frenzy.
And so while McKnight may not be the poorest kid to sign a letter of intent with a rich school Wednesday – he signed live on national television at noon – he certainly has a unique situation.
Curtis claims McKnight is obeying all the rules. If the player is doing it because he believes it is the proper thing to do and believes in the NCAA's amateur rules, then good for him; he is a person of great principle.
Because to do so would be to ignore a world around him that's been complicated by grown-up things like hurricanes and FEMA and insurance companies, that is filled with desperate coaches, cash-machine agents and insanely rich boosters who can solve many of those complications instantly.
It would be to wade through mixed messages – NCAA rules on one side, NCAA representatives smashing those rules on the other.
It would mean agreeing to keep his mom and brother in that small apartment while he goes and makes millions for his college coach and tens of millions for his new school, not including all the ancillary businesses, including, indeed, media like me.
Yes, he gets a shot at a free education, no small thing there. Yes, he gets the thrill of college football and the satisfaction that comes from doing it within the agreed upon guidelines. And yes, he may get untold fame and fortune in the NFL in three years, but you want to tell a Katrina family about patience right now?
Would you be as principled as Joe McKnight just may be? Even after the levees broke?
I can't, 100 percent, say I would.
"Well, I can say this, he's not driving a new car," Curtis said. "He's just trying to maintain his focus on his priorities. That stuff (cheating) is one of the things we try to stay away from. Has that happened (with other players)? Obviously that has happened in the past and it is tempting. But it is about maintaining priorities and I think Joe is doing that."
On Wednesday, Joe McKnight made his college choice, the first step to helping his family move forward. In the process, he'll thrill one fan base and break the hearts of two others. If he winds up as good as advertised, he may even shift the balance of power in college football.
You'd hope he made that decision for all the right reasons but with deals like this kid, in places like post-Katrina New Orleans, I'm hard-pressed to know for sure what constitutes "right" in college athletics anymore.
- Joe McKnight
- Reggie Bush
- college football