Even though it’s been close to 30 years, Tommy Knight still remembers the day Iowa coach Hayden Fry came to the family home in Marlton, New Jersey, to talk.
Fry sat on the floor, making sure his boots with a Rose Bowl logo were visible to the Knights, but didn’t talk about football till the end the final five minutes of his hour-long visit.
“He was playing with the dog, talking with my sister, talking to my mom and dad about their stuff, what they did, talking about academics and school,” Knight remembered. “He gets up and says, ‘Oh, by the way, young man, I think you’d be a great fit for Iowa. I loved watching you play basketball, your anticipation. We’re recruiting you as a corner. I think you can play as a true freshman, just take a visit, but I’m offering you a full scholarship.
“That was the length of our football conversation.”
That obviously stuck in Knight’s mind, and after visiting only one other campus (nearby Rutgers) as a three-sport student-athlete at Marlton High (Class of 1992), decided he wanted to be a Hawkeye.
It turned out pretty well – the Hawkeyes went to two bowl games, Knight got into 39 games and picked off 10 passes, and in 1997, he was a first-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals, the ninth selection overall – even ahead of future NFL Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez.
He was secluded in his bedroom during the ’97 draft, at which his mother invited what turned out to be about 200 people; he turned down the opportunity to go to New York as a potential first-rounder. The home erupted when the guests learned he’d been drafted by Arizona.
“Certainly, if I was picking teams, 49ers were my favorite,” he said. “I probably would have loved to play for the Philadelphia Eagles or the Kansas City Chiefs. I grew up watching Eagles games, the 49ers were my team and Kansas City was in the Midwest.”
Graciously sitting down with the Observer to talk about his days on the gridiron, it was interesting to hear his pro sport got its start with his prowess in futbol.
“I was a soccer player for years; I didn’t play football,” he said. “I played club soccer growing up, from the time I was 7 years old. Got out of soccer when I was 15; my first year of football was when I was a junior in high school.”
Knight, 48, said the “great footwork” led easily to his later success in the defensive backfield.
“In high school, I ended up playing running back, wide receiver and defensive back,” he said, only coming off the field during points-after touchdowns. None such game, he said, there had been 87 plays registered and he was on the field for 84 of them.
“I was on the field constantly – loved it,” he said. “My junior year, I broke my collarbone. I didn’t play the whole season. … So, my senior year, I come out … as team captain. I play all the positions.”
His speed was evident early: He won the 400 in the state as an 11-year-old, held school records in the 100 and 200, “and did the long jump.” He also played basketball.
By the third game of the season, Knight started seeing and meeting college coaches, “they want to start talking to you about the next level, and I think the reality of that was, ‘I can continue playing,’ so you start to narrow your choices and I completely fell in love with Hayden Fry; (I) turned down Joe Paterno (at Penn State).”
NFL legend Jerry Rice was his favorite pro player, and the 49ers were his favorite team.
“I grew up watching Penn State,” and “Joe Pa” was among a handful of coaches who came to see one of his prep basketball games.
“I went by who came farthest away to visit first, and my mother and family completely fell in love with Hayden Fry.”
What Knight ultimately loved most about Iowa was the people, plus “the fan base, the people before and after the game, the tailgating – there’s nothing like Big-10 football.
“When you get to Iowa City, there’s no place like it – and you literally feel like this is a home you’ve missed, and you’re coming back to.”
Fry’s promises came true, and Knight remembers his “first game, and we were ranked No. 1 in the country – (it was) the second game of the season and they put me in the second series against the No. 1 team in the country, the University of Miami.” (Eventual 1992 Heisman winner Gino Toretta was the Hurricanes’ QB.)
“I made my appearance in front of 74,000 fans … I came out of the tunnel, and you’re just looking up and your eyes are big, and you know you belong, but you’re now seeing it for the first time,” he recalled of that debut. “I feel this hand on the back of my shirt, and it’s Hayden and he’s smiling at me and he says, ‘Young man, the field is this way,’ because I was looking at all the fans and all the craziness.”
Although he discovered the college game was faster, he knew he belonged. He redshirted his second year at Iowa, 1993, then played the next three seasons, 1994-96.
Although several NFL teams seemed interested, the Cardinals selected him in the ’97 draft. Knight played five seasons there, plus spent some time with Baltimore and St. Louis.
A torn hamstring led to his retirement, but he feels he left on his terms.
“My goal was 8-10 (seasons). When I got to that eight, I didn’t have a chance for an injury settlement. I said, my body’s telling me that’s enough” he said. “I wanted to be a dad, play with my kids, do all the fun stuff. I saw guys that played a lot longer that were having problems walking and moving around. I didn’t want to be in that situation.”
After his pro career, he found stints as an assistant college coach at Arizona and Wisconsin. He still goes back to Iowa City to talk to the Hawkeyes football team, and says he’ll always be a Hawkeye.
“What I enjoyed most was that ability to help young men go from boys to young men, and you watch that maturation,” he said. “And that happens in college. There’s no greater thing than putting them in sports to navigating that sports world, that academic world, that social world – you’re watching them become young men. That’s the part I wouldn’t trade.
“There was nothing more fun for me than giving a piece of advice and watching them put it into a game and seeing it work.”
understandably proud of his grown children: daughter Taylor, 24, is a professional dancer who has danced at the Super Bowl; son T.J., 19, is a sophomore and playing soccer at the University of San Francisco.
Knight’s Hawkeyes highlight was on ESPN, in a 1995 game when he intercepted an Indiana pass and returned it 95 yards “to the house.” He loved the electricity at the University of Michigan’s Big House and being booed at The Ohio State University’s “Horseshoe.”
His best advice for today’s student-athletes: “I’ve always told the young ones, ‘No matter what you’re doing, sports, isn’t where your career ends. Just be the best person of you – it’ll take care of itself.’
“I’ve always said, ‘Everyone believes things differently. I’ve always been a believer of the best me will get me where I want to go. That doesn’t hold true for a lot of people; I get that. But I think you’re never gonna sell yourself short because you know you’ve given your best effort.”
Basically, that boils down to, “Have fun. Put in the work. You’ll get out of it what you put into it.”
On at least two occasions when he’s given “pep talks” to football teams, “Kids are looking at me, ready for this big pep talk. I look at them, their eyes are big, and I just said, ‘Have fun. Relax.’ I said, ‘All the hard work has been put in. We’ve done everything we’ve needed to do to prepare for this game, and they will do something we’re not prepared for. But if we talk, communicate, 11 guys on the same page, we’ll be fine. And, guess what, guys? This is what’s enjoyable – you have 88,000 fans here to watch this today and millions on TV. Enjoy the game – that’s what you put the work in for.’”
He’s been there, done that. Hard work in high school, hard work in college and hard work in the NFL.
And now he’s happily living in Rio Rancho, getting out to see an occasional high school game, and working for TLC.