By Ryan Chatelain
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Quick, who’s the highest-rated high school football prospect in the tri-state area?
The answer is Drew Singleton, a linebacker from Paramus Catholic.
It’s OK if you didn’t know that. Even the most die-hard sports fans in the New York City metro area pay little attention to college football, much less the high schools. Who can blame them? There are plenty enough big-league teams here to occupy our attention.
But where I’m originally from — just outside New Orleans — it’s a much different story. When Peyton Manning was 15 years old and throwing TDs left and right to his older brother, Cooper, at Newman High, he was just as big of a name and just as recognizable in the Big Easy as anyone playing for the Saints at the time.
The New Orleans area is one of the most fertile grounds for future football stars. Marshall Faulk, Aeneas Williams, Ed Reed, Eli Manning, Odell Beckham Jr. and Matt Forte are among the many, many standouts who have come from there.
But admittedly, not all of them became household names while still in high school the way Peyton Manning did.
Or even the way Joe McKnight did.
I don’t want to give the false impression that New Orleans-area sports fans pack every single high school stadium in some rabid “Friday Night Lights” kind of way. Some schools, sure. But most have what I would simply describe as a healthy following. However, even those sports fans who don’t attend the games keep up through newspaper front pages, TV highlight shows or Friday night radio roundups.
High school football is far from ignored.
I covered some of McKnight’s games while writing for a newspaper in south Louisiana. He was nothing short of electrifying.
Just how good was he? The New Orleans Times-Picayune named him the metro area’s top male athlete of the decade for the 2000s.
“Everybody in the world wanted to be @ReggieBush, us in New Orleans wanted to run the ball like Joe McKnight,” tweeted Tyrann Mathieu, the Arizona Cardinals safety who starred at St. Augustine High School in the Crescent City.
McKnight, who played three seasons for the Jets, was fatally shot Thursday afternoon in the New Orleans suburb of Terrytown in an apparent road rage incident.
No one will compare McKnight’s tragic story to that of Jose Fernandez, the 24-year-old Marlins pitcher who died in a boating accident in September. Fernandez’s career was on the rise and limitless at the time of his death. McKnight, who was 28, was merely fighting to keep his football career alive. But both stories are just as heartbreaking — young, gifted men taken from us in such preventable ways.
When you saw what kind of a talent McKnight was in high school and at USC, it proves just how unbelievably difficult it is for even the most blessed athletes to put it all together and enjoy successful pro careers.
By most accounts, McKnight was the top high school running back in the country as a senior in 2006, some even declaring he was one of the best in U.S. history. Yet he didn’t quite have what it took to be special in the NFL.
But that will never diminish the legend he built in New Orleans, where his statistics at John Curtis were almost unimaginable.
As as senior, he amassed more than 1,400 yards of offense and 27 touchdowns. Big deal, right? Sure, those are great numbers, but there are plenty of high school stars all over the country who do that, right?
McKnight produced those stats on just 45 rushing attempts and 24 receptions. In other words, he averaged nearly 21 yards every time he touched the football for an entire season.
He also played four different positions and was a member of three state championship teams.
“He was as effective a player as a receiver as he was a running back, ” McKnight’s high school coach, JT Curtis, a legend in his own right, told me in 2009. “With his versatility, to be able to get the ball to him in different areas on the field and let him make plays was really unusual. He could have played receiver in college, he certainly could have been a running back … or he could have been a corner.
“Probably his sophomore year, we began to recognize that he had some special gifts that made him unusual, ” Curtis said. “He had great vision. He could see the field. And he could see not only the tackler, but he could see the tackler beyond the tackler. And he knew where to make the move on the field and when to make it.”
While not all the details are clear, the manner of McKnight’s death has been shocking for NFL fans, especially Jets fans, who unfortunately will mostly remember the 2010 fourth-round draft pick for never living up to the hype that accompanied him to the NFL.
But in New Orleans, they’ll remember him as a football superstar. Period.
Follow Ryan on Twitter at @ryanchatelain