Jets DL Johnson's unanswered questions after Joe McKnight's death

Anthony Johnson could do nothing but shake his head.

Standing in front of his locker at the Jets facility Friday afternoon, the defensive lineman was trying to find the words to describe his emotions, the frustration and pain and sadness he’d felt over the past 24 hours. Johnson was born and raised in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans, just blocks from where Louisiana legend and former Jets running back Joe McKnight was shot and killed Thursday afternoon in a road rage incident. McKnight was just 28 years old.

Friday morning, the killer, a white 54-year-old man named Ronald Gasser, walked free. Police released him from custody without filing charges. And here was Johnson hours later, attempting to digest the fact that his childhood hero is dead far too young, with far too much life left to live.

After several seconds, Johnson stopped shaking his head. He looked up, the agony visible in his eyes.

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“Why? Just why?” Johnson told the Daily News. “That’s all we want to know. Why?”

Across the room, safety Antonio Allen, a former teammate of McKnight’s with the Jets in 2012, mirrored Johnson’s sentiment.

He was asked what Gasser’s release from custody says about our society.

“We got a lot of work to do,” Allen told the News. “I know that.”

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“To see him pass is devastating, and my heart goes out to his family, his children, man. I just can’t fathom a person dying so young.”

Johnson’s family still resides in Algiers, including his daughter and her mother. That’s a scary fact for the Jets defensive lineman.

Earlier this year, former Saints defensive end Will Smith was shot and killed in a similar road rage incident in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans, just across the Mississippi River from where McKnight was gunned down.

In Johnson’s eyes, the city isn’t safe.

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“It is very concerning,” Johnson said. “Right now, where my family is located, I don’t feel too good. I’m looking over my shoulder everywhere I go now. And this is where I was born and raised. It’s bad, especially for athletes, especially for guys like myself, (Cardinals safety) Tyrann (Mathieu), guys that go back and try to give back to the community. It’s rough when you go back home and you got to look over your shoulder because you don’t know what’s going to happen. But at the end of the day, you can’t let that affect you. You just got to continue to live your life and try and go out there and be the best person you can be.”

For Johnson and many other kids in New Orleans in the early 2000s, McKnight was larger than life.

“I really didn’t look up to a lot of people,” Johnson said. “But when you were a young kid growing up, you always wanted to be Joe McKnight. He was the Reggie Bush of New Orleans. … It’s a hard time for my city.”

Former Jets running back Joe McKnight is shot and killed Thursday.

Former Jets running back Joe McKnight is shot and killed Thursday.

(Tom Gannam/AP)

“Just to see my whole West Bank community shocked and to see somebody of that magnitude get left on the street like that, man, and somebody that had a heart like Joe, somebody that worked as hard as he did to make it from that place, it just goes to show that this world still has a way to go,” Johnson continued. “We have a long way to go in terms of growing as a people and in terms of bettering ourselves. At the end of the day, it’s a sad time for all of the world, especially the football world. But down home in New Orleans, man, it hurts a lot.”

Joe McKnight had big heart and big dreams while with Jets

Johnson, now 23, was barely a teenager when McKnight was shredding opposing defenses as a standout running back for John Curtis Christian High School.

Johnson credits McKnight with shining a light on the football recruiting hot bed that is the New Orleans and Baton Rouge area.

Johnson recalled flipping on the television one day when he was a young boy and seeing John Curtis playing Hoover (Ala.) High School.

“If it wasn’t for Joe McKnight, the ESPNUs wouldn’t be down there in New Orleans,” Johnson said. “He brought television to a high school football game. When I saw John Curtis play Hoover, Alabama, that was the first time I’ve seen a high school game on TV. I had never saw anything like that. But it was only because of Joe McKnight.”

New Orleans lost a son, and the city mourns.

“It’s a sad day right now in the NFL for a lot of his former teammates,” Johnson said, “and especially for the guys who were originally from New Orleans and watched that player mature.”

Tags:
nfl
new york jets
new orleans
louisiana
anthony johnson
joe mcknight
gun violence
ronald gasser

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