Joe McKnight had big heart and big dreams while with Jets

Three weeks after the game of his life, Joe McKnight wondered what the future might hold for him.

He stood in an empty hallway outside the Jets locker room and retraced a tumultuous rookie season that would have broken a lesser man.

He spoke with optimism and hope. If he could just get an opportunity like he did in the 2010 regular-season finale when he rushed for 138 yards against the Bills, he knew he could make it. I listened without saying much before he asked me what I thought.

I gave him the truth. His time would come beginning that spring. The rest was up to him.

Joe McKnight dead at 28: Ex-Jets, others mourn shocking loss

He kept saying five words over and over: I want to be great.

I don’t know if he was trying to convince himself or simply let me know that he was committed to the cause. Either way, I believed him.

Joe McKnight, who died Thursday at 28, was always considered a great teammate with the Jets.

Joe McKnight, who died Thursday at 28, was always considered a great teammate with the Jets.

(Ron Antonelli/New York Daily News )

Greatness would finally allow him to climb out of Reggie Bush’s shadow, he thought. Maybe fans would appreciate Joe McKnight.

He was raw and real. You’re not supposed to root in my profession, but I left that hallway that day rooting for him.

Former Jets RB Joe McKnight shot dead in New Orleans

McKnight died Thursday afternoon at an intersection in Terrytown, La., after a road argument with a stranger. A witness said that McKnight was “trying to apologize” before getting shot multiple times. He was just 28.

McKnight rushed for 502 yards and two kickoff returns for touchdowns in three seasons with the Jets. He spent one year in Kansas City before playing in the CFL. His football career shouldn’t define him.

He was a father and a friend.

“This hurt to the heart,” former Jets teammate Antonio Cromartie tweeted. “I can’t stop crying.”

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The Jets offered their condolences along with many others.

“Rest in power,” Damien Woody tweeted.

McKnight grew up in the public spotlight. He was a Louisiana high school football star before going to USC to succeed Bush. The Jets traded up to select him in the fourth round of the 2010 draft. He struggled at times with the scrutiny that comes with being a professional athlete, but teammates knew that he always had the right intentions. Older players took him under his wing. McKnight gravitated to Bart Scott and Cromartie.

Running backs coach Anthony Lynn showed the tough love of a father, always pushing McKnight to overcome adversity. He made McKnight lug a football everywhere he went one year to make sure the fumbling issues that plagued him came to an end. McKnight loved Lynn for that.

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McKnight rushed for 502 yards and two kick return touchdowns in three years with the Jets.

McKnight rushed for 502 yards and two kick return touchdowns in three years with the Jets.

(TIM SHAFFER/REUTERS)

His teammates loved his sense of humor. He could be a goofball, and when he wasn’t soured on reporters like me, you saw that side too.

He was once asked which player was his best friend on the team.

“Everybody’s my best friend,” he said.

I never had a better conversation with McKnight than the day after the Jets lost in Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game to end his rookie year. He had gathered his stuff and left the locker room when I caught up with him in that hallway.

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What he did or didn’t accomplish on fall Sundays doesn’t really matter.

He had a good heart.

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