January 19, 2017


A MAN NAMED JOE : Before the 'road rage' killing, before the racially charged trial, Joe McKnight ran. He ran to the NFL and back. And then, when the world felt like it was collapsing around him, he ran some more. (FLINDER BOYD, JANUARY 19, 2017, Bleacher Report)

Joe wakes up for the last time, on December 1, 2016. He puts on a blue polo shirt emblazoned with his company's logo and heads to work. Three weeks earlier, he had returned to New Orleans from a second stint in the Canadian Football League and taken a job as an assistant at a mental health care facility. On this day, work is light, so around noon, he fires up the grill and lays out burgers and pork links in meticulous rows. "I like my food pretty," he tells his colleagues.

When lunch is over, his boss and mentor Michael Tucker asks him to pick up an employee at a branch office five miles away on the West Bank. Normally, Joe would drive a company Kia, but this day Tucker is feeling generous. He tosses the keys of his Audi Q5 in a soft arc from one side of the hall to the other. Joe sticks out his hand to snatch them--but a moment too late.

"You gotta work on those fumbles," Tucker jokes. "You been fumbling your whole life."

"Don't do that to me," Joe says. As he walks out the front door, he turns and smiles. "I'll see you in a minute."

Joe starts the ignition and turns onto Canal Street. It's 62 degrees. He drives past the Superdome and the trolley cars. He drives toward the Mississippi River.

He plugs in his iPhone and plays Common's "The Light." There are times when you need someone/I will be by your side. He texts his girlfriend.

Just after 2:30 p.m., he merges onto the Crescent City Connection bridge.

From here, only two people know exactly what happened.

The only thing most people in Louisiana knew about Joe McKnight was that he could run. He ran so well, he was named the Times-Picayune's high school athlete of the last decade.  After the New York Jets drafted him in 2010, he ran his way to an All-Pro selection the next season as a return specialist, and then, when the world felt like it was collapsing around him, he ran some more.

There's poetic irony in his last days; for the first time in his life, he had stopped running. He was back home in New Orleans to make peace with a complicated past. To forgive and to repent.

McKnight's trip to the West Bank that day was supposed to take less than an hour. He was scheduled to help Tucker shop for a boat in the afternoon. Instead, at some point on the Crescent City Connection, he encounters a two-door blue Infiniti.

Ronald Gasser, a 54-year-old telecommunications contractor, is returning home to Gretna, a New Orleans suburb, from a work site in Mississippi. By Gasser's own admission, McKnight cuts him off, and Gasser becomes "angry and chased McKnight," he later tells detectives.

When they cross over the Mississippi River into Algiers, they exit General De Gaulle Drive. The details of the next 2.5 miles are cloudy, until they come to a stop at the intersection of Behrman Highway and Holmes Boulevard, in the unincorporated area of Terrytown. McKnight is in the right-hand turn lane but still facing south; Gasser is alongside him in the middle lane, just a few feet away, with his passenger window down.

Gasser told police he was "boxed in," but two witnesses contradict this and tell B/R Mag that, at least when the fatal bullets were fired, no one was in front of Gasser's car at the stoplight.

McKnight exits his vehicle, unarmed, and as ballistics indicate, it appears he's bent over, looking down into Gasser's car from the passenger side. What's said, if anything, is unclear, but according to the Jefferson Parish coroner, Gasser fires a .40-caliber pistol, striking McKnight three times--below the right nipple, in the right shoulder and in the left hand. Three shell casings, according to police, are found in Gasser's car.

McKnight is now splayed out on the asphalt, facing the sky, still breathing. Gasser gets out of his car and stands over him, or at least near him, as onlookers surround the scene. Soon, a witness says, Wendell Sam, a Naval officer parked at the nearby Shell gas station, sprints around McKnight's Audi and comes face to face with Gasser, who turns and points his gun at Sam's head, then body.

Sam is calm. "You don't want to kill a military officer," he says, according to police. Gasser then lowers his gun and steps away.

Neal Thompson's Hurricane Season is an excellent account of his Katrina-impacted high school career.

A Testament To Faith (Wright Thompson, 12/06/05, ESPN The Magazine

Sitting in an idling bus parked behind John Curtis Christian School, the assistant coach flipped through the worn Bible until he found Psalm 127. The book has gotten a lot of use this year, what with so many unexplainable things to explain. This passage in particular seemed especially poignant, so he handed the Bible to one of the Curtis brothers and pointed to the page.

"I was reading this and thought of your daddy," the coach said.

J.T. and Leon Curtis' father, who founded the school that bears his name, passed away just three months before Katrina. His presence dominates the football powerhouse, where nine of the family members are coaches. At all team functions, they keep an empty chair reserved for him, in case his spirit gets tired.

Leon took the book and read the scripture, just five small verses. He nodded at the story of a city needing the Lord's protection, and about sons being a man's greatest legacy. The words hit home. J.T. and Leon, the team's head coach and defensive coordinator, respectively, believed their father was looking down on them, helping a little, but mostly smiling at the work of his children. In a chaotic time, they made the John Curtis football team a beacon for the city of New Orleans, a sign that things can be as they once were.

So the buses pulled out from the school on Dec. 8, leaving River Ridge, La., bound for Shreveport and the team's last game. The police escort's sirens wailed. The lights flashed. Another state title awaited, No. 20, though this season has been nothing like the others.

1Unless the LORD builds the house,
its builders labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchmen stand guard in vain.

John T. Curtis Sr. built the school 43 years ago. He did it all, from securing a loan for the lumber to planting the crepe myrtle tree by the elementary building. That tree came to symbolize their journey -- a small dream that grew deep roots.

When he died in late May, everyone wondered if his dream could live after him. His oldest son, J.T., who had coached the football team to all 19 state titles, was a lot like his dad. Sure, he would never let the old man buy those gaudy red pants, the ones with stars down the side. But on the big stuff, they saw eye to eye.

Now J.T. held the school's future in his hands, during the greatest challenge in its history. In August, Hurricane Katrina chased most everyone out of New Orleans. His team vanished with them. Some players lost their homes. All of them lost anything resembling a normal life.

The mighty John Curtis Patriots were no more.

Word was, it would take six months for the town to even dry out. Sitting in four rented apartments in Baton Rouge, J.T. Curtis and his family wondered what to do. They didn't know if the school even survived the storm, but through it all, the same question kept popping up: What would Daddy do?

There wasn't any doubt, really. They'd seen him in action. The day after a fire broke out in the school back in 1977, the family and the insurance adjusters toured the still smoldering building. It was pitch black, smelling of smoke and still wet from the firemen's hose. The insurance man told them it would take three to six months just to clean. While he was talking, they heard the scraping sound of a shovel.

"It was the old man," J.T. said, smiling. "He wasn't waiting on the insurance company. He was cleaning that place up then, that morning."

They couldn't let the school close. That would be like losing their father all over again. So J.T. went back to New Orleans to see if there was anything left to save. As he neared the school on Jefferson Highway, he prayed. "Lord," he said, "whatever's there, I'm gonna accept it."

He found the high school building untouched. He laughed and cried at the same time. When he got to the elementary school building, though, the news was worse: a giant tree had fallen on it. A closer inspection brought the Curtis boys to their knees. The tree was barely held off the roof by the crepe myrtle their dad had planted all those years ago. They felt sure that he was watching over them.

"It was the first time I realized, 'We can do this,'" J.T. said.

2In vain you rise early
and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat-
for he grants sleep to those he loves.

They sent out text messages. They put up practice information on the Web site. Told everyone the team would play in 2005, no matter what. They weren't sure who was reading, but crossed their fingers and prayed.

Slowly, players made contact. Their star, Joe McKnight, who'd actually played a game for Evangel Christian in Shreveport, came home. Moving in with J.T., McKnight said, was the first time in his life it felt like he had a sanctuary.

Posted by at January 19, 2017 6:16 PM