Sun, Sep. 27, 2009 - [Football]
Article courtesy of Lindsey Willhite
Like the opening chapter to the Michael Jordan legend, the Johnny Knox story starts with a coach's snubbing.
The Bears' revelatory rookie wide receiver wasn't an academic qualifier coming out of Channelview (Tex.) High School in 2005 - and he wasn't exactly a hotly pursued recruit either.
As part of his fervent search for a junior college willing to put him on scholarship, Knox made the 666-mile drive from eastern Houston to Hutchinson (Kan.) Junior College near Wichita.
"The head coach wouldn't even come out of his office to talk to him," said Ryan Mahon, the offensive coordinator at Tyler (Tex.) Junior College.
That Hutchinson coach, who shall remain nameless until Knox's Jordan-like Pro Football Hall of Fame speech about 20 years hence, didn't exactly hold the minority view at the time.
Knox attended a slew of camps, including a showcase at perennial powerhouse Blinn College. The coaches there gave the top junior-college prospects a "1" ranking.
Knox's ranking? A "3."
Mahon and Tyler JC wound up taking Knox because they happened to have an opening at receiver.
"You could see a good skill set, but he wasn't anything that jumped off the page," Mahon said. "He was always a great route runner."
Ouch. That sounds like back-handed code for a possession receiver, which Knox certainly is not.
But Knox confirms he wasn't exactly a speed burner at that stage of his career.
"In high school, I wasn't really that fast," Knox said.
In his freshman year at Tyler, Knox appeared in just four of the team's nine games and caught 8 passes for 2 touchdowns. Nothing remarkable.
Then came the off-season between his freshman and sophomore seasons.
"He came in and worked his tail off," Mahon said. "I've never seen that big of a transition."
Knox made 37 catches during his sophomore year at Tyler, but he led the junior-college universe with 886 yards (23.9 yards per catch) and shared the national title for TD receptions with 11.
"After his sophomore year, we knew he was very, very special," Mahon said.
But as an academic non-qualifier out of high school, Knox didn't have the ideal profile to leap from Tyler to a Football Bowl Subdivision school.
"They usually want their junior-college transfers to come in at mid-year," Mahon said. "They don't want to wait and take the risk. Johnny would have needed 60 hours (in three semesters) to do that."
Knox wound up taking exactly one recruiting visit: To Div. II Abilene Christian, a school that never pierced his consciousness until the Bears unearthed safety Danieal Manning in the second round of the 2006 draft.
Knox piled up 118 catches for 2,227 yards and 30 touchdowns in two seasons at Abilene. Remarkable numbers, but they suffered from inflation that hadn't been seen in sports since Colorado Rockies hitters in the pre-humidor years.
For example, one of Abilene's playoff games last fall ended in a 93-68 win. Knox's Wildcats raced for touchdowns on 13 of their 15 possessions.
That helps to explain why Knox didn't necessarily become a viable draft prospect until the NFL combine in February, when he blazed through his 40-yard dashes in 4.29 and 4.34 seconds.
There was no way to discount those numbers come draft time. As GM Jerry Angelo explained this week to chicagobears.com:
"We were in the fifth round of the draft and Lovie (Smith) looked at the board along with the scouts and said, 'How about this Johnny Knox?' He said, 'We really don't have anybody like him.'
"We all talked together and we thought, given the other players that we were considering, that he had the traits we look for at the position."
Two games into his pro career, Knox is tied for 16th in receiving yards (152) with four-time Pro Bowler Steve Smith.
Now that NFL defenses know what he can do and figure to adjust accordingly, it'll be up to Knox to take the next step in his evolution. Is there a next step?
"I feel like I'm a receiver at heart," Knox said. "I feel like I can do the things that a receiver does. Speed is one of my biggest assets, but I do feel like I can run routes, catch the ball and block."