Leader Blues

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

SPORTS>> Controversial ending

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

David Knighton’s career began in a firestorm and is ending in one, too.Everything in between was pure glory.

Three years ago, the Harding gunslinger, playing in just his third game as a Bison, was thrust into action in the fourth quarter of a 13-13 tie with Valdosta State, the nation’s top-ranked team. With 11:46 left in the game, Knighton threw only his 11th pass as a Bison against the nation’s best defense. He went on to complete 5 of 12 passes for 65 yards in playing the entire fourth quarter and Harding posted one of its biggest wins, 16-13 in overtime.

Knighton spent the past three seasons shattering Harding passing records and moving up the Gulf South Conference career statistics charts. This Saturday afternoon in Russellville, Knighton was to have put the exclamation mark on a career that wiped out the Bison record books, mostly likely for years to come.

But Knighton’s final game at Harding may turn out to have been last Saturday at Henderson State. On Monday afternoon, the university announced that Knighton had been suspended from school for a code of conduct violation, pending an appeal hearing on Friday.

Knighton, a sixth-year student at Harding, was nearing a degree in management, but his entire fall semester would be wiped out.

Knighton, who lives off campus with another football player, is accused of violating a school policy that forbids a student from having a person of the opposite sex in his or her house after curfew.

According to Knighton’s father, Reggie Knighton, his son’s name is being tarnished unjustly.

“David was just helping a young lady out,” Reggie Knighton said in a phone interview from his home in Seminole, Okla. “This young lady had no place to go because it was too late for her to get back into her dorm. David, nice guy that he is, said he knew if he didn’t help her out and something bad happened to her, he’d be sorry. So he let her sleep on the sofa.

“He was doing his Christian duty. If my daughter was stranded like that, I know I’d hope somebody would come to her rescue.

What’s so bad about it is David has done nothing wrong. But the dean told me it didn’t matter, that it wouldn’t make any difference (even if David Knighton’s version of events are accurate). Doesn’t that sound silly?”

The official word from the dean’s office is that Knighton is suspended, pending the appeal, which is expected to be completed by Friday.

David Knighton says he was asleep at his house when the woman, a friend of Knighton’s, called. The woman had been out partying and told him she didn’t have a place to stay.

“I didn’t want her to have to sleep outside or in her car,” David Knighton said. “I mean, why wouldn’t I open my door to her?”
David Knighton said he was called into the dean’s office on Monday, where, Knighton insists, he told the truth.

“But they said that because she stayed with me, it was a violation of rules and I was kicked out,” he said. “They told me I could have tried to seek other actions and that I should have stayed away from it.”

A MAGNIFICENT CAREER

Arkansas Tech head coach Steve Mullins, in an interview before the suspension announcement, was just one of many GSC coaches who had long admired Knighton’s heroics, all the while ticking down the end of his reign.

Last Nov. 3, Knighton lit up Mullins and Arkansas Tech for seven touchdowns and 529 yards on 46 of 62 passing in a 62-55 win over the Wonder Boys. The previous season, Tech had done as well as anyone in the GSC ever has against the 6-foot, 1-inch, 220-pound GSC Offensive Player of the Year in 2007, limiting him to a 207-yard, no-touchdown outing.

“David made up for that with about four games worth in one game,” Mullins said, able to chuckle about Knighton’s outburst a year later. “We did everything we could do to make an All American out of him. But he did that to everybody else as well. It wasn’t just us. And like all the great ones, it seems like he’s been there about seven years.”

Those 529 yards, 46 completions and seven touchdowns, incidentally, were all Harding records. The 46 completions are a GSC record and the seven TD strikes are tied for first. Knighton repeated that last feat on Sept. 20 against Delta State.

But it wasn’t just Mullins and his GSC brethren whose life will become easier with the end of Knighton’s remarkable career.

“Adding up his numbers the past few years have taken up most of my Mondays and Tuesdays,” says Bisons sports information director Scott Goode, the man responsible for tabulating the damage from Knighton’s air campaign these past three seasons.

Knighton tore through most of the record book in his junior season, when he broke 27 Harding records. He’s spent his senior season adding to those school-record numbers, which include, among many, many others, most completions (861), passing yards (9,955), passing touchdowns (80), completion percentage (60.0), passing efficiency (130.8) and total offense (10, 448).

And on and on they go, filling up nearly a page of the archives on the Harding sports Website. And that’s just the career numbers. Knighton’s single-season rankings could fill up most of the rest of this page.

Which may just make Goode’s job a little easier from now on. Future Bison quarterbacks are unlikely to challenge Knighton’s numbers any time soon.

“Not for a long time,” Goode says. “Single game numbers, maybe. This year, during the games, I spend my time trying to find out where he ranks in the GSC and in the NCAA. I tried to nominate him for the Harlon Hill Award, so I would look for more tidbits to add to that.”

PRAISE FROM HIS FOES

Disappointing as the circumstances surrounding the end of his career are, they can’t eclipse the impact Knighton has had on Harding University football. His numbers alone could tell the tale. There is almost no end to them.

Knighton completed 18 consecutive passes against OBU last year, third best in league history. His 74 pass attempts last Saturday against Henderson State were also a league best. Knighton would have needed 18 pass attempts this Saturday to set an NCAA Division II record for pass attempts in a season (currently 583). Thirty completions would have netted him the top spot in DII for completions per game in a season (32.4).

But for the coaches who have watched him over the years, Knighton is more than a compilation of numbers.

Ouachita Baptist head coach Todd Knight, whose Tigers endured a mere 1,049 yards and eight touchdowns at the hands of Knighton, ranks him near the top of a league with a rich history of phenomenal passers.

“He’s a great player and a great kid,” Knight says. “All the great quarterbacks in this league have had different qualities and different abilities so it’s hard to say (where he stacks up). But he’s one of the top guys.”

And it’s more than the fact that Knighton has an arm capable of unleashing a tight spiral 70 yards downfield, Knight says, echoing the praise of the other GSC coaches.

“He has no fear,” Knight says. “He’ll stand in the pocket forever and will wait until guys get open. He’s going to put the ball in play. He avoids the rush and avoids tackles. I know our defensive coordinator is going to be relieved that he’s leaving.”

Mullins, likewise, admires Knighton’s courage in the pocket, noting that he will stand in with a defender wrapped around him and still make the play.

“That’s the one thing that sticks out in my mind about him,” Mullins says. “It’s just so darned hard to sack him. He’s just so strong. You try to drag him down and you got him around the waist and he still holds people off and doesn’t take sacks.

“He stacks up with all of (the great GSC quarterbacks). Coach Huckeba has built a tremendous offense around his skills and it’s been amazing to watch.”

Like Knighton’s numbers, Mullins’ praise goes on and on.

“He is a very smart quarterback,” he says. “I know they’ve got a great offensive line and outstanding receivers. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a quarterback who makes good decisions. He makes the right reads.”

Knighton has also proved himself to be one tough hombre. Last Saturday against Henderson State, it was obvious that his strained medial collateral ligament and two bum ankles left him nearly immobile against a tough Reddie defense. Yet he stood in and delivered, rallying the Bisons from a 26-17 fourth quarter deficit to a 32-26 lead before the Reddies themselves rallied for a 33-32 win.

NO REGRETS

Knighton said that, despite the unglamorous ending to his storied career, he has no regrets about choosing Harding.

“No, that doesn’t really have anything to do with it,” he said. “I just don’t think I was wrong on my decision making in this case.

I don’t know if the appeal will happen in time. I would love to play my final football game. But I’m more concerned with graduating and moving on with my life.”

Future plans include a shot, he hopes, at the National Football League. Barring that, he said he’ll try to catch on anywhere he can, be it the Arena Football League or the Canadian Football League.

As unfortunate as the timing of this controversy has been, Knighton said it in no way diminishes what he’s achieved as a Bison.

“If you look at the complete story, no way this puts a taint on everything I’ve accomplished,” he said.