He was touted as the next Reggie Bush, a top running back recruit out of high school and one of the most hyped players to enter the USC pipeline.
Joe McKnight, who spent three seasons at USC and had an NFL career that spanned four years, was shot and killed in an apparent road rage incident in Terrytown, Louisiana, a New Orleans suburb near McKnight’s hometown of Kenner on Thursday afternoon, according to the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office.
He was 28.
Police identified the shooter as 54-year-old Ronald Gasser, who was released overnight without charges despite admitting to pulling the trigger. In a press conference on Friday, Jefferson Parish sheriff Newell Normand cited “relative statutes that provide defenses to certain crimes” for Gasser’s release. Normand said police were still looking for witnesses and declined to provide further details of the ongoing investigation.
“I don’t want to be accused of tainting this investigation or suggesting a story about this investigation to witnesses we have not located and talked to,” Normand said.
A witness told The Times-Picayune that she saw McKnight in an confrontation with another man at an intersection and attempting to apologize when the other man opened fire.
“I told you don’t you f— with me,” the man said before shooting McKnight again, according to the witness.
Normand disputed the witness’ claims that McKnight apologized to Gasser before being shot and that Gasser stood over McKnight. All of the shots were fired by Gasser from his car, according to Normand.
Normand also shot down claims that race played a factor in the decision to release Gasser, who is white.
A five-star recruit out of John Curtis High School in River Ridge, Louisiana, McKnight accrued 2,755 yards and 15 touchdowns over three seasons at USC. Though he never replicated Bush’s success, McKnight came into his own as a dependable tailback.
As a freshman, he played a key role in the Trojans’ 2008 Rose Bowl win over Illinois when he ran for 125 yards and averaged 12.5 yards on 10 carries, including a key 65-yard second half run.
“Let Jan. 1, 2008 go down as the day Joe McKnight officially stopped coping with being The Next Reggie Bush and arrived as the Trojans’ latest star,” wrote ESPN the Magazine‘s Bruce Feldman.
In his junior season, he surpassed the 1,000-rushing yards plateau. Over the course of his career, he rushed for 100 yards in a game on eight occasions.
McKnight, though, acknowledged the pressure of meeting expectations.
“When I first came in to USC, I felt like I had to live up to the hype,” he said. “But after a while, I came to my senses…It’s not the fans’ fault, they just want success for their team. It took me a while to get that out of my head…I mean, it’s a lot of pressure. I tried to live up to the expectations.”
McKnight declared for the NFL Draft after his junior season and was selected by the New York Jets in the fourth round. He appeared in 39 games with the Jets before being released in 2013. McKnight briefly was with the Kansas City Chiefs during the 2014 season. He spent the past season in the Canadian Football League.
McKnight’s tragic death ignited reaction from the football world on social media.
“Saddens me to hear the news about Joe McKnight,” USC head coach Clay Helton said on Twitter. “Our prayers go out to the McKnight family.”
“This hurt to the heart. I can’t stop crying,” added Antonio Cromartie, McKnight’s former teammate with the Jets.
Bush himself weighed in on McKnight’s death.
“RIP my brother Joe McKnight this one hurts bad,” he tweeted.