Getting into the NFL is hard. Its harder when you don't go to a division 1 school.
Out of all of the Division 2 players drafted into the NFL in 2009, only one of them is still in the NFL.
Zach Miller was a small town Nebraskan, who played at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, and was drafted late in the 2009 draft. He was a below average tight end with the Jaguars. After an injury, he was released from the Jaguars in 2011. 4 years later he was given a second chance by with the Bears, and proved he was still worthy of a roster spot, quickly becoming the Bears best tight end. He was an offensive staple that had at least a few more years in him.
A few months ago, however, it seemed like his career had come to an end.
A brutal, unfair end.
This kind of brutal, career ending injury ddosen't occur often. However, as soon as Miller's injury was official, Bears fans were only thinking "here we go again".
Because years before, the Bears had a player, who was also drafted from a division 2 team in 2009, who quickly showed that he could be an offensive staple, and maybe even a player you could help build a franchise around. But just like Zach Miller, his career came to an untimely end.
A brutal unfair end.
This is the story of Johnny Knox.
College sports are divided into divisions:
Division 1 is the cream of the crop. This is where all the best teams and the best prospects are. If you aren't here, you are gonna have a really hard time playing sports at the next level.
Division 2 is for smaller schools with smaller talent. If you go here, then you should enjoy your scholarship, because you are not gonna play at a higher level, unless you are the best at what you do in all of the division.
Division 3 is glorified rec sports.
The Division you play in is maybe the largest factor in determining your future in sports. If you want to play in the NFL, you better be in Division 1.
Johnny Knox was not division 1, or division 2, or even division 3. Out of high school, no one cared about Johnny Knox. He didn't receive a scholarship from any NCAA team. Any normal person would see this as a sign that football might not be for you. Johnny Knox didn't care, instead, he took his talents to the bright lights of Tyler Junior College, to play in the NJCAA.
In his first year, he was pedestrian, finishing with 137 recieving yards and 2 touchdowns, hardly worthy of a chance at a 4 year university. Going into year 2, he had one last chance to prove he was an NFL athlete.
And he did.
In his first year, he was the 5th best receiver on his team. In 2007, no one in the NJCAA was better. He was the best wide receiver in nearly every statistical category. Rivals.com had him as the 9th best receiver in Junior college. He proved he had what it takes to play in the NCAA.
Abilene Christian offered him a spot on their team. Although only a division 2 school, he was given a chance to show he was the exception, and could make the NFL despite playing at a division 2 school.
Johnny Knox Played 2 Years at Abeline Christian University:
In those 2 years, Abilene Christian was one of the most entertaining college teams to watch. A high powered offence which averaged about 50 points a game over the 2 seasons. Along with Johnny Knox, running back Bernard Scott averaged 180 yards a game, and ran for over two thousand yards. He and Johnny Knox both were drafted from division 2, which made Abilene Christian the only division 2 team with multiple people drafted from the same team that year.
Although he was one of the best statistical players, there were plenty of players with better statistics, and to be 1 of 5 drafted from division 2, you need to have something that sets you apart. For Johnny Knox, it was his speed.
He was one of the most explosive deep threats in all of college, burning defenders with his speed and quickness. At the draft combine, he ran a 4.3 second 40 yard dash, which was 3rd in his class, putting his name in the category of some of the most sought after prospects in football.
The Chicago Bears liked the potential of Johnny Knox and had a plan for him: kick returns. They wanted to utilize his speed to establish a good second option to Devin Hester, one of the best kick returners of all time. And so, with the 140th pick in the 5th round of the 2009 Draft, the overlooked, underrated Wide Receiver, who had to go to Junior College, and then to a Division 2 school to make his NFL dream a reality, was selected by the Chicago Bears.
The Chicago Bears were not a good team in 2009. They finished with an unremarkable 7-9 season, and didn't have any real stars on offense. The wide receiver core was unremarkable, even with Johnny Knox, as no receiver had more than 800 yards, with Johnny Knox 527. Devin Hester was the number 1 receiving option, and had to take a smaller role in kick returns, so they turned to the rookie from Abilene Christian.
In his rookie year, Johnny Knox had 927 kick return yards (14th in league), and only had 32 returns (19th in league), which gave him an average of 29 yards per return, .1 yards behind the league leader.
That year, only three rookies played in the Pro Bowl. Brian Orakpo and Clay Matthews both played as linebackers, and are still playing at a pro-bowl level as 2 of the leagues best well into their 30s. Rookie number 3 was Johnny Knox. He would only play 30 more games in his career.
In year 2, Johnny Knox was the number 1 wide receiver for the Bears. This was likely to let Devin Hester add on to his legacy as a kick returner, which he did, leading the league as a punt returner and going to the pro bowl. But even though Johnny Knox was done returning kicks, he wasn't done making an impact.
Johnny Knox led the Bears with 960 receiving yards, which was 21st in all of football. He also had an incredible 18.8 yards per catch, which was 5th in all of football. People were starting to notice Knox's impact also, as the Bears turned their 7-9 effort from the year before into an 11-5 season, which was good enough for first in the NFC North. After winning their Divisional round game against the Seahawks, the Bears would end up losing to the Packers in the conference finals, 1 game away from the Super Bowl, which the Packers went on to win. Although Johnny Knox did not have much of an impact in either playoff game, the Bears felt like they had at least a number 2 receiver on a fantastic receiver core, and likely much more. The future was bright for Johnny Knox, as well as Bears fans everywhere.
December 18, 2011
You all know what comes next.
The Bears were on the verge of playoff contention after losing 3 straight games. It was a rematch against the Seahawks, the team who they knocked out of the playoffs last year. Johnny Knox was having a solid season, on track for slightly worse numbers than the year prior, but still remained as the teams best reciever.
I'm not going to show the injury. Look it up if you want to, but in my opinion, its possibly the most graphic injury in football history.
Jay Cutler throws a regular pass to Johnny Knox. Kam Chancellor, one of the leagues best safeties, strips the ball from Johnny Knox, its now a free ball, and anyone has a chance to come up with it. Johnny Knox sees the ball, and dives on top of it, which is standard in football. What isn't standard, is Anthony Hargrove, the backup Defensive End for the Seahawks, diving for the ball the way he did. He was diving down on the ball at a sharp downward angle, at the same time, Johnny Knox had dived in such a way that his head wasn't fully down when contact was made. This unfortunate set of circumstances (and I mean it literally) caused Johnny Knox's back to fold in half. His back bent backwards to the point where his shoulders were nearly touching his thighs.
Johnny Knox is down. Time is of the essence, he needs to be taken to a hospital immediately. His legs are moving, that's good, but he still needs to be stretchered off the field. He is in severe pain, and once arriving at the hospital, receives an official diagnosis. Johnny had fractured his thoracic-lumbar, which in human speak means he cracked multiple bones in the middle of his back. Its a medical miracle that he was not instantly paralyzed, and that he was a mere millimeter away from paralysis. Regardless, he needed immediate surgery to stabilize his vertebrae. The next day he has Spinal Fusion surgery, which marks the beginning of what will be a long road to recovery, a road that would span 14 months, and one entire season on the PUP list.
Johnny Knox is the ultimate underdog. He fought through so much, from starting in junior college and getting into a division 2 school, to making the leap from a division 2 school to the NFL, and to becoming a Pro-Bowler and a future star in the NFL. It only seems right that after his 14 month rehab, that he was back in the NFL, and picked up right where he left off on his trajectory as a star. Thats one of the amazing things about sports: the outcomes are all real, every underdog, every unbelievable play, it all really happened, and it makes you feel like you can do anything.
Sadly, that isn't always the case. Johnny Knox worked his ass off over those 14 months, but even then he was no where near the form he was in before his injury. After 14 months of continuous inactivity, and showing no realistic signs that he was ever going to be an NFL level talent again, the Bears released Johnny Knox from the roster. Although on the surface it may seem cold, its amazing they held him for as long as they did. It was clear from the start that the hit would spell the end of his career, but the Bears let Johnny have one last chance to beat the odds. Johnny seemed to accept this as well, because once the Bears terminated his contract, Johnny Knox officially announced that he would be retiring from professional football, at the age of 26.
Even though Johnny Knox has moved on, and his named has been all but forgotten by everyone outside of Chicago, his impact can still be felt on the game. In 2012, shortly after Johnny Knox made Abilene Christian University one of the best offenses in Division 2, the college was promoted up to division 1, and has since sent a few more successful players to the NFL, such as Charcandrick West and Taylor Gabriel. The Chicago Bears have not made the playoffs since Johnny Knox's sophomore season in the league. The team seemed to follow the same trajectory of Johnny Knox, and as his body deteriorated, so did the Bears, to the point where they are now one of the worst teams in football.
Finally, I think Johnny Knox's impact can be seen in Zach Miller. At the time of me writing this, Zach Miller is planning on trying to come back to the team by the start of the 2018 season. Knox and Miller are 2 sides of the same coin: although both were low level recruits from division 2 schools who were drafted, Johnny Knox suffered injury early in his career and had to retire, while Zach Miller suffered injury early in his career, and after a few years, was able to join another team better than he was before.
This is why Zach Miller needs to play again. If he can rehab from a second career threatening injury and return to the Bears, it will be some form of justice for Johnny Knox, who lives on in the career of Zach Miller. Like Johnny, the odds are severely stacked against him, as he is now in his 30s, and is coming off an injury of similar severity to that of Knox. I wouldn't root against him though, because when it comes to division 2 athletes in the NFL, the odds were never in their favor.