Actor Michael J. Fox has been quoted as saying, “Family is not an important thing. It’s everything.” For New Orleans Saints Hall of Famer Sammy Knight, these words have always rung true. Whether it was growing up in California, in any one of the five cities he played in the NFL, or life after football, family has always been the foundation for Sammy Knight’s success.
Life of a Saint: Sammy Knight
Sammy Knight knew he stood out from his competition at an early age, in large part due to the influence of his family. When asked about how his siblings molded his young athletic career, Knight answered, “They had a tremendous influence because that was my daily model of what it meant to be an athlete. The would wake up and train, work out, lift and consistently work on their game and try to improve. So, I had firsthand knowledge watching my brothers’ examples.” Knight is one of five children with older brothers Ryan and Greg, older sister Tina and younger brother Darryl. All of them helped mold who Knight would become.
Knight Chooses USC
After a successful high school career, Sammy Knight chose to stay local in college, choosing to become a USC Trojan. “Being from California, that was one of the primary reasons of going there. The other was that my brother went there. So, I had firsthand experience going to the school, being around the players, being around the environment, the Trojan environment, the Trojan family. I just loved everything about it,” Knight explained.
While, the decision to attend USC was an easy one for Knight, the adjustment to college football wasn’t. Knight described his early days as a Trojan. “Going to USC was probably the toughest obstacle I had to face. When I got there, I was part of a cream class that was number one in the nation. We had some unbelievable athletes at that time. We had Ed Hervey who had just beat (Olympic sprinter) Michael Johnson in the 200. We had Kenny Grace who was unbelievably fast. We had some world-class sprinters come in that class. So, when I got there, I couldn’t believe how fast the game was. I think it was the fastest class in USC history. I was thrown in there against those guys. I just remember feeling so defeated the first couple days. I was thinking to myself, ‘How am I going to get through this because these guys are unreal.’ So, I had never seen anything like that before.”
But as the only freshman that was able to travel with the varsity team, Knight began to make some heads turn, as well as some good relationships. Most notably was former Detroit Lions wide receiver, Johnnie Morton. Knight would go on to explain how he would train with Morton, running hills and working on his speed. With hard work and dedication, it didn’t take long for Knight to catch up to the game on the college level.
Sammy Knight on the Draft
Knight went through the 1997 NFL draft without hearing his name called. After receiving All Pac-10 honors in 1996, was he surprised? Knight replied, “Yes, I was surprised. But I think the biggest thing for me was that I played linebacker AND safety. A lot of the teams weren’t sure whether to draft me at linebacker or safety. I always thought of myself as a safety. I never told a team, ‘Don’t draft me at linebacker’, but I never told them to draft me as a linebacker either. So, I think I play a part in that as well. Also, I didn’t have a good 40 time. So, I think those were the determining factors. Uncertainty at my position, uncertainty about my speed and sometimes that’s all it takes to drop a couple spots, a couple rounds or out of the draft entirely.”
Though disappointed he wasn’t drafted, it didn’t take long for the phone to start ringing. In fact, immediately after the draft, the phone rang at a feverish pace. Of the many teams that showed serious interest, one stood out - the New Orleans Saints. Knight recalled, “When I got the call, it was great. I got the call from Mike Ditka. Ditka said, ‘I know we didn’t draft you, but we feel this will be a great opportunity for you. We’ll give you every opportunity to play here in this organization. Sign with us.’ That was the pitch. The great thing about Mike Ditka was straight forward.”
The pitch by Ditka obviously worked, but it wasn’t the only factor that led Knight to the Big Easy. Defensive Backs Coach Willie Shaw also helped. “He (Shaw) really believed in me and my abilities. He taught me a lot when I was there. It was Willie Shaw who spoke to Coach Ditka about bringing me along. It was a great call. I was sitting at home with my dad. I was frustrated at that point. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t drafted. God just answered my prayers at that point and put me in the best situation that I could be in.”
Knight Arrives in the Bayou
It didn’t take long for Sammy Knight to fit in with his peers, largely in part to the comradery of his new teammates. Knight shared, “Anthony Newman, Alex Molden, Eric Allen, all those guys really took me under their wings and helped me out. Mark Fields is another one. A lot of those guys were west coast guys. I played against Mark Fields and Alex Molden. They knew my ability. They encouraged me to just come in and play, to do what I gotta do. For me, that made my job easier.”
Just five games into his rookie season, Knight would find himself earning his first start rather unexpectedly. Knight laughed as he remembered, “It was unreal. At that time, I was playing strong safety. I was backing up Anthony Newman at the time. I’ll never forget, literally right before the game, I’m talking about after warm-ups, Willie Shaw came to me and said… He (Willie Shaw) always had this finger. He had this long index finger and he would point like you were in trouble. He would just tell you from afar, ‘Come here’. He came and talked to me and he said, ‘Hey. You’re starting at free safety today.’ I was like, ‘Starting at free safety?’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, free safety. I know you haven’t played it, but I know you can do it. Go out there and play great.’ Luckily, I had a decent game. Anthony helped me out a lot. Eric, Alex, those guys were so supportive. From there on, I ended up playing free safety.”
The ‘decent’ game that Knight described saw him grab the only interception that the Giants’ Dave Brown would throw that day. Although the Saints lost that game in the Meadowlands 14-9, a star was born and Knight was on his way toward a remarkable career.
A Change in Culture
Just a few short years into his career, Sammy Knight found himself playing in the playoffs. For the first time in franchise history, the Saints would end up on the winning side of one of these contests. Knight and his team felt a great deal of pride in that accomplishment. “I think that whole 1997 class that came in really did change the culture. There were several guys who were undrafted free agents who came and were almost viewed as cast-offs that helped changed the culture. Starting with myself, Keith Mitchell, Jake DelHomme, Donovan Greer and Earl Little. I think it may have been the most undrafted free agents ever to make the team. We had six or seven guys who were undrafted free agents who made it,” Knight described. He then continued by saying, “We just had a lot of guys that knew they were really good players. They just didn’t have the opportunity by being drafted but came out with a chip on their shoulders. All of us were confident in our own skills. All of us felt like we should have been drafted. And not just drafted but drafted high. From that, all of us pushed each other and all of us ended up having successful careers.” That blue-collar mentality helped define that storied 2000 Saints squad.
Ditka vs Haslett
From the outside, Mike Ditka and Jim Haslett appear to be very different coaches. Sometimes, however, appearances may be misleading. About the two coaches, Knight offered, “They are very similar. They’re both cut from the same cloth. They both expect you to be smart and tough and sometimes the smart didn’t even matter. You have to play tough for those guys.” And while they did come at coaching similarly, the two coaches did have their differences. “Ditka was more old-school while Haslett focused a little more on a newer style where the players had to know their X’s and O’s,” Knight explained. It was obvious that Knight appreciated both coaches for what they brought to the table and how they impacted his career. “As far as my longevity in the league, I credit my coaches,” Knight added.
The culmination of a few solid years at safety in New Orleans resulted in Sammy Knight receiving an invitation to his first Pro Bowl in 2001. Knight also received second team All-Pro honors that same season. When asked how it all came together in 2001, Knight responded, “I’m not sure what it was about 2001. Maybe I had a few more big plays. Coming off our first playoff season I’m sure helped. But honesty, if you look at the numbers, I don’t even think that was my best season.”
Regardless what the reason was, Knight had earned his spot amongst the all-stars of the NFL, starting in the NFC secondary with Ronde Barber, Aeneas Williams and Brian Dawkins. In the only Pro Bowl nomination of his career, Knight would be joined on the NFC squad by Saints’ teammates La’Roi Glover and Deuce McAllister.
Knight leaves New Orleans
Sammy Knight followed two one-year contracts with a 5-year deal with New Orleans. He would end up playing four of those seasons, opting out of the fifth. Regarding the parting of Knight with New Orleans, “It was mutual. I felt I was worth more than they were willing to pay me. I wanted to see what else was out there. My problem was that I waited too long. I should have done it sooner,” Knight answered. While tough for Knight to leave his teammates and the city of New Orleans, he had something to prove to his former organization.
Knight would go on to play another six years in the NFL. He spent the 2003 and 2004 season in Miami with the Dolphins, 2005-2006 with the Kansas City Chiefs and finished his 12-year career with a single season with the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Giants respectively.
Saints Hall of Fame
In 2011, it was announced that Sammy Knight would be inducted into the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame. “It was an incredible honor. Your whole career, you strive to be recognized by your peers for what you do on the field. And I love New Orleans,” Knight mentioned. He continued to reflect on his time in New Orleans by stating, “Aside from an occasional trip to Texas or Cleveland, I had never really been away from California. When I went to New Orleans, the city, the people and the culture were all great. There’s no place in the world like it.” Knight was the only player inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame in 2011.
Sammy Knight After Playing in the NFL
Sammy Knight continues to appreciate the contributions his family has made and continues to make in his life. He is the proud father of five girls (Aneka, Shianne, Samone, Savannah and Sasha). When asked about his family, Knight gushed as he spoke about his girls and what they were accomplishing in their lives.
But like any great husband, Knight did not allow the interview to conclude without mentioning his wife, Freda. “Ask me about my wife,” he lightheartedly demanded. Knight mentioned he is happy at this point to be the support for his wife that she always was for him throughout his playing career. “She’s looking to get into the clothing business, continues to teach etiquette and is working on a book,” Knight proudly mentioned. He then went on to describe his wife as “such a smart person”. Knight spoke about how he learns from his wife every day. “She could be the C.E.O. of a company if she wanted to. She’s that smart,” Knight added.
For Sammy Knight, family was and will always be everything.