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Joe McKnight missed phone calls that could have altered fate

NY Jets running back Joe McKnight talks to

NY Jets running back Joe McKnight talks to the media after the team's daily workout on May 10, 2012. Photo Credit: Newsday / Joe Epstein

If Anthony Lynn had his way, Joe McKnight would have been in Buffalo this past summer. Maybe even longer.

The Bills assistant coach had envisioned bringing in his former player for a post-NFL Draft workout in the hopes that Buffalo would sign the running back before training camp.

“We talked twice a week there for a while,” Lynn said by phone Friday afternoon. “He was sending me workout video and I was showing our personnel people and I said, ‘Look, just trust me on this one. I know this cat. And he’s ready to roll.’ ”

But Lynn said he and his promising pupil never connected.

Lynn tried to reach McKnight in May but said his cellphone was either turned off or not working. Lynn then asked others to reach out on his behalf, but they, too, were unsuccessful.

“And all of a sudden, the first time I hear about him again is this tragedy,” said Lynn, who spent six years as the Jets’ running backs coach before joining the Bills’ staff in 2015.

McKnight, who played three seasons with the Jets and one for the Kansas City Chiefs, was fatally shot Thursday in an apparent road-rage incident in Terrytown, Louisiana, about 20 miles from his birthplace of Kenner, Louisiana. He was 28.

Authorities identified 54-year-old Ronald Gasser as the shooter. Gasser was released by police Friday without being charged.

Lynn, who first heard the news from one of his fellow coaches, still was in a daze a day later.

“We spent a lot of time together,” he said, adding that the Jets traded up 12 spots in 2010 to draft McKnight in the fourth round “because I had a second-round grade on him.”

He added: “And he’s 28 years old. It’s not natural for a 28-year-old to go before you. It does feel a little unreal.”

McKnight is the second former NFL player to die this year in the New Orleans area. Former Saints star Will Smith, 34, was shot and killed on April 9 after a traffic altercation. The trial of Cardell Hayes, who is charged with second-degree murder, is scheduled to begin tomorrow.

Tributes to McKnight flooded social media as friends, former teammates and Louisiana natives expressed shock and grief over his killing.

“Everybody in the world wanted to be @ReggieBush, us in New Orleans wanted to run the ball like Joe McKnight,” tweeted Arizona Cardinals safety and former LSU star Tyrann Mathieu.

News of Gasser’s release from custody also sent shock waves through the NFL community.

“It’s a small fraternity,” Lynn said. “It’s been hard. And the calls and the texts that I’m getting from former players and running backs — they’re upset. They are really upset.”

Former Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum, who drafted McKnight, said he received the news of the shooting via email and “it really just took the wind out of my sails.’’

“He’s just somebody that you just rooted for naturally and you wanted to see good things happen to Joe,” Tannenbaum, now the Miami Dolphins’ executive vice president of football operations, said by phone. “Someone who has his whole life in front of him. And to see it happen at 3 p.m. in the afternoon, it was just stunning.

“He was a really good person. A lot of fun to be around. You knew he loved football. He was really proud of his Louisiana heritage and he was a prodigious high school player . . . A lot of people said he was going to be the next Reggie Bush.”

McKnight was a hometown hero, starring at football powerhouse John Curtis Christian High School in River Ridge, Louisiana, before becoming the nation’s No. 1 running back recruit when he announced that he would play at USC in 2007. His infectious spirit always stood out.

“His personality was just contagious,” said Lynn, who became the Bills’ offensive coordinator in September after Greg Roman’s firing. “You always need that one guy that can shake the room up a little bit and keep everybody loose.

“You don’t need too many of them,” he added with a laugh, “but you need at least one. Joe was that guy. He was the jokester, the comedian. He made it fun . . . He made it worthwhile.”

But McKnight’s career was plagued by inconsistency. In three seasons with the Jets, he rushed for 502 yards and caught 17 passes for 177 yards, making one start. He had a 107-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and though he was one of the best kick returners in the NFL in 2011 (averaging 31.6 yards per return), he never unleashed his full potential.

“It was frustrating at times because sometimes guys that are so gifted take things for granted,” Lynn said. “ . . . That’s why we ended up [releasing him]. But his talent, and when he got on the field . . . Aw, man, he was one of the most talented players on the field. And when he was right, there were few people on this team who could do it better.”

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