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Rhema McKnight: Medical man

Eric Retter | Friday, November 17, 2006

During the past 15 months, senior receiver Rhema McKnight has spent a lot of time in hospitals. After tearing his ACL in Notre Dame’s second game of the 2005, which ended his season, McKnight spent time in the hospital rehabbing his injured knee, which has healed enough to allow McKnight return and start each of Notre Dame’s ten games this season.

Lately, however, he’s been returning to Memorial Hospital for a different reason.

McKnight has become somewhat of a regular in Memorial Hospital’s pediatric ward, visiting kids going through tough times.

“Last year there was a teenager that was really facing a lifechanging surgery, something nobody would want to go through, and he was just scared to death,” Memorial pediatric nurse Julie Kowalenko said. “I gave [McKnight] a call, and he did not hesitate to come up to the hospital and spend time with him.”

Kowalenko said she received a letter from the boy’s mother about a month ago thanking her and McKnight, saying that the ball was his “prized possession” and that “all of his friends were green with envy.’

From time to time, McKnight also gets letters from the parents of the kids he has visited. After reading them, he generally forwards them to his mother back in Inglewood, Calif.

“I guess she’s making a scrapbook,” he said.

Kowalenko said McKnight’s relationship with the hospital started when she was introduced to him through senior Brandon Lenk, who was McKnight’s roommate for two years. Kowalenko also noted that that Notre Dame center Bob Morton and quarterback Brady Quinn have dropped by on similar occasions.

“They do so much for us and they never think of it as a big deal, but it’s a huge deal,” she said. “[The kids] look up to them, they watch them on TV. They don’t think of them as local TV, they think of them as movie stars.”

McKnight, however, downplays his involvement.

“It wasn’t anything serious,” he said. “She called me, asked me if I could come down, and I was like, ‘Cool, no problem.'”

As recently as last week, McKnight met Kowalenko at the concourse of Hesburgh Library to sign memorabilia and visit Memorial. When he arrived, he faced a young interviewer who wanted to know everything from his favorite color to whether or not he got to choose his jersey number.

McKnight, whose favorite color is blue, explained that he was No. 1 in high school, but that, upon arriving at Notre Dame as a freshman, the only single digit available was No. 5, so that was the jersey he chose.

“Rhema answered every single question,” Kowalenko said.

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If things had gone according to plan, McKnight would be wearing the jersey of an NFL team somewhere. McKnight, who has contributed since his first game in a Notre Dame uniform, led the Irish in catches in both 2003 and 2004 – with 47 and 42, respectively – and his career was about to take off under then-first year head coach Charlie Weis’s offense.

However, the knee injury he sustained in a play in that season’s second play – where he still came down with the catch – altered the course of his plans. McKnight spent the year watching the sidelines, but he says that year helped him change his perspective.

“As you get older, things become repetitive and you don’t continue to enjoy every moment,” McKnight said. “I’m not taking things for granted this year.”

While he had already established himself as the first player to celebrate in the endzone by the student section after home wins, McKnight rededicated himself to having fun on Saturday afternoons.

“A big thing is that I’ve learned to make sure I enjoy it, because it can be taken away from me at any moment,” he said. “Winning a football game is tough, a lot of people don’t realize that, and anytime you win a game you gotta make sure you enjoy it.”

Despite missing a whole season, McKnight regained the on-field relationship he had enjoyed with Quinn before Notre Dame’s first official snap.

“The good thing is we’d done it before prior to my injury,” McKnight said. “We got to picking it back up during the summer, [and] hopefully we’ll keep progressing throughout the rest of the year.”

In his final season, McKnight has been a pivotal player for the Irish, catching 55 passes, a team high he shares with senior receiver Jeff Samardzija, for 726 yards and 12 touchdowns – a team high he owns alone.

In last Saturday’s 39-17 win over Air Force, McKnight set the Notre Dame career reception record with his 158th catch, and he is not surprised that he has had the kind of success he has had this season.

“In the offense we have, you know we’re going to sling the ball around a little bit,” he said. “It’s more about us going out and making plays.”

As McKnight’s final game at Notre Dame Stadium approaches, he reflected on last season’s senior day and saying goodbye to the class he came in with.

“It was tough not being able to go through it the first time and watching those guys leave,” he said.

However after five years -which he noted have seemed long at times – he is ready for his home finale.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “There’s definitely a different buzz in the air, with the [senior] students, it’s their last game, too.”

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Outside of football, the major difference between McKnight’s two senior seasons is his academic standing. McKnight, who graduated last December, is currently pursuing a masters degree in psychology. McKnight said the structure of his graduate classes offers a sharp contrast to his pursuits the past four years.

“It’s not like everything is in class or due the next day,” he said. “A lot of the things you do are on your own in terms of research.”

He also draws equal contrast between graduate student housing and on-campus dorm life, where he lived until graduating.

“I was close with a lot of guys, especially in my section,” he said. “I had a great time.”

After moving into graduate student housing, he lived with a French student until early this semester. At the moment, McKnight – a consensus extrovert – does not know his current roomate’s name.

In addition to psychology, McKnight also graduated with a supplementary major in Spanish and a degree in computer applications.

Perhaps surprisingly, in his time as a student, he has grown into quite a computer buff, and he discovered a passion for technology.

“A lot of the schoolwork I had was on computers, and [I found] I love computers,” he said. “I love what they have to offer.”

McKnight said he followed the budding interest because of current trends in the professional market.

“That’s the way the world’s going now,” he said. “Technology is improving every day, why not pick up something that’ll last me a long time.”

However, when he first came to Notre Dame, McKnight was not nearly as well versed in the technological language.

“I wasn’t exactly the fastest typer,” he said.

And right now, McKnight’s focus remains on football. After the season winds down, he will begin preparing for April’s NFL draft and exploring the options that he had plan on exploring a year ago. Despite his focus on preparing to enter the ranks of the professional athletes, McKnight will still be a student next semester.

Even before his college football career is over, McKnight has already started thinking about life after the NFL.

“I have aspirations of playing in the NFL, but nothing’s guaranteed,” he said. “I want to make sure I set myself up in terms of my long term future, whether it’s going back to the inner city working with kids or hopefully owning my own practice and doing other psychology things.”

In preparing to walk away, McKnight credits his time in South Bend with helping him get ready for both athletic and academic professions.

“I’ve come a long way,” he said.