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Joe McKnight's legacy with Jets: Big smile, long runs, haunted nights

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Man identified as Joe McKnight's shooter released (2:17)

ESPN legal analyst Roger Cossack explains possible reasons why Ronald Gasser, the man named as shooting Joe McKnight, was released from custody and has not been formally charged. (2:17)

When he coached special teams for the New York Jets, Mike Westhoff used a points system for outstanding performances. In 2010, he created a graphic to highlight the leaders, displaying it each week in his meeting room.

It was an ocean scene, with Lance Laury, the points leader, standing waist deep in bloody water. He was surrounded by three large shark fins, each one tagged with the uniform number of the next-highest in the points standings -- James Ihedigbo, Brad Smith and Eric Smith. It was a not-so-subliminal motivational tool by Westhoff, who happens to be an avid shark fisherman.

Off in distant waters was a tiny shark fin with No. 25 threatening to join the big fish.

It was Joe McKnight's number, just a rookie.

"You should've seen his face; he had this big smile when he saw it," Westhoff recalled Friday morning with a heavy heart. "That might have been the first positive thing that happened to him in the NFL. I can still see his face. That's how I'll remember Joe."

McKnight, 28, who played with the Jets from 2010 to 2012, was shot and killed Thursday afternoon outside of New Orleans, where he grew up and became a high school phenom. Authorities described it as a road-rage incident at an intersection. The shooter, Ronald Gasser, 54, remained at the scene and surrendered his weapon, according to police. He was questioned and released overnight with no formal charges, authorities said.

"This is such a tragedy," Westhoff said. "I couldn't be more upset. There's a very, very special place in my football memory and heart for Joe McKnight."

McKnight was a talented yet undisciplined player when he arrived as a fourth-round pick from USC. He flunked conditioning runs, and he often vomited during practice, but he tantalized the coaches with his athletic gifts. In 2011, he led the NFL with a 31.6-yard average on kickoff returns, including a 107-yarder -- still the longest play in Jets history.

He was regarded as a can't-miss prospect coming out of J.T. Curtis High School in New Orleans, where he averaged close to 16 yards per rush, but not many know McKnight's backstory.

Before his junior year, McKnight was displaced by Hurricane Katrina. He evacuated to Shreveport and was separated from his mother for about a month because she was in Baton Rouge. Their home was destroyed. When he returned to New Orleans, he lived with his high school coach. The devastated community looked to McKnight, the local football hero, to raise its spirits, and he delivered with epic performances.

Years later, the Jets' coaching staff discovered McKnight was haunted by the horrors of Katrina and couldn't sleep, resulting in mental lapses in the classroom and on the field.

In his book, "Collision Low Crossers," which chronicles the Jets' 2011 season, Nicholas Dawidoff writes that running backs coach Anthony Lynn "finally discovered that what was keeping Little Joe awake were the terrifying things he’d seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The dead bodies floating through his nightmares were so traumatic, McKnight had come to fear sleep. It's no wonder, said Lynn, that McKnight struggled to remember plays in the afternoon.”

"He went through tough times," Westhoff said. "He overcame some tough situations."

Even though he carried those demons to the Jets, McKnight usually was in an upbeat mood around his teammates. He was "a very energetic personality, a very cool cat," Darrelle Revis said in a statement released through the team. "He would tell jokes and be a prankster to some guys. I’ve seen him in action. That’s the kind of guy he was. He was a joy to be around.”

McKnight made a lot of people happy (and angry) when he selected a college. After picking USC over LSU, which infuriated the locals, McKnight was greeted by enormous expectations. He was hailed as the next Reggie Bush, the former USC Heisman Trophy winner, but he got injured and was overshadowed amid a deep pool of running backs.

Bush was drafted by McKnight's hometown New Orleans Saints, so the comparisons started long before he got to USC. When McKnight got to the Jets, he was given No. 25, Bush's number with the Saints. People close to McKnight grew tired of the comparisons, admitting they probably affected him on the field.

On Friday, Jets kicker Nick Folk said "one of the coolest" tributes to McKnight was Tyrann Mathieu's tweet. The former LSU star said kids around the country dreamed of being the next Reggie Bush, but kids in New Orleans wanted to be Joe McKnight.

"That says a lot about (McKnight) as a football player,"Folk said. "This is a really sad day today."

After a slow start at USC, everything finally clicked in 2009, when McKnight rushed for 1,014 yards. His mother, Jennifer McKnight, told ESPN.com in 2010 that the turning point was the birth of Joe's son, Jaiden, on Feb. 3, 2009.

"It made him get his head on straight," she said.

McKnight never became a consistent contributor at running back with the Jets, but his raw talent intrigued Westhoff, who transformed him into a kickoff returner. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to sustain that role, as he was released before the 2013 season.

"I feel like I adopted him," Westhoff said. "You saw the talent, and it was just a matter of creating a role for him. All of a sudden, he was the leading kickoff returner in the NFL. If he had more experience, he could've set records that no one in NFL history would've touched."

The retired Westhoff sees his old special-teams sharks every day. That ocean graphic from the 2010 meeting room is laminated and displayed in his home office in Florida.