AMES — Picture this:
A frigid, snow-swept morning in Waukee, circa 2008.
Brr you say. Grr they say.
Two high school kids, big ones, running along a slick sidewalk circling a YMCA under a slate-gray sky. They sprint as fast as they can, shouldering a burden, ruggedly nurturing a big-time, wind chill-aided goal screaming pie-in-the-sky.
It’s football season and you don’t know it.
Then- and still-Warrior Jake Knott does — and did — before the sun provided any hint of warmth and comfort, buried deep beyond the horizon, yet to dawn, but sure to rise. He wore purple then and almost did again, until a regime change at Iowa State brought new hope, lit a fresh path, and literally showed him the way.
An unlikely sky’s-the-limit star was born. One crafted from audacity, pumped iron, patches of ice and, in good measure, luck.
“Research, research, research,” Knott, a senior linebacker and de facto face of the Cyclone program, said of his recruitment preparation. “Everything. We were reading books, online, anything to get an edge, to do it the right way. It was tough, but it was just nice to be able to get something back from your investment.”
That something, a football scholarship offer from Coach Paul Rhoads at ISU, constituted his first high-major offer, and turned a chance to play baseball at Iowa into a fallback position.
Knott would play football.
And it was big-time football — built by unorthodox icy sprints, tire rolls and strongman-type skills — even though his best previous Football Bowl Subdivision scholarship offer came from Northern Illinois (FCS Northern Iowa was in the mix, as well).
“I got the DVD, evaluated it myself and said, ‘What’s missing here? What’s wrong?’” Rhoads said about recruiting Knott shortly after he arrived in Ames. “I followed up with phone calls to Jake, got him on campus and then caught him coming back from another school football-wise and offered him a scholarship.
“I don’t know how many guys they had hired at that point — three or four on staff. And he took the offer with his father back in my office that day. We were elated. Even though he was committed to play baseball he was wanting to play football.”
So he did. And does.
Call Knott the face of the Cyclone program to his face — despite a profusion of No. 20 jerseys dotting central Iowa and other Cardinal and Gold-draped enclaves — and he’ll almost visibly blush.
Naturally. An underdog doesn’t gloat. He plays another day and plays well.
“Jake is a microcosm of everything Coach Rhoads is trying to do,” said ISU running back Jeff Woody, a man well-acquainted with the underdog label. “A guy who nobody expected to do anything. … He is one of the toughest people I’ve ever met in my life. You can kind of tell just because of the rap sheet he’s had in terms of what he’s played through: A torn labrum in his shoulder, broken ribs, everything — he’s played through all that because of the mentality that he’s not going to quit, which is exactly what Rhoads is trying to instill with the program, which is catching on more and more.”
Rhoads has joked that Knott’s penchant for playing through injuries, which limited him in 2012 while he mustered all-Big 12 honors, causes him and his staff to hide his helmet.
It’s good for a laugh, but not far from the truth.
“One of the toughest and strongest,” said Cyclone holder and backup quarterback Brett Bueker, one of the team’s weight room standard-bearers. “So it’s not that surprising to see him do well on the field on Saturdays in the fall. He’s always in there, being a great leader.”
Shh. Knott doesn’t do rah, nor did Bueker suggest he did.
Want help? He’ll deliver.
“A very positive guy, a very warm guy,” ISU junior linebacker Jeremiah George said. “Very funny — we all have inside jokes that we share (privately).”
Want slack? Knott will respectfully slash your line.
“His work ethic is next to none,” said sophomore Cyclone linebacker Jevohn Miller. “He sets an example for me and other young guys coming in that you’ve got to work as hard as you can, give 100 percent all the time.”
Seems simple. Hardly.
Not during those early morning high school YMCA workouts. Not when a long-shot dream hung in the balance.
“The last three years we’ve probably been picked to win a total of eight games,” said Knott, a jack-of-all-trades who played running back and defensive back his senior season at Waukee.
The Warriors were moving from 3A to 4A as Knott matured. He helped the process go more smoothly.
“He played everything for us,” Waukee Coach Scott Carlson said. “He could have played quarterback for us. He could have played lineman for us. Heck, he was a receiver, a running back, a linebacker for us, he played in the secondary. He was just kind of this freaky kid who could do a lot of different things.”
Freaky’s one word. Creaky’s another.
Knott, who is projected to be an NFL draft pick, has played through injuries dating to flag football and is (gasp) healthy this summer.
He sees the No. 20 jerseys teeming around town. And one of the nation’s top linebackers almost visibly blushes.
Naturally. An underdog doesn’t gloat — even when he’s become the fan favorite.
“People having my jersey, it’s insane,” Knott said. “I just wanted to get a scholarship somewhere, so (Coach) Rhoads is just a guy who’s always believed in me, always pushed me. … He’s the reason my brother (Luke) is up here. I’m unbelievably thankful Coach Rhoads is here and believes in me.”
All-in’s not only his middle name. It’s the team’s pre-eminent motto.
“He’s anxious for the season to start, just like everybody else,” said fellow all-Big 12 linebacker A.J. Klein. “I’m happy to have him back.”