Champions of The Round Table

 
Picture
#47 Zeke Knight
Picture
Zeke at UA
Monday, December 14, 2009 at 10:59pm Amy Knight's voice crackles, and she wrings her hands as if the right answer to the question could be squeezed from her palms.

"I just didn't believe it," she said, when asked her reaction to the news that her son, Ezekial Knight, a 6-foot-4, 235-pound football player who doesn't carry the slightest sign of fat, may have had a stroke at the age of 21.

Zeke, as Alabama's junior linebacker is known, got the same response from his best friend and former Randolph County High teammate, Greg Green. And the first person he called, UA teammate Darren Mustin, didn't buy it, either.

"You have to understand, Zeke's one of the biggest practical jokers on the team," said Mustin. "He's always playing around and pulling people's legs, so when he called and said he needed a ride to the hospital, I told him to stop playing."

But he wasn't playing. It was on Sept.24, 2006 that Zeke Knight nearly lost a lot more than a football career.

When Mustin got to Knight's apartment at Bama Quarters, just behind JD's Food Mart off Bryant Drive, Zeke was laying in a curled position on the hood of his blue Grand Marquis. He was dizzy, his arms had gone numb, and his breaths were short.

"I took one look at his face," Mustin said. "And I knew right there it was no joke."

A trip to Tuscaloosa's Druid City Hospital was enough to stabilize Knight for the moment, but there were no explanations. Family and friends considered every possibility: a cholesterol problem, dehydration, diabetes. Rumors swirled that Knight had suffered a concussion during the Arkansas game the previous day, and even then-coach Mike Shula said at the time that his staff watched the game film for any blows to Knight's head. There were none.

After tests revealed little, Knight was referred to the hospital at The University of Alabama-Birmingham. There, doctors began to unravel the mystery. But in the meantime, Knight's football career was on hold.

"You just had concern for his life and him being able to do day-to-day things first and foremost," said teammate Wallace Gilberry. "It wasn't about football. It was about Zeke's well-being."

One relative who helped maintain Knight's spirits through the ordeal was his uncle Lovele. Fishing buddies with Ezekial for as long as either can remember, Lovele Knight stayed in contact with doctors, checked on every test result, and kept reminding his nephew that football wasn't as important as he had always thought. "Sometimes I had to crack a joke to lighten him up," Lovele said.

Just how much football means to Knight and how badly he felt about turning his helmet in for the season can't be overstated. Nor can what his prep accomplishments mean to his hometown.

There is a mix of Alabama and Auburn fans in Randolph County, but the primary colors are unmistakably blue and orange. At the local sporting goods store, in Roanoke about 10 minutes south of Wedowee, residents can get their hands on both Alabama and Auburn apparel.

Nestled on the Georgia border, less than an hour Southeast of Anniston, the distance from Randolph County to Auburn is about half what it is to Tuscaloosa. With its low population, not many top-flight college prospects come from the area, and when they do, they usually end up on the Plains. Knight was different.

He grew up an Auburn fan, but when it came to his college decision, he weighed his future more heavily than his allegiance.

Make the drive down State Road 431, just off I-20, and you learn what football means here as soon as you cross the county line.

"Welcome to Wedowee
Home of the 2003 2A State Champions"

In his senior high school season, Knight made 147 tackles as a linebacker, and caught 28 passes for 522 yards and seven touchdowns as a receiver. But it was as a return man where the difference between Knight's athleticism and everyone else was the most glaring. He averaged 42.0 yards on 12 punt returns that season, and six of the 12 went for touchdowns.

In the state championship game at Birmingham's Legion Field, Knight's place in Randolph County lore was bronzed in a 21-14 win over Luverne. Knight took MVP honors with a 31-yard touchdown run, two interceptions, eight tackles and a forced fumble at linebacker, and a 77-yard punt return for a touchdown. It would have been a fitting end to a four-year career, but Knight's was actually five: he played on the RCHS varsity as an eighth-grader. "It was the best game he ever played here," said RCHS coach Pat Prestridge..

Knight's high school versatility served him well at Alabama, where he played three positions. Recruited as a wide receiver, Knight was moved to defensive end to boost an ailing pass rush in the spring of 2006, then moved to linebacker after new coach Nick Saban was hired. Coach Saban knows athletes and wanted him on his favorite side of the ball- defense.

As a child, Zeke asked for a football every Christmas. "Some years I had the money to get him one, some years not," said Amy Knight. "But his coaches and some people who helped us always made sure he had what he needed, and I appreciated that."

Knight played football on the streets of Wedowee every day with friends, so much that the wear and tear required a new ball each year. One Fall weekend in 2005, with his Alabama teammates enjoying college life on a Friday night, Knight returned to Wedowee to ride the bus with the RCHS Tigers for a key road game.

The breakthrough on his condition finally came in early January, shortly after Knight's 22nd birthday. Doctors at UAB discovered two tiny holes in Knight's heart. Fixing the problem would require about a 90-minute surgical procedure, which was done in February. Knight's excitement could hardly be contained.

And for someone with the exuberance of a kid, he was in the ideal environment. Knight's procedure is typically done on small children, and thus he had to report to a pediatric ward for surgery.

The simple explanation is Zeke Knight underwent what is known as a PFO Closure. The PFO is the Patent Foramen Ovale. The PFO is present in everyone’s heart before birth but seals shut in about 80% of the population according to cardiologists. Although present in about one in five adults, PFO’s usually cause no symptoms at all. Studies have indicated that far less than 1% of individuals with a PFO has stroke symptoms or some other outcome that results in the need to have the PFO closed.

Simply put, a PFO is a birth defect. It is noticed by stroke-like symptoms that last for less than 24 hours. As best as his physicians can determine, Mr. Knight was unfortunate in that he was a part of the 1% of the population who experienced stoke-like symptoms and ultimately had his PFO closed in December of 2007.

Mr. Knight has been without episode or issue since then.
Zeke was treated by a host of cardiologists and related physicians at the beginning of 2009. Dr. John Mitchell and Dr. Kevin Ryan spent hours testing Zeke to see if he was able to play the sport he loved again. On July 30, 2009, Dr. Mitchell completely cleared Zeke to play football.

Mr. Knight also treated with neurologist, Dr. Kishore Chivukula, in February of 2009, who obtained records from the Mayo Clinic where Mr. Knight was sent by the University of Alabama and examined him. The clinical neurological examination performed by Dr. Chivukula did not reveal any localizing cranial, motor, sensory or reflex deficits. Amazing.

Oh, and Zeke is not the first player to undergo this challenge. There is another another player that had a PFO. That player is Tedy Bruschi. In 2005, Tedy Bruschi was hospitalized for a stroke. Mr. Bruschi ultimately underwent heart surgery. He returned to the NFL where he only recently retired. Like Tedy Bruschi, Mr. Knight simply uses aspirin to control his condition. Insofar as time tables, Tedy Bruschi’s PFO event was on February 15, 2005, he had surgery on March 15, 2005 and was ready to play football on October 30, 2005, against the Buffalo Bills. He announced his retirement on August 31, 2009, because of unrelated issues.

Knight's recovery was similarly a quick one. He had to wear a heart monitor for a couple of weeks, but was running and playing basketball shortly thereafter. He told his mother he actually felt faster since the surgery. "I never lost hope," Knight said. "If I would have lost hope, I probably would have given up on everything. School, sports, all of it."

After surgery, Knight returned to the stat sheet. Through four games during his final season at Alabama, he had 23 tackles, ranking third on the team, and 3.5 for losses.

"You could see in her eyes and face [at WCU] she was excited for him to know he was back out there on that field," Lovele Knight said of his sister, Amy. "And Zeke, you could see his energy ,like a dog that had been caged up. She lit up smiling."

Even that was fairly short in duration. In the spring of 2007, he won the Lee Roy Jordan Headhunter Award. He played in all 13 games that year and started 11. He recorded 64 total tackles, including 33 solos. He had three sacks among his 11 tackles for 52 yards in losses and intercepted two passes. Despite the great season, he still had some doubters and Alabama was too concerned for any risk. Coach Saban released Zeke.

He took some time off to get well and regain medical clearance. Knight said. “I felt like I might as well go back for one more year and eliminate all the questions about me being able to play.” Knight said he considered enrolling at Texas Southern, at Harding University in Arkansas and an NAIA school in Tennessee.

“It kind of dawned on me a little bit, like maybe I was meant to finish my last year in Tuscaloosa,” Knight said. After all, he now bled Crimson and had so many friends in Tuscaloosa. His new Coach, said it best, “People had doubts that he could play anymore. It was a life-threatening situation for him. He made it through, and we got one more (year of eligibility by the NCAA)... I take my hat off to the young man.” He finished well and now Zeke Knight is looking towards proving that, like Tedy Bruschi, he has the (healed) heart... and courage of a Knight.

Picture
Zeke as #84