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September 23, 2007WEDOWEE, Ala. - 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.
She's not alone.
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 exactly one year ago tomorrow - 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, he 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. An uncle of Knight's who had played at RCHS years before had heart trouble in his past. Amy Knight wondered if an unexplained seizure her son suffered as a baby could have been related. 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."
Doctors told Knight he could not return to the team until they knew exactly what was wrong. A small spot was discovered on Knight's brain, suggesting a stroke. But it would be months more before the root of the problem was found.
Back in tiny Wedowee, Amy Knight worried incessantly. She didn't sleep at night, and thought of nothing else.
"Sometimes she would come into my room in the middle of the night, sit on the bed, and just cry," said Knight's sister Kiesha.
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. But it's a Brandon Cox jersey that occupies the front window, along with a jumbo poster of Tommy Tuberville braced arm-in-arm with a group of uniformed Tigers.
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.
Terrell Zachery did. Lewis Battle did before him.
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.
"I think if Auburn would have offered him as a receiver, he would probably be playing there right now," said Randy Boyd, one of several local coaches who took an early interest in Knight. Another little-known factor in Knight's decision - relayed by Boyd - triggered a broad smile across Knight's face.
"We went down there for a visit, and Zeke thought the girl that showed us around - well, he thought she was ugly," said Boyd. "We spent more time trying to lose that Tigerette than we did watch the ballgame. He said, 'I know I ain't going to Auburn if they're going to give me an ugly girl like that to walk around with.' He said they gave us a scarecrow."
Said Knight: "I guess you've got to take what you can get down there."
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"
Among four high schools - Handley, Woodland, Wadley and Randolph County - RCHS' crown in 2003 is the only state title in Randolph County history. In a small town, on a small football team, athletes like Knight never come off the field.
His senior 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's 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 is now playing his third position in the last three years. 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.
As a child, he had to ask 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.
Last fall, he didn't even ride with the Crimson Tide.
"It bothered him that he wasn't traveling with the team," said Knight's girlfriend, Alabama volleyball standout Crystal Hudson. "He had worked so hard that summer to change positions and put on all this weight, and it just got taken away from him. He came to all of my games and supported me, but he started feeling a little disconnected from the football team."
The breakthrough on his condition finally came in early January, shortly after Knight's 22nd birthday. Doctors at UAB discovered a heart murmur caused by 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 a kid who has always acted just like one, 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.
"It was bikes and Big Wheels and kids everywhere," said Hudson, who was unable to get to UAB until after the surgery. "He was just sitting right in the middle of all of them, laughing and playing games like a little kid himself."
Friends and family gathered at UAB for the big day, although not everyone who wanted to come was able to.
"At the time I had messed around and got myself in some trouble, doing things I shouldn't have done," said mother Amy Knight. "I had gotten locked up at the time he was going through surgery. I did my praying They came to the jail and told me - good people in the neighborhood around Wedowee - they came and told me that he was fine, and I felt better."
Soon enough, so did Ezekial. The recovery was a quick one - Knight 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."
Now back at home, Amy Knight hasn't missed a game, even making the roadtrip to Nashville for Alabama's game at Vanderbilt. Knight said he makes sure his mother - whose job at the Tyson Chicken plant in nearby Ashland often prevented her from seeing her son's games at RCHS - always has tickets.
Now, Knight's new heart shows up on the stat sheet. Through four games this season, the junior has 23 tackles, ranking third on the team, and 3.5 for losses.
"I've never seen anyone so happy than when he found out he was going to get to play again," said Lovele Knight.
In the parents' section at Bryant-Denny Stadium, siblings Lovele and Amy Knight watched Ezekial take the field for the first time in nearly a year against Western Carolina Sept. 1. With 45-yard line seats, from 52 rows up, they put nine months of sleepless nights in the past.
And when Knight sacked WCU quarterback Todd Spitzer for a loss of 16 in the second half, the ordeal officially came to a close.
"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."
Finally, Zeke Knight was back. And so was his health.
Jack of Three Trades
Zeke Knight is playing his third position in three years.