State Colleges

He ‘panicked’ before leaving Boise State football. Now he’s thriving in new sport at NNU.

Ex-Boise State TE Jake Knight on success as NNU thrower

Jake Knight is one of the top throwers in Division II at NNU. The Meridian native and ex-Boise State tight end heads to nationals this week.
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Jake Knight is one of the top throwers in Division II at NNU. The Meridian native and ex-Boise State tight end heads to nationals this week.

You can easily forgive the guy at the convenience store for not knowing who was on Jake Knight’s T-shirt before a recent workout on NNU’s campus.

Actually, you would have to be into Knight’s sport to know — like, really, really into it.

The shirt features a large black-and-white photo of Swedish discus thrower Ricky Bruch, who won a bronze medal in the 1972 Olympics. Like someone rocking an obscure band’s gear, whenever someone asks, it’s a chance for Knight to flash some serious knowledge.

“You have to check out the old highlights of him on YouTube,” Knight said.

For Knight, a Meridian native, his last few years have taken him across the country, into multiple sports at three schools. Now a senior for the Nighthawks, Knight is finding peace as a thrower, and he’s thriving as one of the best in NCAA Division II.

As the national championships open Thursday in Kingsville, Texas, Knight ranks No. 8 in the nation in the discus and shot put, having set school records in both this season at 183 and 60.25 feet, respectively. A former Boise State football player, it had been more than three years since he had thrown before coming to NNU last fall.

“I’m grateful to be able to do this again. I’m really happy,” Knight said. “During those grueling football practices, I’d be like, ‘I could be throwing right now, I could be eating doughnuts.’ I loved playing, but there are a lot of different things I love about this sport.”

Even if he dreamed of non-nutritious things, Knight’s football background and discipline have been part of his success.

“His work ethic is really impressive, he trains well, eats right,” NNU coach Danny Bowman said. “He’s a student of the sport, always wanting to learn how to get better. Just because he’s Big Jake doesn’t mean he doesn’t get nervous, so if he is calm and collected, he’s going to be right up there.”

Out of Rocky Mountain High, Knight signed with Oregon State in February 2014 to play tight end for the Beavers. He won 5A state titles three months later in the discus and shot put, and decided instead to attend Auburn, competing in the throwing events for the Tigers. Though he had two top-15 finishes at the SEC championships, he missed football.

Knight transferred to Boise State in 2015, redshirting that season, then started eight games in 2016. He had his first career catch at Oregon State, ironically, and had a huge 46-yard catch against BYU on a third down that set up a touchdown the next play to put the Broncos up 28-27, which proved to be the final score.

Joshua Lavallee NNU Athletics

But a nagging neck injury plagued the 6-foot-4 tight end, and he abruptly left the team during fall camp in 2017.

“I had a lot of anxiety about it, still have some pain today,” Knight said. “I had stingers during the season before, then kept getting them in spring, in fall camp, every time I got hit in the head, which is a lot. We realized I had spinal stenosis (pinching of the spinal cord). I’d get numbness in my arm. ... I just thought, ‘I want to walk when I’m 40, I have to be done.’ ”

It was a realization that Knight said put him in a depression — he loved to play football in front of the hometown crowd — and he had no idea what he was going to do next.

So, he left.

Knight went off into the mountains to find some clarity, to come to grips with that big decision. He went to one of his favorite fishing spots, falling into the activity he cherishes above all others. Back in Boise, he had some scared teammates and coaches, since they had no idea where he was.

“Therapy wasn’t working, I had so much stress, just kind of panicked and didn’t show up that day,” Knight said. “I was worried, it was a hard time. I was up there for a day, and when I got back to Boise, had to tell everyone I was OK, the coaches that I couldn’t do it anymore.”

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Boise State tight end Jake Knight (84) leads the Broncos onto the blue turf of Albertsons Stadium for the home opener with Washington State Saturday Sept. 10, 2016 in Boise. Darin Oswald

While continuing to take classes at Boise State, Knight worked last summer at UPS and put that strength to good use, unloading trucks in Garden City. Even though football was over, he missed competing, and he watched the Division I national championships on his phone during breaks.

When he approached Boise State coaches about throwing for the Broncos, he got little interest in return, so Knight approached NNU’s then-coach, John Spatz, who was more than happy to take on an Idaho state champ who threw in the SEC.

“Spatz and I are close. When he left, he said, ‘Don’t mess him up,’ ” Bowman said. “It would’ve been hard for us to do that. His learning curve is significant, so it’s been cool to see him go crazy out there, getting better every meet.”

Nearing the completion of his degree in communications — credits aren’t always easy to transfer between three schools — Knight is savoring his time as his final competition nears. From the most intense athletic conference 2,000 miles from home, to the intensity that is Boise State football, and back to a school with a similar enrollment to his high school, change has brought a different joy each stop.

“It’s been pretty crazy to think how everything works out, coming back to this sport, back home,” Knight said. “There’s kind of this surreal feeling. I never would have predicted I’d be in this situation. It’s a blessing, really.”

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Dave Southorn is a 2004 graduate from the University of Colorado. He has covered Boise State athletics since 2005, and worked at the Idaho Statesman since 2013. He’s won multiple Idaho Press Club awards and once won a contest designing a play for the Seattle Seahawks.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.