Ex-UMD running back, DECC Hall of Fame inductee credits family for football success
Ted McKnight always wondered why his grandfather, Shelby Cox, walked with a little bit of a limp, so one day he asked about it.
Turns out Grandpa Shelby had worked as a lumberjack, and one day he tried to show off to McKnight's grandmother, Bertha, who was bringing him lunch. Not paying attention, he went to hook a log and it accidentally skipped off and went through his knee. But he pulled the hook out, bandaged it up and went back to work.
"You're talking about a tough old bird," McKnight said.
McKnight, the former Minnesota Duluth and NFL running back known as "Touchdown Teddy," will be part of the 26th DECC Athletic Hall of Fame induction ceremony May 24 at the DECC Harbor Side Convention Ballroom. The Duluth native said the induction was more about all the great teammates and coaches he had over the years, and the relatives who instilled a good work ethic and paved the way for him to have more opportunities.
"This award carries a great deal of value for me," McKnight said. "It's not about me. This award is about the legacy my grandfather and grandmother started. They wanted to give their children the opportunity of building their own roots, and giving their children as many opportunities as they could."
The DECC Athletic Hall of Fame is kind of like a Northland hall of fame, with the likes of Bronko Nagurski included.
"Bronko Nagurski? Now that is impressive," McKnight said, laughing. "Excuse me for hurting my hand patting myself on the back. This is truly an honor."
McKnight, 63, lives in Kansas City, Mo., and is in his 24th year with CBIZ, a financial consulting firm. He does public speaking engagements and charitable work for the Kansas City Chiefs Ambassadors. He also has lived in California but considers Duluth home. The family history here runs deep. His grandfather migrated from Braxton, Miss., to Canada for work and eventually ended up in Duluth after getting a job at the U.S. Steel plant in Morgan Park.
"I still remember going to the old steel plant picnics as a kid," McKnight said.
Eventually, other members of the family gravitated to Duluth from across the U.S.
"Our family was probably one of the largest black families living in Duluth going back to the '30s and '40s," McKnight said. "It gave the kids more opportunity growing up."
McKnight's father was in the military and he attended various schools. He lived in Europe for four or five years before returning to Minnesota, living in Minneapolis for a time and graduating from Duluth Central High School in 1972. He thought of walking on at Minnesota but instead chose UMD and legendary coach Jim Malosky.
There was no discrimination with Malosky. He treated all the players like dirt.
Former Bulldogs center Scott "HB" Hanna, another Central grad, was a senior at UMD when McKnight was a freshman. Hanna said there wasn't time for too much hazing of the freshmen.
"Mo was hard on all of us, so you didn't need to be hard on your teammates," Hanna said. "Everybody knew everybody and we were all pretty close, but nobody got any breaks, either. Ted had to wait his time until he got his chance, but we knew when he got his chance, he was going to be something special."
McKnight didn't play much at first behind the likes of Terry Egerdahl. He also ran track.
"Terry was an awesome athlete," McKnight said. "Coming out of Proctor, he was Mr. Everything. Track was my thing, and then I transitioned into football. I had great teammates and a coach who believed in us and helped me get recognized."
McKnight played some as a junior and was showcased as a senior in Malosky's run-heavy offense, rushing for 1,482 yards and 22 touchdowns in 1976. That included 235 rushing yards and six TDs in a single contest. He left the program as the Bulldogs' all-time rushing leader with a then-record 2,957 yards.
The 6-foot-1 McKnight, who eventually bulked up to about 220 pounds, had the rare combination of speed and power NFL teams love.
"He developed as a running back, and there was no better place to develop as a running back than with Malosky," Hanna said. "You know you're going to get the seed when you played for him. If you're carrying the ball for 10 yards, he's going to keep giving it to you.
"Ted could run, and when he actually got the chance to start and be an everyday player, it was like men playing against boys. It was crazy. It was the old Malosky run left and run right, he'd run Ted on sweep and nobody wanted anything to do with him. Defensive backs would conveniently take a bad angle so they wouldn't have to tackle him."
McKnight was taken in the second round of the 1977 NFL Draft with the 51st overall pick by the Oakland Raiders. He played for the Kansas City Chiefs from 1977-81 and for the Buffalo Bills in 1982. He led the NFL with 6.0 yards per carry in 1978 and led the Chiefs in rushing in both 1978 and 1979. His longest run of 84 yards in 1979 is still a Chiefs' record. He finished with 2,344 rushing yards and 3,499 all-purpose yards.
Despite all that, McKnight said it was never about making the NFL when he attended UMD.
"I was the first child from my family who had the opportunity of going to college," McKnight said. "College was my goal. I wanted to prove this was something we could accomplish. I found football to be something fairly easy, but to be honest with you, playing professional sports wasn't my goal. My goal and objective was to get a degree and provide for my family, like my grandfather provided for his."
McKnight still has relatives in the area. His mother lives in Minneapolis and his sister in Duluth. He makes it to Duluth at least three times a year, often for Grandma's Marathon in June and the Bayfront Blues Festival in August, when his cousin, Jerome Strother, cooks up some mean barbecue. He has fond memories of Duluth and how his grandfather discovered that it was a place where if you worked hard, you were rewarded.
"College wasn't easy," McKnight said. "There were times I wanted to give up, but I thought about what that old guy did. He was that inspiration, and, along with my parents, that motivating force where I did not want to disappoint him. I wanted to continue the legacy my grandparents had begun, and I'm nothing but a small cog in the wheel the people who came before me started. Without them, I couldn't have done any of this, so I am accepting this award on behalf of them."
If you go
What: 26th DECC Athletic Hall of Fame induction ceremony
When: Wednesday, May 24
Where: DECC Harbor Side Convention Ballroom
Inductees: Debbie Hunter, Joel Maturi, Bob and Ruby Maxson, Ted McKnight, Mike Sertich
Schedule: Social hour, 6 p.m.; dinner, 7 p.m.; awards presentations, 7:30 p.m.
Guest speaker: Pat Francisco
Tickets: Available at DECC ticket office, 350 Harbor Drive, Duluth, from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday until noon May 23; tickets $35 (cash or credit card only)