Amid bedroom walls scattered with football jerseys, track medals and football recruiting posters sits a backplate from a pair of shoulder pads.
Written in black sharpie on the off-white, sweat-stained, peeling tape covering the padding is, simply, “R.I.P. Marcus.”
Missouri wide receiver Jalen Knox wore this underneath his jersey as a junior in high school.
Below the backplate is a photoshopped poster, thumb-tacked to the wall of his Arlington bedroom. At first glance, it looks like a generic picture with three images of Knox playing football. But between the two outer figures is another of him pointing up at the clouds to a younger man crouching down with a soft smile, dressed in a red tank top and faded blue jorts — his uncle, Marcus.
“That was kind of like my best friend; like a brother, you know?” Knox said.
Marcus Anderson, Knox’s mother’s younger brother, died in a car crash at the age of 31 on Oct. 13, 2007 in Louisiana. Sherri Knox brought her youngest son into her room to break the devastating news and uncontrollable crying ensued.
Knox didn’t just lose an uncle — he lost a brother, a role model and a close friend.
The 8-year-old had a Pee Wee football game later that day and it’s still one of the only times he can recall not wanting to play the game he loves. Every year on the anniversary of Anderson’s death, those same painful feelings emerge.
“I always remember every year — his freshman year, sophomore, junior, senior year — every year, it came around it was his uncle’s birthday, he would always have a rough day at school.” Knox’s assistant coach from high school, Brian Burkeen said. “He just carried it with him.”
While Anderson’s death makes some days harder than most for Knox each year, something about his uncle’s passing inspires him. Knox came to the realization just a few days after his uncle died while he was at Anderson’s funeral. What stuck out most, he said, was the overwhelming positive impact his uncle had on so many people. It’s since inspired him to exude that same positivity on everyone he knows, channeling Anderson in each facet of his life.
The way Knox talks about Anderson’s immense impact during the eight years they had together, one would imagine they were together constantly. However, Sherri and her husband, Osborne, moved their family from rural Louisiana to Arlington, Texas in July of 1997 — two years before Knox was born. Aside from a brief period when Anderson lived with the Knox’s, a point in Jalen’s life where he was too young to remember, Knox seldom got to see his uncle. But when he did, the two were inseparable.
“When I would go back to Louisiana, I always hung out with him and my brothers, my cousins,” Knox said. “We would always do things like play video games or go fishing. [Even] just chilling on the porch and talking to him, it was always good times.”
One common description of Anderson, according to Knox and his family, is that he was a kid at heart. He loved playing video games, cracking jokes and spending time with his younger nephews. Anderson was the cool uncle — something Knox sees himself being for the children of his three older siblings one day.
But for now, Knox focuses on dedicating his everyday life and play on the gridiron to his uncle.
A five-catch, 110-yard performance against Purdue in Week 3 earned Knox his first SEC Freshman of the Week honors. He looked up and pointed to the sky after taking a slant route 59 yards to the house — something he’s done to commemorate Anderson every time he scores.
“I try to do it all the time,” Knox said. “The only time I didn’t do it was ‘Bama because I was just so in the moment. But my senior year after every touchdown I did it, and the other two [touchdowns] this year I did it.”
Something Knox never forgets to do, however, is his pregame ritual. He’ll step into the tunnel before the game starts, make the sign of the cross with his hands and pray.
Each prayer may not always be the same, but one point remains constant: having a conversation with Uncle Marcus. Knox stressed how important it is to always tell his late uncle how much he loves him and that he knows he’s watching from up above.
Keeping Anderson in mind while he’s playing helps Knox stay grounded, even in the midst of a breakout freshman season.
He earned his second SEC Freshman of the Week honors after snagging five catches for 104 yards and a touchdown against Memphis on Oct. 20. Sure, the personal accolade from yet another impressive performance was nice for Knox’s portfolio. But here, the timing is what meant most.
It came 11 years and one week after his uncle’s death and a day past what would have been Anderson’s 43rd birthday.
“Anytime I can do something special around those days — like the 13th (Anderson’s death) and the 19th (Anderson’s birthday) — it just feels good,” Knox said. “It feels like I really did something special for him.”
One thing Knox plans to do this summer to honor Anderson’s legacy is made possible by a 0.30 millimeter needle dipped in black ink — something his mother “flipped out on” Knox’s older brother, Tyler, for doing.
“My mom’s so against tattoos,” Knox said. “But when I go home I plan on getting some. I know I’m gonna get something done for Marcus.”
While Sherri may not be the most enthusiastic person regarding body art, she may let that one slide.
“He was always fast”
Sherri Knox was mopping the linoleum kitchen floor of her Arlington home one afternoon in 2002.
The white and brown flooring reflected the ceiling lights above, projecting a noticeable shine from the newly-applied, slick and slippery layer of water and soap.
Enter 2-year-old Jalen.
“Of course, he’s running full speed — because that’s how he always do — and he runs right into the kitchen,” Sherri said.
Moments later, Knox’s feet slipped backward out from under him. His head, which was too big for his body at the time, brought all his momentum forward, forcing a powerful collision between Knox’s head and the rock-solid linoleum. It jarred one of his front teeth loose and he swallowed it whole, forcing the toddler to get a fake tooth as a replacement.
The saying ‘speed kills’ is true not only for his chompers, but for his opponents as well.
Knox’s track resume explains one reason as to why he’s so dominant on the football field. He finished first in the 100m dash at the Allen Eagle Relays in 2017 with a personal-best time of 10.66 seconds and featured on all of his high school’s talented relay teams.
Growing up running track and playing Pee Wee football, coaches in the Greater Arlington area knew who Knox was well before his high school days. Once middle school ended, it was time to showcase that natural speed on a much bigger stage.
Knox stepped foot on the Timberview High School grounds in Mansfield, Texas, for the first time as a student in the fall of 2014. While the wide-eyed freshman was ready to show what he could do at the next level, he didn’t know many older players to look up to.
Senior wide receiver Myron Gailliard — the Wolves’ best player at the time and current SMU wideout — took it upon himself to mentor the high school’s next big talent.
“He’s really kind of like the first person I started talking to when I got to high school,” Knox said. “He was that guy on campus at the time, so I just kind of followed him and did whatever he did and we got close.”
Part of this mentorship ritual that occurs at Timberview is a senior passing on the No. 9 jersey to a freshman. Typically the best last-year player gives his jersey number to the most promising young one; and Knox was the recipient of that honor as a freshman.
He still dons the number 9 at Missouri, something that has a great deal of significance as a pass-catcher considering Jeremy Maclin donned that number during his time in Columbia. That being said, wearing that jersey carries a lot of weight both at Missouri and at Timberview High. It means everything from being a leader on the field to being a role model off it. Often times, the No. 9 jersey is given to a wide receiver at Timberview.
Little did Knox know that wouldn’t be his primary position during his high school career.
“Unfortunately his junior year and senior year, he didn’t have that dog at quarterback, that stud to make him really shine [at receiver], you know?” Timberview offensive coordinator Robert DeSanto said. “We knew, truly, he wasn’t a running back. We knew he had next-level, maybe even Sunday-level stuff in the slot. But [running back was] where we needed him for the program to be successful.”
Knox happily obliged and thrived because of it. The Wolves’ offense revolved heavily on the run without a true gunslinger at quarterback those two years and Knox showed out at his new position. They brought him out of the slot on jet sweeps, from the backfield on zone runs and everything in between — he even played a little quarterback.
While the Timberview coaches knew Knox’s future probably wasn’t at running back, it helped make the speedster’s game more well-rounded.
“It’s made him a tougher football player,” DeSanto said. “When he came up with us, you could argue he was just a guy with speed. He grew up and matured as a football player because he was forced to block. He was forced to cut guys downfield. He was forced to run between the tackles. And honestly, at first, he was a little apprehensive in doing that. But he got better and better as the years went on, and by his senior year, he was one of the most difficult guys [to stop] that we’ve had in our program.”
It makes sense Knox turned into a more physical player throughout the years. The star skill players when he was growing up — Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Michael Vick, etc. — weren’t the ones that drew Knox to the game.
It was the physicality of football, namely the hard-hitting former-Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor.
“That’s my guy. He made me love football,” Knox said. “I didn’t play DB or nothing like that and I wasn’t a hard hitter when I was in Pee Wee, but I just love Sean Taylor. I loved watching him play.”
Taylor was shot inside his home by intruders not far after Anderson’s passing on November 27, 2007. In a span of a month and two weeks, Knox lost two of the men he idolized growing up to sudden, out-of-the-blue tragedies.
Just as he channels his uncle in his everyday life, Knox channeled his inner Sean Taylor on the field.
Touchdowns never pumped Knox up — that’s what he was supposed to do. What really got him going was laying guys out on crack-back blocks.
He cracked a smile when asked about his fondness for blocking and vividly remembers his last one in high school, sprinting 15 yards back towards his running back to de-cleat a defender.
Knox rarely shows much emotion on the field, but he always screams and flexes his muscles after laying someone out. And who can blame him? It’s hard to help it when you hit someone as hard as your idol did.
Jalen Doin’ Jalen
Knox’s father, Osborne Knox, drove to his older sons’ Pee Wee football practice on a fall afternoon in 2003. He took 3-year-old Jalen along for the ride.
Osborne picked up his youngest son, placed him in a stroller and began walking toward the field where his 8-and-10-year-olds were playing.
But Knox was fed up being contained to a measly chair with some measly wheels. He wanted to play. So naturally, Knox sprung out of his stroller and made a beeline for the practice field to play some pigskin.
Growing up with brothers six and eight years older than him, Knox always spent time with the older boys.
“His brothers’ friends would come over when he was like, two, and he would always say, ‘My friends are here! My friends are here to play with me!’” Sherri Knox chuckled. “And I would always say, ‘Those are not your friends. Those are big boys!’ He was just always with older kids, and that’s why he acts like he’s so much older. Because he always played with older kids and just thought those were his friends.”
Knox’s mindset is far beyond what his age says. He isn’t your typical football player, let alone a typical teenager.
He often forewent going out to parties and hanging out with friends to spend time with his mother in high school. And if “Golden Girls” or “Spongebob Squarepants” was on, he was right there with her watching.
To some, that’d be embarrassing. But what separates Knox from the crowd is that he doesn’t care what people think of him.
“He’s doesn’t follow behind anybody,” Sherri Knox said. “No matter what the crowd is doing, no matter who’s going to what party, he would always decide [himself]... He just does Jalen.”
While many teenagers, especially college students, frequently go out to bars or participate in other extracurricular activities, Knox doesn’t. When asked about his favorite things to do in his free time, the first thing that came to his mind was, “I like to sit down and read the Bible.”
His maturity and modesty stick out almost as much as his two 100-yard performances do, and he has his family to thank for that.
It was impossible for him to get a big head with his brothers Jadarius and Tyler, along with the rest of the Knox clan there in his ear to bring him right back down to earth every opportunity they could.
“That’s how my whole family — that’s just what we do to each other,” Knox said. “We don’t let anybody’s achievements get too high. If they do something, we’ll still down-talk them. They know we’re just playing about it. But my uncle (not Marcus), my whole time growing up running track, I’ll go out to state meets and get like third or second, and he’d be like, ‘If you ain’t first, you’re last.’ Every time.”
That family camaraderie is what’s helped develop a special bond between Knox and his relatives, particularly Anderson.
So while the Missouri receiver is some 600 miles away from that backplate at home, in a few short months Knox will have a permanent tribute to his late uncle in the form of a tattoo.
Wherever Knox goes from then on, Marcus will be with him, reminding his nephew to live just how he did.
“He always had positive impacts on everybody he touched and everybody he was around,” Knox said. “At his funeral when I heard everyone talk about him, like how much love they have for him, it inspires me to have that type of impact on people. So everything I do, I kind of just try to act like him and be like him.”