When Lee Knight arrived on the North Carolina State campus in the summer
of 1987, he was struck with an eerie sense of déjà vu. It reminded him of a similar
scenario four years earlier when he was a freshman football player at Huntsville
“We were rebuilding in football when I got to high school and we were
rebuilding in football when I got to college," remembers Knight. “Actually, the
rebuilding had already started the year before at NC State under the new coach,
Dick Sheridan. At Huntsville High, we had to rebuild from rock bottom."
When Greg Patterson was hired in 1984 to resuscitate a sagging HHS
program, the Crimson Panthers had won only three games over the previous
two seasons. Patterson’s first team finished 1-9, same as the year before. The
only win came against Brewer in the ninth game of Knight’s sophomore season.
The Panthers celebrated like they had just won the state championship. “After
that game, I remember Coach Patterson saying, ‘When you’re starving, you’ll eat
anything,’ " Knight recalled. “Then he said, ‘This may not be a steak, but it’s a big
ol’ juicy hamburger and we’ll take it – for now.’ "
The following year, the Panthers won only two, but one of them came early
in the season when Knight – a starter at tight end and linebacker – trotted on to
kick a last-second field goal that beat archrival Grissom, 20-17. “The record didn’t
show it, but we could tell we were getting better," Knight said. “Coach had started
playing a lot of sophomores the year before, guys like me and Jim Batson and
Keith Neighbors, building for the future, and we knew it’d pay off sooner or later." It did. Knight’s senior year, Huntsville went
8-2 in the regular season, losing only to Johnson and Decatur, before falling to Johnson again in the first round of the state
playoffs. Knight made All-City for the second year in a row and signed a football scholarship with North Carolina State a few
weeks later. Greg Patterson went on compile 102 victories in 18 years at Huntsville before retiring in 2001 as the winningest
coach in school history.
“By our senior year, we had definitely arrived with guys like Keith Neighbors, Pat Wynn, Collins Pearson and all that
bunch," said Knight. “I felt I had a pretty good year too, especially against our city rivals. I always enjoyed playing Grissom and
Johnson, even though Johnson beat us twice that last year. What I remember most is how good we were on defense. That ’86
team had several shutouts." Five shutouts, to be exact – Hillcrest of Tuscaloosa, Grissom, Coffee, Lee, and Sparkman. Only
two opponents scored as many as two touchdowns in the regular season. Knight was among the team’s leading tacklers, a
statistic that caught the attention of a number of college recruiters.
He took five recruiting trips – to Ole Miss, Chattanooga, Mississippi State, Western Kentucky, and North Carolina State.
Of these, NC State stood out. “I liked everything about NC State," said Knight. “They had a similar situation that we had at
Huntsville High. They had been down, but now they were on their way up. I thought I had a chance to play early."
He was right. NC State had suffered three straight 3-8 seasons before Dick Sheridan was lured from Furman. Sheridan
won eight games his first year in Raleigh but dipped to 4-7 in 1987, Knight’s redshirt freshman year. Over the next four seasons,
however, the Wolfpack won 31 of 47 games and played in four straight postseason games, twice in the Peach Bowl, once in
the Copper Bowl and once in the All-American Bowl. Knight, a linebacker who started several games as a freshman, finished
with 125 tackles in his college career. His favorite memory was a 28-23 victory over Iowa in the 1988 Peach Bowl, played
in a steady rain at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Knight recovered a fumble at the Iowa 14 on the opening kickoff and the
Wolfpack never looked back thereafter. “I have a lot of good memories from NC State – beating South Carolina in Columbia,
beating Clemson, which is always fun, never losing to North Carolina all four years, which was a big deal ... but that Iowa
game is probably my favorite," he said. “Iowa was ranked in the top 5 preseason. They were pretty arrogant because they
had expected to play in the Rose Bowl, and they let us know it. We jumped out 7-0 after that fumble on the kickoff , and they
weren’t so arrogant the rest of the day."
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