TAMPA — With the weight of the Jesuit High School community on his 5-foot-9, 165-pound frame, sophomore quarterback Luke Knight had just thrown his fourth interception under the brightest of spotlights: the 2021 Class 6A final.
Thousands of Tigers fans at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale — hoping to witness Jesuit’s first state football title in 53 years — stood stunned like a forest of dead blue trees.
With 6 minutes, 52 seconds remaining, Jesuit trailed by two points to Pensacola Pine Forest, a team that featured a brutal, time-chewing triple-option offense. The Eagles had the ball at the Tigers’ 36-yard line.
Pine Forest started driving as it had all night — like a battering ram — time ticking away.
On the sideline, Knight walked to his downcast offensive linemen, all of them older and much larger than him.
“We can lay down here and be done,” he said. “But there’s still 3 or 4 minutes left. We can sit here and cry about what’s happened before now, or we can hope our defense makes the stop and then we can go out and make some history. We can go out and do what we’re supposed to do.”
With 3:23 left on the clock and Pine Forest facing third-and-goal at the Jesuit 3-yard line, Tiger cornerback Hayes Greep snagged an interception in the back of the end zone.
From there, Knight was flawless, completing a 78-yard pass to Jaydn Girard to the Pine Forest 12-yard line and then, with 37 seconds remaining, firing a 7-yard touchdown to Girard.
Following a successful 2-point conversion, the scoreboard posted what wound up being the final score — Jesuit 35, Pine Forest 29 — sending Tigers fans into a frenzy. It capped a season in which Jesuit finished 15-0 and ranked No. 8 in the country by maxpreps.com.
How did the sophomore find the fortitude to not fold in the biggest moment after his four turnovers?
Knight says it goes back to a lifetime of proving people wrong.
“I’m smaller and people have never believed that I was good enough, and I’ve always been doubted,” he said. “It ignites a fire in me. It makes me work harder. Makes me sharper. Makes me better.”
Makes him believe he can overcome anything.
A little secret: The long pass to Girard originally was designed as a quarterback draw, but Pine Forest had the play sniffed out. Knight saw the Eagles’ linebackers moving up on him when he caught eyes with Girard, who broke into the open.
“I improvised,” Knight said. “I like to play that way: know the script, but I’ll also adjust when needed.”
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Knight finished the game with 14 completions in 22 attempts for 347 yards and three touchdowns.
Hypothetically, Knight was asked, what if the Tigers had ended up losing the game?
“I would have been so incredibly angry,” he said. “The fire within me would have been so hot and huge. I would have been working harder than ever. There would have been no way I could let it happen again. I would have done anything I possibly could to get back the opportunity.”
In the end, he finished the 2021 season with 171 completions on 237 attempts (72 percent) for 2,511 yards and 30 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He also guided the Tigers to a 24-21 victory over then-No. 1 St. Thomas Aquinas (the first-ever victory over Aquinas for a Tampa Bay area team), and four other victories (over Boca Ciega, Braden River, Hillsborough and Miami Northwestern) in the playoffs.
Now, he enters the 2022 season — which gets underway with this week’s opener against Wharton — as the starter. But he’s facing some stiff competition from 6-foot-3, 220-pound freshman Will Griffin, who in 10 games as an eighth grader last year at Northside Christian completed 144 of 266 passes for 2,449 yards with 30 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
It’s more than enough to raise a healthy debate — and that fire in Luke Knight’s chest.
“Luke thrives on competition, and I expect him to just get better and better from the competition,” Jesuit offensive coordinator Don Mesick said. “If (Knight) goes on to play in college, he’ll need to get used to (competition).”
Knight, who says he may very well be a college coach one day, said he’s more than ready for whatever comes his way.
“It doesn’t matter what I do, or what I accomplish, I feel I will always have to prove myself over again,” he said. “That’s the way it’s always been. That’s okay. It makes be better.”