The decisive defensive play in the Denver Broncos' AFC championship game win last Sunday came on a fourth down in the third quarter. A 335-pound Temple product nicknamed "Pot Roast" barreled through the New England Patriots' offensive line and sacked Tom Brady.
It was the biggest play of Terrance Knighton's career, and it came in his biggest game.
Temple coach Matt Rhule was meeting with a recruit during the play and was able to say Knighton went to Temple.
"I felt like my talents were overshadowed in the past, and I wanted to rise to the occasion," Knighton said after the game. "I wanted to make a play and make people know my name."
By next week, Knighton might become a household name. He has become perhaps the Broncos' most important defensive piece and will be one of the most-discussed players when the Broncos play the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl next Sunday.
Knighton's path to the NFL's biggest game included four seasons on North Broad Street. Five years later, he considers that time instrumental to his development.
"Temple molded ... the character I have now," Knighton said. "Just handling adversity. I didn't have a winning season there. Living in North Philadelphia. It just molded me into a man. When you deal with things -- losing, being in that environment -- it makes you a better football player."
Knighton arrived at Temple in 2005 from the Hartford, Conn., area by way of prep school as part of Bobby Wallace's final recruiting class. He was a heavy player who loved football.
Rhule, who became Knighton's position coach in 2006 when Al Golden took over the Owls, invited the defensive linemen to his home one night that year. Rhule's father remarked that Knighton kept talking about football, while most teenagers' minds drifted elsewhere.
Rhule said Knighton started his career immature and overweight, but the coach added that he was raised well by his mother and grandmother and was determined to develop into a worthwhile player. He contributed in his freshman season, but it wasn't until Knighton's junior season that the coaching staff realized he could blossom into an NFL prospect.
"He was real big, and (his body was) soft when he first got in, so he had to lose his baby fat and build himself back up," said Temple graduate assistant Dominique Harris, a former Owls safety who was a roommate of Knighton's.
Knighton hovered around 305 pounds, but the coaching staff wanted him at 295 so he could use his quickness and athleticism. The coaches told him the NFL would want him lighter. (Knighton eventually swelled to more than 350 pounds while with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He's now listed at 6-foot-3 and 335 pounds.)
"He had that kind of talent and, more importantly, that knack for making plays to win games," Rhule said.
The Brady sack was evidence, but his former teammates recall similar game-changing feats. Knighton's 66-yard fumble return was the only touchdown in Temple's 16-15 win over Northern Illinois in 2007. His former teammates still see highlights of Knighton chasing down an Ohio running back to save a touchdown in a 14-10 win in 2008. He also made a game-clinching fumble recovery that day.
Knighton was not just a big body. His former teammates insisted the defensive tackle was one of the best basketball players on the football team.
"You combine his athleticism with how big he is, and you have a rare specimen," Rhule said.
At Temple, he's known as "T-Knight." The "Pot Roast" nickname came when Knighton was with the Jaguars after he ordered a pot roast on the team plane. The name stuck, and his Temple teammates aren't surprised.
"He ate pretty much everything," said Temple graduate assistant Adam DiMichele, a former Owls quarterback who played three years with Knighton.
Knighton was a character in the locker room, trying to prove he was the funniest player on the team. His talking extended onto the practice field. DiMichele would be in the middle of calling out the signals and Knighton would tease him about his cleats or wristband from the defensive line.
But the Owls 'D' was no joke. Knighton highlighted a defense loaded with future NFL players.
"They ruined practice for us," DiMichele said. "We couldn't do our first offense vs. the first defense because they terrorized us."
Temple has recently sent defensive players such as Junior Galette, Muhammad Wilkerson, Andre Neblett, Adrian Robinson, and Brian Sanford to the NFL. Knighton started the trend when the Jaguars drafted him in the third round in 2009.
"All those guys kind of came up watching what he did," Rhule said. "As Terrance got better and better and better, and as he grew up as a person and as a football player, he really set the tone for that defensive line group."
From losing to winning
Knighton's Temple teammates saw a text message that Peyton Manning sent when Knighton signed with the Broncos. Manning told Knighton how eager he was for Knighton to arrive to help the Broncos win the Super Bowl.
For much of Knighton's college and pro careers, though, he could barely win a game. The Owls won 10 games in Knighton's four seasons on North Broad Street. He never experienced a winning season in his four seasons in Jacksonville.
The Owls won 26 games in the three years after Knighton entered the NFL, and they completed a $10 million upgrade to their practice facility, Edberg-Olson Hall, in 2012. Harris said that was because of players such as Knighton who helped build a foundation.
"What they put down and we put down as a unit, it set a standard for the team," Harris said. "The younger guys looked at the older guys, and said this is how it's going to get done. That foundation helped us get those nine wins (in 2009)."
DiMichele believes Knighton's emergence with Denver has to do with getting a taste of team success.
"When you lose so much, and you get a taste of winning, it brings out another animal inside of you," DiMichele said. "I think that's what happened in Denver for him. He's really just coming into his own."
At 27, Knighton is in the prime of his career. Last offseason, he was an under-the-radar free agent who could net only a two-year, $4.5 million contract.
The deal reunited him with Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, who was Knighton's head coach for his first 21/2 seasons in Jacksonville.
During his Jaguars tenure, Knighton ran into some trouble off the field. He was involved in a bar fight in April 2012 that left him with stitches in his head and eye and required surgery. Knighton said he was attempting to break up a fight and was hit in the head with a bottle.
He later apologized to the organization and the city of Jacksonville.
Knighton recovered from the injuries to play in all 16 games in 2012.
This season, he was the NFL's ninth best defensive lineman, according to ratings by Pro Football Focus. He started all 16 games, and it was easily the finest season of his pro career.
A bigger payday could come soon. And after years of losing, Knighton could finally become a champion.
"You come to a place like this," Knighton said, "and you don't take it for granted."
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