Life before Death Row: The brief football career of Suge Knight
The scariest man in rap was a star lineman at UNLV — and a scab Los Angeles Ram
Marion “Suge” Knight’s original terrordome was the defensive line. It’s where he starred for four years at Lynwood High School, 20 minutes from Compton, California’s much-loved Tam’s Burgers. Knight faces murder (among other) charges stemming from a January 2015 incident at Tam’s in which he is accused of barreling a Ford F-150 into two men.
Knight’s friend, Terry Carter, 55, was killed. Cle “Bone” Sloan, 51, was injured. All of this followed an argument near a filming location for the 2015 N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. For the better part of three years, Knight has been held at Los Angeles County Jail, where he awaits a January 2018 trial. He is claiming self-defense. “He left the scene,” attorney James Blatt said in February 2015, “because he was in fear for his safety, and life.” Knight has shuffled through more than four attorneys since.
Wealthy white kids at Hollywood high schools were often the target of Knight’s shakedowns when he was at Lynwood. During the early ’80s, however, Knight was far more focused on sports than thugging: He earned letters in track and football all four years.
Harvey Hyde became the head football coach of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 1981. At the time, the UNLV Rebels (recently on the wrong side of the most lopsided college football upset of all time) were new to Division I. The school, established in 1958, had gained national prominence via basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian’s “Runnin’ Rebels” program. It was up to Hyde to make UNLV a two-sport school.
Hyde still calls Marion Knight “Sugar Bear,” Knight’s childhood and neighborhood nickname. They met on a recruiting trip that Hyde made to Los Angeles County’s El Camino Junior College, where Knight excelled in the defensive line’s trenches. The Compton native was 6-foot-2 with big hair and an imposing frame.
Hyde, a player’s coach, brought Knight to Las Vegas. As a junior, he started at nose guard and defensive tackle and immediately became one of the Rebels’ best defensive players. Knight was voted UNLV’s Rookie of the Year, named defensive captain and won first-team all conference honors. In a city full of sins, Knight was apparently UNLV’s biggest blessing.
“[Knight] played his butt off,” said Hyde, whose coaching portfolio includes NFL stars Randall Cunningham, Ickey Woods and 2017 Hall of Famer Terrell Davis. “[Knight] was a ‘yes sir, no sir’ guy … the type of player any college football coach would love to have on his team.” Hyde was let go in 1986 after a string of damaging events for the football program, including burglary, the beating by a player of an off-duty policeman, the embezzling of video and stereo equipment, sexual assault and domestic violence, among other issues. Knight, a part-time bouncer at Vegas’ then-hot Cotton Club, wasn’t a blip on Hyde’s disciplinary radar. “He never, ever gave me a problem in any way.”
To many members of the UNLV team, and his close friend Tarkanian, Hyde was the scapegoat for a program he helped save. The lack of institutional control, they believed, wasn’t Hyde’s fault. Hyde has never spoken ill or shifted blame to anyone.
Knight may have been yes-sir-no-sir, but he was side-hustling: Books. Jon Wolfson, who in the early 2000s was a publicist for Death Row Records and is now the manager of Hall and Oates, recalls a conversation he had with Knight about his UNLV days. “He’d say something like, ‘Then I’d play the dumb athlete role and say, ‘Oh, Coach, I lost my books.’ ” The staff never second-guessed Knight, said Wolfson. “They’d give him brand-new books, and he’d sell them to make some extra cash.” Knight enjoyed two impressive seasons at UNLV in 1985 and 1986, lettering in both.
Yet, per Randall Sullivan’s 2003 LAbyrinth: A Detective Investigates the Murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., the Implication of Death Row Records’ Suge Knight, and the Origins of the Los Angeles Police Scandal, Knight’s demeanor became more ominous and reclusive during his senior campaign. Visitors from his hometown of Compton were frequently sighted, as Sullivan reported. Knight, too, moved in an apartment by himself, and was seen in several late-model sedans. And his reputation on campus evolved far beyond that of the friendly jokester he was the year before. He seemed a man involved in far more sophisticated situations.
Yet when Wayne Nunnely took over as coach in 1986, Knight’s athletic demeanor apparently remained consistent. “He wasn’t a problem guy at all,” Nunnely told the Las Vegas Sun in 1996. This was three days after Tupac Shakur was shot five times near the Las Vegas Strip by a drive-by assailant who remains unknown. Shakur and Knight were at the intersection of Koval Lane and Flamingo Road. Shakur, of course, died. Knight, by then better known as “Suge,” was then gangsta rap’s unquestioned, unrivaled and undisputed emperor. “You didn’t really see,” said Nunnely, “that street roughness in him.”
The gridiron roughness is something Knight didn’t hesitate to talk about. “I think the most important thing, when you play football,” Knight told comedian Jay Mohr in 2001, shortly after being released from prison for serving half of a nine-year sentence for assault charges stemming from the fight with Orlando Anderson in Vegas’ MGM Grand the night Shakur was shot, “you get the quarterback, you stick your hand in his helmet and peel the skin back off.”
He jokingly suggested, even after selling tens of millions of records and doing nearly a five-year bid, that he could still play in the league. “I think I could strap up and intimidate most of those [guys]. I think we could make a few deals and I’ll be like, ‘OK, look. Lemme get ’bout three, four sacks. I’ll let you get a few blocks. We’ll enjoy it.’ ”
According to teammates, Knight dropped out of UNLV before graduation. By 1987, he was back in Los Angeles. One of the biggest songs on the streets was Eazy-E’s gangsta rap bellwether “Boyz n Da Hood,” which dropped in March of that year. But before turning to hip-hop to plant the seeds of a future empire, Knight had one last gridiron itch to scratch: the National Football League.
The first overall pick in the 1987 NFL draft was Vinny Testaverde, who played until he was 44. The second overall pick was defensive stalwart Cornelius Bennett. There was also current University of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, Christian “The Nigerian Nightmare” Okoye, 2002 NFL MVP Rich Gannon and Rod Woodson, the only Hall of Famer from this class. Former University of Oklahoma megastar linebacker Brian Bosworth and future Hall of Famer wide receiver Cris Carter were chosen in the supplemental draft. Marion Knight was not one of the 335 players selected. But the NFL eventually did come calling. The league was desperate.
As documented in the new 30 for 30 film “Year of the Scab,” NFL players went on strike shortly after the start of the 1987 season. Today, football players influenced by exiled Super Bowl quarterback Colin Kaepernick fight for their freedom of expression. Thirty years ago, players bucked back at ownership for freedom of agency. In 1982, players went on strike demanding 55 percent of revenue. The 57-day standoff cost the league seven games and $275 million in revenues. And another $50 million returned to networks. While united in both strikes, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) gained little ground in either.
“Free” agency in the 1980s wasn’t the spectacle it is today, with hundreds of players changing teams annually. “This was before free agency,” said veteran Los Angeles Times sports reporter Chris Dufresne. “[NFL players] really were indentured servants. They couldn’t go anywhere!” Players were, for lack of a better phrase, property — bound to teams for life. With rare exceptions, they did move to new teams, although many times those were star players with leverage, a la O.J. Simpson’s 1978 trade to the San Francisco 49ers.
Teams could sign free agents, but the cost was steep. The “Rozelle Rule” stated the NFL commissioner could reward the player’s original team with draft picks, often first-round selections, or players. NFL salaries did rise in the ’80s, primarily because of the brief existence of the United States Football League (an entity that featured team owner Donald Trump) and its willingness to lure NFL players with large contracts. But by 1985, the USFL was defunct. Even that era couldn’t hold a candle to the second strike. “The 1987 Rams season,” said Dufresne, “was the craziest I’ve ever had in journalism.”
Training camp started with star running back Eric Dickerson warring for a new contract. On Aug. 21, 1987, running back and former Heisman Trophy winner Charles White, after drug issues that plagued him while with the Cleveland Browns and at USC, was arrested after being found in a field. “[He had a] trash can lid, pretending to be the Trojan Warrior,” Dufresne recalled. “That’s how the summer started.” White led the NFL in rushing that same strike season, with 1,374 yards.
The strike started after Week 3. Players said they wouldn’t show up for Week 4, owners called what they thought was bluff, and then had to scramble to fill rosters with replacement players: former college players, undrafted players, construction workers, bartenders, even ex-cons. Replacement players, otherwise known as “scabs,” were ridiculed.
Somewhat like Faizon Love and Orlando Jones in 2000’s The Replacements, Knight was one of those replacement players. Dufresne, 30 years later, doesn’t recall the future head of a gangsta rap empire. “I have no recollection of Suge being there. I must have seen him,” he said. “[But] why would I remember him? How would anyone know who he was at the time? He was one of the guys that the Rams players were throwing eggs at.”
The strike lasted only a few weeks, but it got ugly. It sounds ridiculous to say Knight was bullied, but such was life in the NFL during the 1987 lockout for “scabs.” Knight, a man who would evolve into an intimidating pop culture tour de force, had eggs thrown at him. First-year Rams offensive tackle Robert Cox smashed the window of a van carrying replacement players after union players began rocking the van.
These incidents were common throughout the league. Frustrations were at a boiling point. Once stars such as Dallas Cowboys’ Tony Dorsett, San Francisco’s Joe Montana, the Oakland Raiders’ Howie Long and Seattle’s Steve Largent crossed the line, the NFLPA recognized the ship was sinking. “They had a weak union compared to the baseball union,” Dufresne said. “But the things they were fighting for were real.”
The strike lasted 24 days. Knight officially played two games as a Los Angeles Ram, against the Pittsburgh Steelers and against the Atlanta Falcons. Although Knight’s official stats are all but lost to history, this YouTube video compiled his official NFL stat line: eight plays, zero sacks, zero tackles and one penalty. John Robinson, Rams head coach from 1983-91, said the team had too many bodies that year between union and replacement players. He, too, has no recollection of coaching Knight.
“Suge,” said Dufresne, “was just an anonymous nobody in the surroundings.” The anonymity wouldn’t last long.
In October 1987, as the regular NFL players reported back to work, Knight’s rap sheet ballooned and his boogeyman persona began to take shape. In Los Angeles, Knight was charged with domestic violence after grabbing future ex-wife Sharitha Golden (whom he’d later implicate in Shakur’s murder) by the hair and chopping her ponytail off in the driveway of her mother’s home. That Halloween, he was arrested in Vegas for shooting a man in the wrist and in the leg, and for stealing his Nissan Maxima. With felony charges looming, Knight skated away from any serious penalty in part because of a contrite courtroom appearance and his history in the city as a famed football player. The felonies were reduced to misdemeanors: a $1,000 fine and three years probation. “I shot him with his own gun,” Knight told The Washington Post in 2007.
Three years later, in Vegas once again, he pleaded guilty to felony assault with a deadly weapon after pistol-whipping a man with a loaded gun and breaking his jaw. Knight again evaded serious penalty.
Knight by then was immersing himself in the music industry, serving as a bodyguard for superstars such as Bobby Brown. He eventually maneuvered his way into the circles of rappers like The D.O.C., Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E. Knight partnered with Dr. Dre to create Death Row Records in 1991. Dr. Dre’s 1992 The Chronic (Death Row/Priority) and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle (Death Row/Interscope) the following year became instant pop gospels and solidified Knight and Death Row as not only major players but also undeniable and controversial cultural focal points.
It’s been years since Coach Hyde has seen his former player. He’s not sure if he will again, but, “You can’t get me to say anything negative about Suge Knight,” he said. “Whatever somebody is accused of, he’s still a football player of mine. He’s still part of the family when I was at UNLV.” Hyde pauses momentarily, then continues, “I’m not endorsing all the certain things they accuse him of, because I really don’t know. I have no idea! He doesn’t judge me and I don’t judge him. We just have our old feelings of each other. I just think that’s what it’s all about. You don’t forget people.”
“When I watch the news, it’s like I’m watching someone else,” Jon Wolfson said. “That’s not the guy I know.”
As for Dufresne, he’s not on either side of the aisle. He’s more shocked that Marion Knight, a guy he only mentioned in passing through roster lists, morphed into Suge Knight, the Death Row Records impresario who was once worth more than $100 million. Suge, he recalled, wasn’t the only notorious figure to come about during his time covering the Rams. Darryl Henley, a former cornerback for the Rams (1989-94), was convicted of cocaine trafficking in 1995. He is currently serving a 41-year prison term for conspiring to murder the federal judge who presided over his trial, as well as the former Rams cheerleader who testified against him. And the Rams’ 1996 first round pick, running back Lawrence Phillips, received a 31-year sentence for domestic violence, spousal abuse, false imprisonment and vehicle theft and was later charged with first-degree murder of his cellmate. Phillips committed suicide in 2016.
Dufresne recalled the bitterness of rap in the ’90s, the “East/West thing” as he dubbed it. And he remembered the personal sadness that followed Shakur’s murder. Yet, it wasn’t until this phone call where he put one and one together. Marion is Suge. Suge was Marion. Suge Knight was a replacement player during the most untamed year of my career.
“Marion Knight, out of UNLV, who did what a lot of guys did and had a dream to play [in the NFL] and maybe didn’t understand what the players were fighting for, he was just another guy,” he said. He stops, as if he’s shocked. “Little did we know.”