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Charger Lineman McKnight Comes Complete With Philosophy

September 15, 1985|TOM FRIEND | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Introduced as "Conan, The Offensive Lineman," Dennis McKnight lifted himself up, muscles bulging from goatee to toe. And in front of him was one tough audience, a group of San Diego's most feared juvenile delinquents. LeRoy had beaten up his neighbors. Sam had beaten up his sister. Ken had ripped off a drug store. All did drugs.

But Conan communicated. Get it together, he said. Don't be a criminal, he said.

"You can do it if you want it, but only if you want it bad enough," he would say, speaking, although nobody knew it, from life experience.

Over and done with, he walked toward them, their eyes amazed by his size, and they wondered how he'd become so wise. Conan, who last shaved several years ago, looked just like one of them. But he was not one of them. He was meek, really.

One by one, he spoke to them individually and idealistically. A boy, perhaps no more than 12, came up and complained about a mess at home.

Conan, touched, sat down alone with the boy for nearly an hour, taking his visit into overtime. The supervising police officers did not disturb, because as one of them would say later: "He didn't want to leave. He wanted to do something for that kid. I just wish more people in our society were like Dennis McKnight."

Maybe you wish more people had Dennis McKnight's sensitivity in dealing with youngsters, a sensitivity which belies his super-macho image as the Chargers' Conanesque right guard.

But you don't wish his childhood on anyone. He was beaten as a kid. His mom was, too. And his father, an alcoholic, was the one who did the beating. Then, his father left one day. Forever.

McKnight, at the time, was age 12.

Today, because he wanted it badly enough, he is his own person, complete with identity and philosophy. He is a rare one, one who honestly couldn't care what the guy next door thinks. In training camp this year, his hair was shoulder-pad length. He has since cut it a couple inches, but it is still there blowing wild and free from under his helmet.

For he is wild and free, too. He drives a white pickup truck, the big red, white and blue bumper sticker standing out:

"Help keep America clean. Support your local Hell's Angels group."

Hell's Angels? Here's a policeman's profound definition: "They're a motorcycle group that started out as hell-raisers, selling dope," said George Varella of the San Diego Police department, who also is McKnight's good friend. "There are chapters throughout the United States. They deal in guns, dope, prostitution. But Dennis is completely opposite from all that."

Still, although he is not an advocate of the illegal aspects of the Hell's Angels, he is a pretty good copycat of looks and legal interests.

He owns a Harley Davidson and on his back is a T-shirt that says "A Way Of Life--Harley Davidson." On his hip is a tattoo that says (surprise) "Harley Davidson."

The beard, after all these years, looks scruffy.

The goatee goes with it.

The country music blares from the truck:

You're the reason God made Oklahoma.

You're the reason God made Oklahoma.

You're the reason God made Oklahoma.

And I'm sure missing you.

For the proper perspective, we take you to his wife for a description of her husband:

"Foreboding," said Jodi McKnight, Mrs. Conan. "If you saw him out somewhere, you probably wouldn't mess around with him, not with how he looks.

"But, gosh, how can I say this. There're are two sides. The football side and the big humanitarian side. Most wouldn't see the private side."

Unless you talk to him. The get-up is loud, but the voice is soft.

"He's one of the straightest guys I've ever known in football," teammate Ed White said.

Said Conan: "I like motorcycles, and Harley Davidsons in particular. I enjoy having long hair, and people think that's my image. 'He's a biker and a wild guy.' Stuff like that. But, hell, I don't get drunk. I don't go to parties. I ride my bike as an enjoyment. People always associate me with the Hell's Angels because I watch the movie and have the bumper sticker on my truck. But, you know, I like things like that.

"I'm not saying I want to be one of those kind of people, but I can. . . .you know . . .I can . . .I don't know . . .That's the kind of life style they have, and I think it's all right.

"Jodi, my wife, always says if she were to meet me now, she'd stay away because she'd be afraid. Because of the goatee and the long hair and the biker T-shirts and stuff. But that's the way I like to look. I'm not into dressing nice, stuff like that. I just enjoy that look. If I could, I'd wear a ponytail. But I don't consider myself a bad person or a freak or anything. That's the image I like.

"I guess I like things that are different. I can appreciate a person for being himself. I respect people that don't conform. If you want to be a biker or a hippie, and if you're afraid because society will look down on you, that's wrong.

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