ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The text messages came in steady succession, flooding Terrance Knighton’s cellphone just days before the AFC Championship Game.
Naturally, his family and friends had wished him well against New England. But they also had a special request for the native of Hartford, Conn.
“Before the game they were saying ‘good luck — just don’t hurt (Tom) Brady,”’ the Broncos’ 6-3, 335-pound defensive tackle said. “That’s all everybody kept saying.”
Then he added with a laugh: “I didn’t slam him as hard as I could have. I took it a little easy on him.”
The Temple product made headlines last week when he tossed Brady like a rag doll on a third-quarter sack in the Broncos’ 26-16 win. The 10-yard loss stalled New England’s momentum and helped pave the way to victory and a berth in the Super Bowl.
Knighton — nicknamed “Pot Roast” since his rookie season in Jacksonville (2009) — instantly became a household name.
On-the-field success, however, has been a long time coming.
A former third-round pick, Knighton, 27, struggled to keep his weight in check during his first few years in Jacksonville. Then he underwent eye surgery in April 2012 after being struck with a vodka bottle during a bar incident. Knighton, who said he was attempting to break up a fight, later apologized to the Jaguars and the city of Jacksonville.
After being a full-time starter in his first three seasons with the Jags, he started only four games in 2012. And when he became a free agent at the end of that season, he chose to sign a two-year deal with the Broncos. Coincidentally, his former head coach, Jack Del Rio, is his defensive coordinator in Denver.
“He’s been tremendous,” Broncos coach John Fox said of Knighton, who has started every game this season. “ … Our strength staff had been with him in Jacksonville. So we had some pretty good insights on what kind of person and player he was. He’s been nothing but ‘A-plus’ for us since he’s been a Bronco.”
Knighton never got to experience a winning season in Jacksonville, and all that losing made him hungry — on the playing field. Armed with an infectious personality and killer instincts when it comes to stopping the run, Knighton is a trusted member of the Broncos’ defense.
“He took the D-line by storm and said, ‘You know what? I’ve got this,’” safety Mike Adams said, referring to Knighton’s improved play in the absence of defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson (injured reserve). “At times in the game, he’ll say, ‘Mike, don’t worry about nothing. Don’t worry about the run. Just stay back, take care of the pass and I’ll take care of the run.’”
Knighton’s next test will be his biggest: slowing down Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch. But Knighton’s not worried.
“Obviously, I think I can go out there and handle it all by myself, but we have to gang-tackle him,” he said.
Unlike last week, Knighton hasn’t been bombarded by requests to take it easy on his opponent. Instead, his family and friends have been preoccupied with a more pressing matter: securing Super Bowl tickets.
“A lot of requests,” he said. “But the good thing is that my mom is my ‘no’ person. Once you tell people ‘my mom is handling all the ticket stuff,’ they don’t even ask.”
Knighton has spent the past week preparing to play the biggest game of his career “in my backyard.” But returning to the tri-state area is both a blessing and a curse for this Bronco.
“If the game was in California — San Diego — then I probably wouldn’t have gotten as many hits on Facebook,” he said with a laugh. “ … But that’s not going to change me telling people no or my mom telling people no.”