KNOXVILLE (WATE) – As practice winds down on a Saturday afternoon in mid-May, Knoxville Knights founder and owner Greg Campbell pauses.
“The perception is a bunch of old guys out there trying to hit each other, and there are some teams like that,” Campbell admit. “But if you come to play us, you better know we’re coming to beat you.”
And for the better part of two decades, the Knoxville Knights have gathered to do just that. In early June, the semi-professional football team founded in 1996 will play for it’s fourth league championship. Though the leagues, teams, alignments and rosters shift frequently, one thing hasn’t.
“You know you got kids that come out of high school, might not be going to college, they can come out of school and still do what they love to do,” says head coach Eric Pinson.
After a decade coaching youth football, the local pastor caught wind of the Knights from his son, a linebacker on the team, and earlier this year signed on to help Campbell by taking over as head coach.
“Pshh.. it’s been an experience,” Pinson smiles. “At first, I didn’t think I could do it, because I was like.. phew gonna be coaching guys outta college, guys from UT.”
One of those guys is first year Knight Dennis Rogan. The former Fulton star and VFL cornerback never caught on in the NFL, but after playing indoor football with the Tri-Cities Fever in Washington state, Rogan’s found a new home field in his home town.
“That’s part of the reason why I went to Tennessee,” Rogan said. “To be able to be close to my family, and them get to watch me play… sharing what you love with those who you love, that’s what it’s all about.”
“We’ve got guys that come out here that don’t know other guys that might be from the other side of town that normally wouldn’t get along. But they get along here,” Pinson adds.
Unlike Rogan, Isaac Mueller was never recruited to play football, because he never played it. One of sixteen children, Mueller was homeschooled and began working daily when he was seven years old.
When a friend from the gym told him about the Knights, Mueller showed up for tryouts earlier this spring.
“When we did tryouts,” Pinson recalls, “He was so fast… I was wondering where he played football at.”
Mueller, Rogan and the rest of the Knights don’t earn a paycheck from their playing time, but that doesn’t stop them from enjoying the process and growing together.
“It doesn’t matter what your background is, or your home life,” Mueller says. “When you come out here, you’re building a family, and that’s exactly what it is, it’s a family.”
That newfound bond has helped him in his darkest days. In early March, his wife Kendra gave birth to Ilana, a baby girl. Complications during birth took her life after just eight days.
“We were just thrilled to have her for the eight days that we did. I thank God for giving us time with our child. We actually buried her on a Friday, and then we played a game the next day.”
Mueller was named an honorary captain for that game against the Tri-State Wolves, a 35-14 win for the Knights.
“They let me say a prayer for the team after the game. My teammates have just been a huge blessing to me,” he said.
“You know, when he’s got guys he hasn’t known for a long time, that’s rallying around him like his own family would… and he’s doing what he loves? It helps him get through it,” Pinson remarked.
In football, Mueller’s found solace. In him, the Knights have found fortitude.
“He uplifted a lot of the other guys, to be strong, like him.”
His adopted band of brothers have lifted him in his time of need, and it’s precisely that family that keeps Campbell and the Knights on the field, year after year.
“The game is just a game,” Campbell said. “You’ll have your ups and downs and wonder if you should keep doing this. But when you see the smiles, and the guys who live for this… it’s your family. And you keep going for your family, every day.”