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My 2014 Sportsman nominee: Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton

This essay is one of more than 20 nominations for SI's 2014 Sportsman of the Year. You can see all of this year's nominees here.

The NFL needs more Terrance Knightons, more of these men whose personalities are bigger than their frames -- which is saying something, considering Knighton clocks in at 6-foot-3 and 335 pounds.

In sports, personality is too often the province of the loudmouths, the most flamboyant men in locker rooms. It’s more about funny quips and outlandish boasts than it is about anything substantive. Personality in the NFL is Steve Smith ranting about blood and guts and goggles. It’s Peyton Manning reciting a joke he’s already rehearsed. It’s outlandish. It’s premeditated.

And then there is Knighton.

Knighton is one of those players, one of those men, who could so easily become a caricature of himself. He’s this giant, hulking mass, the shape of a mutant pear. He’s so large as to be almost cartoon-esque, like he was drawn up with a box of crayons to be this pancaking football machine. But to consider only his appearance, his exuberance, his play -- that would be to sell the man short. Because for all Knighton’s on-field success over the past season and a half since he arrived in Denver, that’s still not the defensive tackle’s most impressive trait. No, that honor goes to his brain, to his voice, because if anyone in the NFL is going to tell it like it is, it’s Terrance Knighton.

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On the morning of Sept. 8, just moments after TMZ released the elevator video of Ray Rice and his then-fiancée, Knighton took to Twitter. It was the most public forum he could have taken at 8:51 a.m. on a Monday, and if tweets can be shouted, his were.

"That man should be thrown out of the NFL and thrown into jail," Knighton posted. "Shame on those deciding his punishment."

He then followed with a string of tweets reinforcing that opinion:

“If there's anyway to open that case up and give this guy the punishment he deserves, it NEEDS to be done.”

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“As players we must speak up. Stand up for what's right. I don't give a damn who u are or how much money you make. No place for this.”

“This video makes me sick to my stomach.”

In hours and days that followed, a handful of players spoke out about what they’d seen on the tape, but Knighton’s message was the strongest by far. He’d chosen his words from the heart, without an ounce of regard for how the NFL might view them, which is a path that’s often difficult for players to take. Many of the other men who addressed the situation in interviews and on Twitter that week chose to condemn Rice’s actions without pointing the finger at the Ray Rice the man or questioning the league’s course of action. Not Knighton, though, and when he received Internet blowback for his words, he took to Twitter once more to state that no matter what, he would stand by his earlier messages.

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“My mom raised me that way,” Knighton, who grew up as the oldest of four boys with a father who was largely absent, says. “We have certain beliefs, and we feel like if something’s on your mind, you speak your mind. You should be respectful to authority, but you should speak your mind.”

Does it bother him that so few players do so, I ask him. No, he says. It’s each player’s prerogative to talk or not talk, to use his platform or hide behind it. But for Knighton, who was a third-round pick in 2009 who languished in Jacksonville for four years before finding the spotlight in Denver, his platform is just an extension of himself. He’s spontaneous, raw, the furthest thing from a PR construct. Ask him about the NFL’s policies, and he’ll rip the ones he dislikes. Ask him about Thursday night games, and he’ll tell you what a pain in the you-know-what they are. Ask him his favorite movies, and he’ll tell you, his face straight: “The Shawshank Redemption. And Matilda.”  

This season, Knighton was elected as one of the two Broncos defensive captains, alongside future Hall of Famer Demarcus Ware. It was his first such designation, and he wears it like a badge of honor. He double-checks meeting times to make sure he isn’t late. He signs every autograph he’s asked for. It’s a serious matter to him, leading this team, and he earned the role on the field as much as off it. Through the Broncos first five games in 2014, he was their best defensive tackle by a wide margin, and he’s become one of the better players in the game at his position -- and it wasn’t easy. This is a guy who fell in the draft because of weight concerns, who once wanted to play receiver despite a body that couldn’t possibly be stuffed into that mold. But Knighton doesn’t do molds. He’s a star, except he isn’t, not in the traditional sense. He’s a little too loud, not nearly glamorous enough, a bit of a misfit. But he shines.

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Too often, we want our sports stars to be perfect. We want them to be funny but appropriate, fierce on the field, soft off of it. We want them to do community service, but we also want them to party just a bit, to live the lives we imagine ourselves living were we to make millions of dollars a year. We want them to be fathers, mothers, family men and women, which is a notion that can be very much at odds with celebrity. Too often, a star becomes something packaged, marketed, plastic. Knighton is none of those things. When he was fined for what the NFL defines as a slur for a remark he made on the field in Week 6 against the Jets, he explained why he said the word and implicitly questioned the NFL’s seeming concern about its image over all else. He does not appeal. He does not backtrack. He is unapologetically Terrance Knighton: imperfect, inspirational, smart.

Knighton isn’t my nominee for Sportsman of the Year because he thought those things about Ray Rice. Plenty of other players thought the same. He’s my nominee because he said them, because he stood by them, because he stands by what he believes, period. Because he believes things in a climate where it’s easier to think nothing, question nothing, and trudge out to practice.