Sometimes, Frank Knight plays ‘What If?’

What if he hadn’t played dodgeball in gym class his sophomore year of high school at Lynn (Mass.) Classical? What if the teacher hadn’t noticed Knight’s agility in the game? What if a new football coach at Lynn Classical Knight’s junior year hadn’t help turn a spark of interest Knight had in football into full blown passion for the game?

What If is not a game Frank Knight is fond of playing.

“That decision to play football in high school has led to where I am now,” Knight said. “Everything from that decision on has been a positive for me.”

On Wednesday, Knight, who retired as head football coach at Waterville Senior High School after the 2013 season, will be honored by the Maine Chapter of the National Football Foundation at its annual scholar-athlete banquet at Bowdoin College. Knight will receive the Contribution to Amateur Football Award, in recognition of his 30-plus years as a high school coach.

Knight’s life in football began quietly, in high school phys ed class. An overweight kid, Knight was playing dodgeball, and he was dominating.

“They couldn’t get me out. Even though I was a husky kid, I was quick. I was rolling and diving, showing some athletic ability for a big kid,” Knight said.

The teacher, Mel Palumbo, noticed. Hey Knight, he said, you play football? No, sir, Knight said.

“Well, I think you should think about it, Knight recalled Palumbo saying.

Knight went out for football as a junior, and new head coach Bill Wise put him on the line, at offensive and defensive tackle. When it came time for Knight to consider college, Wise recommended Knight to University of Maine coach Walt Abbott.

Maine had a reputation as a small and scrappy team, a team that turned undersized athletes into football players. Knight was 5-foot-10, 210 pounds, a perfect fit for the Black Bears. He played nose guard at Maine. As he finished his classwork, Knight joined Old Town as a student teacher and worked on Ed Paul’s coaching staff.

After graduating, Knight went home to Lynn, where he taught and coached junior high school football. Between college and his retirement last year, Knight sat out just one year of coaching, the 1983 season. Knight sold real estate instead.

“Interest rates were 18 percent. I didn’t sell a lot of houses,” Knight said.

Knight took the firefighter’s exam and was prepared to start that career when Maine Central Institute called. The school was looking for somebody to coach wrestling and football.

What if Knight had decided to stay in Massachusetts?

But Knight came back to Maine and spent two years at MCI. His UMaine football connections came through again. Waterville athletic director Paul Pooler called Abbott, looking for somebody who could join Bill Brown’s football staff. Somebody with head coaching potential.

Abbott recommended Knight. He arrived at Waterville in 1985, and has been there since. Knight succeeded Brown in 1990, and spent 24 years as the Purple Panthers’ head coach. Waterville won the Pine Tree Conference in 1993 and 1994. Knight won more than he lost.

Knight’s small office, tucked between the gymnasium and boys locker room at Waterville High, is a museum to his football life. His Maine helmet sits on a shelf next to a gold Lynn Classical helmet. Photos of his Waterville teams adorn the walls next to Black Bear posters and pennants. Knight reached into a desk drawer, and pulled out an unopened pack of trading cards featuring his 1994 Waterville team.

“I’ve got so many great memories,” Knight said.

Now a year removed from coaching, Knight knows stepping down was the right decision. His son, Luke, was graduating and moving on to Husson, and he wanted to be able to follow his son’s football career. Over the years, coaching football had become a year-round job. Summers were now spent in the weight room, at 7 on 7 games, or at camps.

“I miss the camaraderie with the coaches and the players. I don’t miss the seven days a week all summer, the meetings. I had no idea how busy I was until I stopped coaching. Hey, I’ve got some free time here,” Knight said. “I wanted to be 100 percent or not, and I just sensed that it was time for somebody younger with more energy to do it. I don’t want to go seven days a week all summer. I want to go hike Mount Katahdin. I want to enjoy Maine while I’m still healthy. I don’t want to get pushed out. I went out on my terms.”

Knight handed the Panthers over to Matt Gilley, one of his former players, and he continued to follow the team. Still teaching at Waterville, how could he not?

“It still would tug at me emotionally a little bit. Only one year removed from the program, I knew all those kids. I still took a lot of pride and interest in what they did,” Knight said. “Bill Brown left me a good team. I wanted to do the same for Matt Gilley.”

He did. Last fall, the Panthers went to their conference championship game for the third consecutive season.

Knight is 58, and has no plans to retire from teaching. If anything, not coaching has made him a better teacher, Knight thinks. He has more energy, and he loves being at Watervile High.

“There are great kids here. I think I’ll know when it’s time, and I’m not there yet,” Knight said.

Knight is a very deserving choice for the Contribution to Amateur Football Award. There’s no more playing ‘What If.’ Instead, Knight can look back and play What Was. He’ll win every time.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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