He was raised on the dairy farm that he was destined to one day inherit and raise his own family. But Gary Knight was a New Zealand dairy farmer who found his one great talent in life was to play rugby union as a front row forward. His earlier sporting prowess as a Commonwealth Games bronze medallist in wrestling served only as a preparation for his later fame, not as a goal in itself. Rugby Union became his passion which was fuelled by his selection for the provincial rugby side Manawatu and then the famous All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby side who serve as, dare I say, almost religious icons for their country’s men, women and children.
At the time Gary Knight’s situation became embedded in my memory, 1976, I was working for the co-operative which processed the milk that the Knight family farm provided and it was with some sort of fame-association that I felt distantly connected to him even though I never personally met him. Manawatu won the rugby challenge trophy, the Ranfurly Shield, in that year and defended it on 13 occasions before ever increasing fervour and sell-out crowds in Palmerston North. The role he played in these Manawatu games led to his selection in the All Blacks in 1977 and the various international matches played by the All Blacks over the next ten years added to the considerable time that Gary had to spend away from the farm. 1976 also saw the foundation of the National Provincial Competition meaning even more rugby games that Gary was required for.
It became common knowledge at the co-operative that if it were not for the involvement of his extended family the Knight farm could not have survived Gary’s continual absence following his rugby passion. The milking requirements of cows take no account of mere sporting events. And the Knight farm was to be Gary’s future when the inevitable onset of age would not allow him to continue this pursuit of his special talent for playing rugby. Rugby Union at that time was a bastion of amateurism in sport and I doubt that Gary received any significant income other than expenses from all these years of sport. Yet the sporting public in New Zealand paid a fee every time they went through the gates to see Gary play. The TV and radio broadcasters made a lot of money from advertising during their broadcasts of Gary playing. Not one cent of these millions made its way down the chain into Gary’s bank account. The farm was his only income stream and that survived only by the selfless efforts of his family.
The imbalance of this struck me as just plain wrong at the time and has stayed with me as a core belief all these years. I think it is wonderful that there is now a balance where those of us in the sporting public provide the means in many sports to support people like Gary. People who are now able to capitalise on that special talent to fund their life after sport when that personal gift wanes. In return we are entertained by these very unique skills reaching their utmost expression in the sports we love.
It is a pity that Gary’s talent blossomed in an earlier age where this was not possible. Thank you Gary for those special years and their lesson for me.