By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 5, 2007
The first question H.B. Blades almost always answers is about his last name and whether he is any relation to former NFL standouts Bennie Blades (his father) and Brian Blades (his uncle). The second most frequent question has to do with his size, with strangers often expressing disbelief that, at barely 5 feet 10, Blades was an all-American linebacker.
His name and height long have defined Blades, whose life has been framed by football, from his earliest memories tagging along to his father's games or practices to his most cherished days as a teenager hanging around the University of Miami Hurricanes when another uncle, Al Blades, starred there.
And now, just a few years after becoming a force for the University of Pittsburgh and a sixth-round draft pick of the Washington Redskins, Blades is in essence back where he started. His last name and size will be the first thing everyone notices, and Blades must prove himself yet again -- this time that he is worthy of an NFL roster spot.
Yesterday, as Blades, 22, practiced as a Redskin for the first time at rookie camp, one voice from his past resonated most deeply, as it likely will throughout his career, however long it turns out to be.
"When my Uncle Al died in a car accident my senior year in high school, that was toughest thing I've ever had to go through," Blades said. "When I'm out on the field it's basically like he is there with me. I know how much he believed in me when not too many people did at all. Coming out of high school, they said I'd be a special-teamer at best in college, and it's the same thing I hear now -- too small, not as fast as everybody else.
"But my uncle believed in me and told me I could accomplish anything as long as I believed in myself."
Al Blades was 26 when a car in which he was a passenger went off a bridge and into a canal in Miami in March 2003, killing the defensive back and leaving twin daughters behind.
For most of H.B. Blades's life, his grandparents raised him. He spent a few years with his father, in Detroit when he was a Pro Bowl safety with the Lions, and in Seattle. But most often he was in Florida, with his Uncle Al as his anchor. He would tag along during Al Blades's four years at Miami, looking up to other Hurricanes stars such as wide receiver Santana Moss, now Blades's teammate in Washington.
"They shared so many secrets and different ideas, being so close in age, that you don't share with parents," his father said. "My brother, he looked at H.B. as an equal instead of an uncle. It was like they were brothers.
"Al died at 26, he had just finished his second year with the 49ers, and you know he was gone too soon. That's why I want H.B. to understand that life is to be enjoyed right now, and you can't take anything for granted. If he is lucky enough to make that football team this year, then I want him to know that next year he has to leave everything he has on the field on every play again, because nothing is guaranteed."
Given his family history, H.B. Blades (the H.B. is short for Horatio Benedict), a three-time all-Big East performer, had no choice but to play full throttle.
"I've just always been into football, always loved it," Blades said. "When I went to practice with my dad I would always flip through his playbook. I was so interested in the game, and just not the physical part but the mental part -- the X's and O's -- and that's a big part of my game now because if you know where everything is supposed to be, and you know how to get there, that helps you play that much faster."
Bennie Blades first saw that mentality when his son was in middle school in Seattle, where he was outworking high school players. Even then he wasn't the quickest or the best player, but he was the hardest worker. At Pitt, his coaches were wowed by Blades's knowledge of the game.
"During his freshman camp we could tell he was special," said Curtis Bray, Blades's linebackers coach at Pitt his first three seasons. "Once he got on campus we kind of knew, because there were things we'd been trying to coach other kids for two or three years to get done, and he walked in and no matter what position -- outside or middle linebacker -- and he could do it after one or two reps."
Blades's leadership was unquestioned and his reputation among the Pitt coaches was unchallenged. If he had to wait more than a day or two to get his full film study and responsibilities for the upcoming game, he would "pout like a girl and get [mad] at you as a coach because you hadn't given him what he needed yet to be successful," said Pitt linebackers coach Paul Rhoades, the defensive coordinator for Blades's first three seasons. "He was a junkie for information. If something wasn't right, he was going to turn around and look you in the eye, and he would come in early to go over things or come in your office after practice and watch more tape."
Blades excelled on special teams, his Pitt coaches said, and is smart enough to be an on-field extension of Gregg Williams, the Redskins' assistant head coach-defense. "There are guys of his stature that have played in the league and been very successful," Redskins linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti said. "His height didn't really bother us."
But as a sixth-round pick, there will be few perks. The contract will be small, and the assurances of making the team few. But there is a lifetime of ingrained football knowledge to call upon, and a family tradition to uphold.
"It's definitely an honor to see another Blades make that leap into the NFL," said Blades's father, who played 10 seasons. "I know he can use that as a motivating factor, but I've told him that I don't want him to try to be better than me, just be the best that he can at whatever level that gets him to. If he becomes an eight- or nine-time all-pro, that's great, but I'll be happy for him regardless if he plays eight plays in the NFL. He's my son and I'll always love him."
Redskins Notes: The Redskins are working out four NFL veterans currently without contracts. Running back Derrick Blaylock is the most distinguished of the group. He played four years in Kansas City for associate head coach Al Saunders and has 10 touchdowns in 51 games. Running back Ran Carthon has played nine games for Indianapolis and Detroit, tight end Zach Hilton has been with the New York Jets and New Orleans Saints, and place kicker Kurt Smith was with the Saints last season. The team is taking a close look at running backs, as Clinton Portis perhaps will miss part of training camp recovering from multiple surgeries. "Certainly, I think somebody is going to get a chance there," Coach Joe Gibbs said. . . . Gibbs said the team has not considered signing free agent wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson. . . . Wide receiver Steven Harris, who spent last season on the practice squad, suffered a knee strain yesterday.