Pittsburgh LB H.B. Blades helped the North squad, coached by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' staff shut out the South in this year's Senior Bowl
The All-American Pitt linebacker has a Pro Bowler for a father (Bennie Blades) and a role model (Zach Thomas) but a desire to forge his own path to NFL success
(More than 320 standout college players put their skills on display at the NFL Scouting Combine in late February. On the weekend of April 28-29, the vast majority of those players will hear their names called in the 2007 NFL Draft. During the months of March and April, Buccaneers.com will take a closer look at some of those names from the combine, and the stories behind them in our "Road to the Draft" series. These features are not meant to pinpoint the very top prospects in the draft, nor to reflect the Buccaneers' opinions or draft strategies. Any mention of draft-board status or a player's strengths and weaknesses are from outside sources, not the team's own scouting work. Currently featured: Pittsburgh linebacker H.B. Blades.)
Most draftniks know that H.B. Blades, the All-America linebacker from the University of Pittsburgh, is the son of former NFL Pro Bowl safety Bennie Blades. What might not be immediately obvious from that little bit of information, though, is that H.B. is a junior.
Turns out, "Bennie" and "H.B." are two different generational takes on this bookish-sounding full name: Horatio Benedict. That's fitting, too, because while father and son share a genetic talent for the game, as well as a passion for delivering hard hits, H.B. has spun his career on a somewhat different path than the one his father followed.
"You see some similarities," said the introspective and engaging son. "We look the same pretty much. Our style of play is kind of similar; we're both very physical. My dad was a little more athletic than I was, that's why he played safety. He was a big guy, a physical guy, and I'm physical myself, even though I'm one of the smallest linebackers coming out this year."
The younger Blades doesn't shy away from that one significant difference…significant, at least, in the eyes of some scouts. At a little less than 5-11 and 236 pounds, Blades is considered a bit undersized for the inside linebacker position in the NFL, and that may keep him from coming off the draft board in the first few rounds this April. Bennie Blades had no such concerns as a 6-1 missile at safety, and he was drafted third overall by Detroit in 1988.
There are undersized prospects in the NFL Draft every year, of course, and Blades isn't even the shortest linebacker on the board this spring. That would probably be another big-time playmaker from Arkansas, the 5-8 Sam Olajubutu. Florida State's Buster Davis stands only 5-10 but is considered a solid first-day choice. Sometimes a lack of size does hamper a player's NFL chances; it wouldn't be an issue for scouts if it never came into play. On some occasions, however, it merely affects a player's draft status; once in the league, the prospect proves himself with his play and size ceases to be an issue.
Think Zach Thomas. The former Texas Tech star lasted until the fifth round in the 1996 draft but quickly developed into an NFL star despite his size (5-11, 228). He has been to more Pro Bowls – six – than any other defender in Miami Dolphins history.
Dave Wannstedt, Blades' coach at Pitt during the last two seasons, was the Dolphins' head coach from 2000-04, so he certainly had a perspective on the issue of undersized linebackers to share with the Panthers' leading tackler in each of the last three years.
"Coach Wannstedt told me not to stress about things that I have no control over," said Blades. "I can't control that I'm short. God made me to be this tall. This is what I am. But what I can control is how hard I work, how hard I play and the intensity that I bring to the defense and the team, the leadership I provide.
"It's something I can't control. I'm this size. Zach Thomas is around my size, London Fletcher is around my size, and those guys have been pretty successful and opened the doors for short linebackers like myself and Buster Davis to get a little bit more attention."
Thomas is a natural role model for Blades, who grew up in Broward County. It was a little bit of a surprise to the Blades family, in fact, that H.B. chose to leave South Florida to continue his football career. Bennie and two of his brothers, Brian and Alphonso, played at the University of Miami; Brian was a receiver with an NFL career that rivaled Bennie's, while Alphonso was a very important mentor in H.B.'s life. Alphonso's death in a car accident just a month after H.B. surprisingly committed to Pittsburgh was a staggering blow for the young player.
The younger Blades overcame that tragedy and quickly developed into one of the Panthers' best players, earning first-team all-conference honors three years in a row. He may not have followed his family's Hurricane tradition – another way in which his path diverged from his father's – but Blades has never regretted his choice.
"It wasn't a tough decision for me personally because, coming out, I just wanted to start a legacy on my own," he said. "My father and my uncle did a great job down at the University of Miami, building that program from the ground up, but I just wanted to start a name for myself. The University of Pittsburgh was the place for me because it fit my personality – blue-collar, bring a hard hat to work. That's me."
Indeed, scouts say Blades is an intelligent and disciplined defender who seeks out contact and was one of the most explosive tacklers in the nation. He also has tremendous instincts, giving him a quick first step and the ability to move laterally in order to make plays from sideline to sideline. If he can do those things at the next level, he will be doing a wonderful imitation of that "undersized" Dolphins linebacker.
"I watch a lot of film of Zach," said Blades. "I like the way he plays, his intensity and his heart. He takes on 350-pounders. He goes out there and works hard every week, plays banged-up and just leaves his heart out on the field. I've learned a lot from him just watching film, just picked up little things.
"My passion for the game just comes from love. I've been around the game my whole life, been in and out of locker rooms, seen players like Dan Morgan, Barry Sanders, the way they carry themselves. I just go out there and leave my heart on the field. I don't make complaints about how tall I am or how big I am, but I'm going to go in there and sacrifice my body for my teammates."
As many formative influences as Blades has had in his life – his father, his uncles, the grandparents who raised him, Wannstedt, former Pitt Head Coach Walt Harris, Thomas, Morgan, Sanders and dozens of other Hurricane and NFL players – he has a new figure in the role of motivator. Two figures actually, and neither has ever played football. Two little girls with pretty names.
Blades is the father of twin girls, two-year-olds named Lea and Takaia who, he says, are into everything, most especially his heart. As much passion as he's always had for the game, now he has a purpose, too.
"It makes it a lot more serious," he said of the intersection of football and fatherhood. "I've been playing this game since I was six years old, so the love has always been there. But when you're responsible for two other lives, it makes it that much bigger. And it makes it even that much more special when I can come up here and do things like this. Not too many people get a chance to do this. An opportunity to be financially stable [for my] family is going to help me out tremendously. It makes me work even harder."
Now when Bennie calls H.B., he rarely wants to hear about football. It's all about Lea and Takaia. There is sometimes a little advice about how to maintain his conditioning or what to do to impress NFL scouts, but most of the conversation is family business.
Not that Horatio Benedict Blades, Jr. needs a push to stay focused on football. That drive has always come from within; perhaps it's genetic, a compensation for the inch or two of height he didn't get from dad.
"I think it's just something you're born with," he said. "Some people have that desire, some people have that drive, some people have the heart to do whatever it takes, and some people just don't. It doesn't matter how big you are or not. That's something that's given to you. To me, that's a talent – how big your heart is."