DMN: Football a piece of puzzle for TCU's Blake

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Lifelong Frog
May 25, 2007
Mineral Wells, Texas


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TCU defensive end Tommy Blake
has 20 career sacks, but he's out
of the lineup.

[SIZE=14pt]Football a piece of puzzle for TCU's Blake[/SIZE]

[SIZE=12pt]For TCU's Blake, football is just one part of life's complex puzzle[/SIZE]

By DAVID MOORE / The Dallas Morning News

ARANSAS PASS, Texas – It's easy to make assumptions about what has gone wrong. The portrait of a small-town athlete overwhelmed by attention is nothing new.

Tommy Blake isn't the first young man to shun expectations rather than embrace them. He's not the first person to question a future that shines so bright and seems so clear to everyone else.

Little is clear in the life of the TCU defensive end these days. From an incident with Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson that sparked Blake's departure in August to his current leave of absence, his saga defies a simple explanation.

An undisclosed medical condition is only part of the equation. A deeply religious person, Blake has talked to confidants about the ministry. Does he answer a call from God or the NFL?

And what if he decides to go into professional football? Blake was a solid first-day pick and possible first-rounder entering the season. Now, his case has raised red flags across the league and could cost him millions in lost draft position.

"I can tell you this much," Patterson said. "It doesn't have anything to do with substance abuse. It doesn't have anything to do with steroids. It doesn't have anything to do with not being a good person. Tommy Blake is a good person.

"Why has all this happened? Probably, if we all could figure that out, somebody would write a book on it and we wouldn't have the problems that we do."

Some of those closest to Blake would like to disclose what eats at him but won't. They refuse to betray his confidence.

Others have no idea why Blake will miss his third game of the young season when the Frogs play in Wyoming on Saturday. His status will be evaluated in the days after that game, and Patterson acknowledged he doesn't know if the star defensive end will play again for TCU.

A season of great promise has spiraled into uncertainty.

"We would rather not discuss this publicly," said Rochella Thomas, Blake's sister. "But we appreciate the prayers and the continued support of the community."

Pressure builds
Glen Hayes is more than Tommy Blake's basketball coach from high school. His son, Chris, is one of Blake's best friends from Aransas Pass, a community of just under 9,000 residents north of Corpus Christi on the Gulf Coast. Blake spent much of his spare time in the Hayes' home.

Hayes hasn't spoken to Blake in several months. But Blake's friends have told Hayes that "the pressure of being under a microscope" has shaken him.

Patterson began to notice a difference in March when Blake's name began to appear on preseason All-American teams and on watch lists for major individual awards. Blake got rid of his cellphone at one point because he grew weary of fielding calls from would-be agents and people he barely knew.

Training camp opened on a strong note. Patterson called Blake's first 11 practices unbelievable. A steady stream of pro scouts began to show up to watch the defensive end work.

Then something happened. Friends say Blake was embarrassed by something Patterson did or said in practice. They don't say the TCU coach was at fault. All they know is that Blake took it hard.

Patterson stressed that he and Blake have a strong relationship. The coach said he has sent text messages to the player nearly every evening during his medical leave of absence.

But Patterson concedes what happened in that practice upset Blake.

"For me," Patterson said, "it was just coaching."

Blake left the team Aug. 16 and returned to Aransas Pass. His sister Rochella drove him.

Two days later, Patterson and Mike Sinquefield, TCU's director of football operations, flew to South Texas. They met with Blake and Ernestine Chisholm, the maternal grandmother who raised Tommy. A family friend and J.D. Ramey, the pastor of the Antioch Baptist Church in Aransas Pass, were also at the meeting.

"My whole thing was to go down there and let him know I cared about him and this wasn't just about football," Patterson said.

Blake returned but missed the opener against Baylor for what Patterson called "a medical leave of absence." It was reported that he spent the days leading up to that game in an area hospital with an undisclosed illness. Blake played the next three games before he received his second medical leave of absence.

Pressure wasn't an issue in high school. Even though Blake rushed for more than 2,000 yards and played outside linebacker on the team's 3-3 stack defense, Arkansas was the only college that showed much interest during his senior season. Vanderbilt, Colorado and TCU came in after the fact.

Blake was easygoing and grounded. The first time TCU asked him to visit, he delayed the trip because there was a district game in basketball and he didn't want to abandon the team.

"He handled it all very well from what I remember," said Guy Grover, Blake's football coach for the athlete's final two years in high school. "He was always a level-headed, mature kid."

Grover is now the football coach a few miles north on State Highway 35 in Rockport. An undersized linebacker named Dat Nguyen played high school ball in Rockport before moving to Texas A&M and the Cowboys.

Blake is the best football prospect to come out of that part of the state since Nguyen.

"Sometimes I think he's afraid of it," said P.J. "Bootsie" Larsen, a former assistant coach at SMU who is now the head coach in Aransas Pass. "Some of them love attention, but Tommy has never been that type."

A higher calling
One of the first people Blake saw when he returned home in August was Larsen.

Aransas Pass was holding a scrimmage against Beeville. Blake walked up to his former assistant coach and wrapped him in a bear hug.

Larsen won't reveal everything Blake told him that day. But he did say that something inside of Blake "was bugging him real badly." Larsen said the pressure Blake has felt in recent months caused him to re-assess his future.

The two sat in Larsen's office and spoke for nearly 50 minutes.

"Tommy is a very strong Christian kid," Larsen said. "We talked long and hard about what his purpose in life could be. We talked about a lot of guys who had gone before him that had been examples like he is and his love for his God.

"We talked a little bit about being a shining star and what he could do to exhibit his faith on the football field."

Philadelphia's and Green Bay's Reggie White. The Cowboys' Bob Lilly. Glenn Glass, a wide receiver and cornerback with several teams in the 1960s. Larsen cited them as people of faith who spread the word by playing football instead of giving it up.

"As I talked to Tommy about that, I told him if you feel like you have a call, that can be one of the greatest pulpits in the world," Larsen said. "You are Billy Graham right there. You are a person who can have a great influence over a lot of people and their feelings.

"That can be your own pulpit if that's what you want."

Larsen encouraged Blake to tell Patterson everything he had told him. He told Blake he owed it to the coach. Larsen then called Patterson to let him know about the conversation and what was on Blake's mind.

Patterson never returned the call. But he was in Aransas Pass less than 24 hours later to meet with Blake.

"He's a very, very fine youngster," said Larsen, who hasn't spoken to Blake since that day in his office. "Whatever he does, I'm going to support him 100 percent. If he decides to give up football and go into preaching, I'll be at his first service. If he decides to finish out this year in football and do whatever it takes, I'll back him 100 percent."

Future clouded
Larsen watched Blake when TCU played Texas last month. The effort was there, but not the passion. Larsen didn't see the "spit and fire" he had come to associate with Blake on the field.

Patterson reached the same conclusion and believed Blake was performing at only 70 percent of his capacity. He sat down with Blake after the win over SMU, and the two talked about how the young man had seen no improvement on the field or with what he was wrestling in his personal life.

Both decided it would be best if Blake was granted another leave of absence.

"I put a two-week window on it," Patterson said. "It may be longer than that. It may be the rest of the season.

"I don't know that yet."

Blake is doing no conditioning work because, Patterson said, "We're trying to solve all of the other situations first." He's still attending class and spent last weekend with his sister and grandmother in Fort Worth. Patterson and Blake will meet next week to talk about what's next.

Back in Aransas Pass, friends and mentors hope for the best. Glen Hayes is confident Blake's faith will get him through and is thankful he's found a church home at The Potter's House. Larsen trusts that Blake will get the support he needs from the TCU coaching staff and others on campus.

"If the proper people up there will help Tommy and give him the guidance he needs and listen to him, listen to his problems," Larsen said, "he'll get through this and he'll be a better person because of it."

NFL scouts, meanwhile, have gone from wondering if Blake could move off the line and become an effective outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme to what in the world is going on.

Is it the pressure? What role does the medical condition play? How strong is his call to the ministry? Has he had second thoughts about fulfilling his grandmother's desire that he return to school for a final season?

Tommy Blake is the only person who can sort through these questions and find an answer.

"He's trying to find his way in life, what he wants to be and what he wants his calling to be," Patterson said. "Like a lot of kids, he's not sure what that's going to be.

"He's like I was when I was coming out of school, a little bit scared of what the world has to offer, because there's a whole bunch of it out there."

College: TCU
Position: Defensive end
Ht./wt.: 6-3, 252
Class: Senior
Age: 22
Hometown/high school: Aransas Pass
Notable: On this season's watch lists for Bronko Nagurski, Lott, Chuck Bednarik and Ted Hendricks awards. ... Has 20 career sacks at TCU. ... A unanimous first-team All-Mountain West Conference selection last season. ... As a senior at Aransas Pass High, named to Associated Press 3A All-State first team at running back.

TCU at Wyoming
1 p.m. Sat.
ESPN-FN 103.3, KTCU-FM 88.7
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