Chase Blackburn always had a bag packed. Just because the New York Giants no longer wanted him didn't mean no other team would. For three months, he kept the suitcase by the door.
It's no secret that the NFL is a cold blooded business. Camouflaged by fun and glory, the chill can be hard to recognize. But players come and go, even as they believe their careers are just beginning to bloom. The great Paul Brown once referred to professional football players as "interchangeable drill bits."
That makes Blackburn's story all the more rare and inspiring. Players do get second chances. Those considered extremely skilled get more than one. Not many, though, rise from their couches in December to become the starting middle linebacker on a Super Bowl team, as Blackburn has this season.
"Perseverance is one of the greatest qualities you can have," Blackburn said in Indianapolis on Tuesday night.
Here's the abridged version of how Blackburn arrived in Indy this week, preparing to face the New England Bradys.
Six-year free agent after last season. Special teams captain for the Giants. Pro Bowl alternate. Backup linebacker, with 21 career starts. Assumed once the new labor deal was done, he'd be in for a nice payday. Assumed wrong.
The Giants called the day after the lockout ended: "We're looking to get younger at linebacker."
Younger? Blackburn was 28. Blackburn knew someone else would call. No one called.
He waited. Training camp, September, October, November. Tryouts in St. Louis, Detroit and Cincinnati. No contract. The only other phone calls were from former Giants teammates, who told him they can't believe he isn't working. He said he couldn't believe it either. By late October, he made initial plans to begin teaching high school math. He has a degree in secondary math education, but isn't certified to teach. He thinks about getting certified. He figures his NFL career could be over.
Meantime, the Giants are getting drilled, weekly. At one point, they're starting three rookie linebackers. Their defense is an open dam. In three consecutive midseason losses, they allow 93 points. Something has to give.
The Giants lose on a Monday night, 49-24, to New Orleans, to slip to 6-5. The next morning, Blackburn's phone rings in the basement rec room of his home in Dublin, Ohio. It's Kevin Abrams, the Giants assistant general manager.
"Are you in shape?" Abrams asked.
"We're going to sign you in the morning. Get the next flight out."
A bag by the door was already packed. The Giants signed Blackburn on Tuesday Nov. 29. He practiced the next day. He played that Sunday, against Green Bay, jumping in on the second series of downs. He intercepted Aaron Rodgers in the second quarter. He has started every game since. With Blackburn at middle linebacker, the Giants are 6-2.
In Indy this week, an obvious storyline has been the ability of the Giants defense to contain Tom Brady. No one would have guessed, two months ago, that we'd be talking about the Giants defense right now. Certainly, Blackburn would not have been part of that conversation.
"I haven't thought much about it," he said. "When you're playing, you're just thinking about the next game. But yeah, I mean if any other team had called -- and really, almost no one called -- I wouldn't be here now. It is amazing."
His career is a novel, complete with the requisite dramatic vicissitudes, loaded with the standard perseverance and heroic qualities. That he is in Indy now, two months removed from his couch on Thanksgiving, only validates the drama.
Blackburn has all the qualities a player in his situation needs. He always has. That's why he's practicing today. He's smart enough to understand the business of the game. As a rookie, "I was cheaper than somebody else and I could do things as well as he did," Blackburn said. "That's how I got my job."
Blackburn didn't pout when no team signed him last fall, even as he realized he was a useful player in the prime of his career. He stayed in shape.
First, it was with former Ohio State and current NFL players, in a gym in Columbus. When those players left for training camp, it was in a local fitness club. Then, it was at a park near his home, where Blackburn did what he could, by himself, to simulate game situations.
"I was optimistic," he said. "That's why I packed the suitcase. If someone called, I was ready to rock." He said when St. Louis called, he had 30 minutes to get to the airport. "If I hadn't made the flight, I'd have missed the workout." The Rams didn't sign him, but he'd given himself the chance.
In 2005, as an undrafted rookie out of Akron, Blackburn had to make himself useful and noticed, quickly. He devoured the Giants' playbook, showed he could play all three linebacker spots and made the team. He started two games in that '05 season. In his second start, against Washington, Blackburn intercepted a pass and ran 31 yards for a touchdown. Less than a quarter after that, he went helmet to helmet with Redskins tight end Chris Cooley.
Blackburn left the field on a cart, strapped to a board. "Some vertebrae herniations," he recalled Tuesday. He was in a neck brace for several weeks. And one step from the unemployment line. "[The Giants] didn't have any signing bonus money invested in me. They could wait and see if I could play," Blackburn said. Blackburn knew he was OK in training camp, when on his first live play, he met 270-pound running back Brandon Jacobs in the hole, and felt no pain.
He spent the next five years starring on special teams and filling in for injured linebackers. Just when Blackburn figured it was safe to assume he was a Giant, he wasn't. "I thought I'd made some headway in my career," he said. "Then the lockout ends and I find out I didn't do as much as I'd thought."
That seems ancient history now. It isn't that Blackburn doesn't grasp the fragile nature of his business. It's that he lives in the moment. Which, in his business, is the only sane way to live.
It's not coincidence that the Giants defense has improved since his return. As the middle linebacker, Blackburn gets the calls from defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. Just like a quarterback, Blackburn is charged with changing the defensive call when he sees what the offense is doing. That requires brains and experience, qualities he had over the players he replaced upon his December arrival.
"I'm vocal and I know the defense. I pride myself on making my calls decisive and quick, so everyone else can get lined up and play," Blackburn explained. "I study enough film so I'm always in position. Even if everyone's wrong, we're right. You can't have five people playing Cover 2 and six playing Cover 3."
That's a technical way of saying, if you're not all playing the same defense, you're going to get burned. "It's got to be second nature. You can't ponder it," said Blackburn. After the Giants loss to Washington left them at 7-7, Blackburn and a few other defensive players went to coordinator Perry Fewell, seeking more responsibility for adjusting the defense on the field. Fewell agreed.
"Putting more on us forced us to study more. We've responded and played better," Blackburn said.
On Sunday night, he'll be matching wits with Brady, who is among the wittiest in the history of the game. We'll all be talking about how the Giants defense has to be starry, if New York is to win its second Super Bowl in six years. In the middle of all the noise, literally, will be Chase Blackburn, a player nobody wanted nine weeks ago. The teaching career will have to wait.
Blackburn offered the simplest of messages to describe the last couple months. Because it's simple doesn't mean it's not pure. "Have faith in yourself," he said. "Never give up."