SUDDEN SUCCESS JEFF BLAKE WAS ON THE BRINK OF NFL EXTINCTION WHEN THE BENGALS CALLED; JUST LOOK AT HIM NOW

July 31, 1996

Wekiwa Springs looks like nature's perfect swimming pool. Framed
by thick trees and lush grass, filled with crystal-clear
springwater and domed by central Florida's rich blue sky, it has
been a summertime oasis for Orlando residents since the turn of
the century. Forty-two million gallons of springwater spout from
a T-shaped fissure in the bottom of the tiny lake every day. The
deck on the west bank is always bathed in sunlight. And the
basin is carved into the landscape in a way that naturally
carries noise from the lake out over the rest of the park. This
is how, on July 5, 1976, five-year-old Jeff Blake knew to drop
what he was doing at a nearby playground and run to the water's
edge. He could hear his mother drowning.

Peggy Blake, 26, had jumped in to save her youngest sister,
Deborah, from drowning. She managed to pull her 17-year-old
sibling safely to shore, but in the process Peggy's lungs filled
with water. She collapsed near the feet of her only child.
Several hours later, after Emory Blake had returned from the
hospital emergency room, he found his son standing alone in a
cousin's living room still hugging the white robe and black
sandals his mother had worn to Wekiwa Springs.

"Jeff, your momma's gone," the father said, crouching down and
placing his hands on his son's shoulders. "It's just you and me
now. But we're going to be O.K. We're going to get through this
together."

The next week Emory, a slotback for the Canadian Football
League's Toronto Argonauts, canceled his NFL tryout with the
Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A few weeks later he took a job as a
physical education teacher and coach in the Sanford, Fla.,
school system so that he and his son could battle life side by
side. It was a union that would ultimately lead to the son's
becoming the NFL's premier young quarterback.

When the father was named pastor of Progress Missionary Baptist
Church, the son started singing in the choir. When the father
played a year of semipro football with the Jacksonville
Firebirds, the son was the ball boy. When the father coached the
Seminole High football team, the son helped out on the sidelines
until he was old enough to play. When one's spirit waned, the
other was there to carry him along.

While riding a motor scooter in the 10th grade, Jeff was struck
by a drunk driver. His right fibula was shattered so severely
it required a 12-inch steel rod, 47 stitches, a month of
traction and a year off from football to heal. From his hospital
bed Jeff, who had also broken his throwing arm in the accident,
told his father that his mother must have been looking out for
him or else he would be dead. "Whatever I do from now on," he
promised, "I'm going to do it to honor her."

Blake went on to set 32 school records at East Carolina. As a
senior he led the Pirates to a No. 9 ranking and an 11-1 record
built on five fourth-quarter comebacks, including a 37-34
victory over N.C. State in the 1992 Peach Bowl. A month later at
the NFL combine, he threw an 81-yard bomb, bench-pressed 310
pounds and ran a 4.5 40. Despite the impressive numbers, Blake
wasn't selected until the sixth round, by the New York Jets,
behind eight other quarterbacks. "You are being delayed," the
father told the son, "but you won't be denied."

After two seasons on the Jets' roster, Blake was cut in August
1994 in favor of rookie Glenn Foley. He was contemplating a
sports-marketing job at Walt Disney World when the Cincinnati
Bengals called to offer him their third-QB slot. When the
quarterbacks ahead of him on the depth chart, David Klingler and
Donald Hollas, both went down with injuries at midseason, Blake
was pressed into service, making his Bengals debut on Oct. 30,
1994, against the Dallas Cowboys. In his first pro start he
threw for 243 yards and two touchdowns as lowly Cincinnati
nearly knocked off the world champion Cowboys, 23-20. "I guess
one team's garbage is another team's treasure," says Emory,
laughing. "How have the Jets done since they let Jeff go?"

Each time the Bengals scored that afternoon, Blake pointed both
index fingers toward the heavens, a ritual he repeats to this
day. "One for God and one for my mom," he says, looking skyward.
"Everybody has an angel over them looking out for them. My mom
is my angel."

The week after the Dallas game, Blake threw for 387 yards in a
20-17 overtime win at Seattle and was named AFC Offensive Player
of the Week. He followed that performance with 354 yards and
four touchdowns in a 34-31 win over the Houston Oilers the next
Sunday. Blake-mania engulfed the Queen City like a tidal wave
coming down the Ohio River. His number 8 jersey sold out in
local stores, and the Shake 'n Blake Bengals Song, a rap tune
written by a local judge, hit the airwaves. Blake--who was
working for the league minimum, or $1.54 million less than
Klingler--finished the 1994 season with an NFL-best eight
completions of 50 or more yards. "They should make a movie out
of this kid's life, it's so unique," says Bengals offensive
coordinator Bruce Coslet, who coached Blake in New York in 1992
and '93. "He just took one tiny opportunity, grabbed it by the
throat and choked the living s--- out of it. He lit up the
entire town, and we all sat around going, 'What the hell hit us?'"

Blake, who threw for 3,822 yards and an AFC-high 28 touchdowns
last season, was rewarded with a five-year, $13.1 million
contract last Oct. 3. Three months later he was named to his
first Pro Bowl. Even sweeter than his meteoric rise from scrub
to stud is the knowledge that the six-foot, 202-pound Blake is
helping to dispel the myth that an NFL quarterback must possess
three things for big-time success: impressive height, a
major-college pedigree and light skin pigmentation.

"Black quarterbacks are still stereotyped in the NFL," says
Blake, 25. "It's changing, but not fast enough for me. They've
been sticking it to us for a long time. The way things are in
the NFL, if I had stunk up the field against Dallas, I know I
wouldn't be in the league today. That's kind of scary, isn't it?
Thank God you cannot deny performance. Now all I can do is keep
throwing touchdowns. The better I get, the stupider this rule of
thumb looks."

When friends called to check out Blake's frame of mind before
the Dallas game, the new Bengals starter said, "I'm not nervous.
I'm ready. I've been preparing for this moment my whole life."
By the time he was 10, Blake could already throw a 50-yard
spiral. At age 12 he was changing plays in the huddle of his
peewee team. And as a freshman at Seminole High, he was calling
audibles at the line of scrimmage.

When he picked up a football as a kid, even just for fun, Jeff
knew he had to throw it correctly--feet squared to the
shoulders, arm tucked to the ear, ball released above the
head--or risk receiving a hard slap on the arm from his father,
who drilled him in the fundamentals. Blake first learned to toss
a football from his knees so that his throwing motion and
legwork would be independent of each other. These mechanics have
served him well: The high release negates his height
disadvantage; his solid footwork and uncanny ability to sense
pressure allow him to take flight from the Bengals' perpetually
collapsing pocket. Blake is also something of a perfectionist,
having refused game balls in the past because he had thrown an
interception.

During those first few hectic weeks after he was named
Cincinnati's starting quarterback, Blake and his wife, Lewanna,
who met as college sophomores, took solace in the routine they
had begun in his rookie season in New York. On Tuesday and
Wednesday nights they would put Emory, 4, and Torre, 2, to sleep
(their third child, Trey, was born last December), then lie in
bed and review the Bengals' game plan together. Lewanna would
call out a play; Jeff would respond with the correct offensive
formation and the possible defensive counter schemes or prepare
to be pelted with a pillow. "I know that Jeff thought a lot
about his mom during that time when he first got his big break
in the league," says Lewanna, sitting in the Blakes' new home in
Orlando. "We'd be sitting there at night reciting plays,
thinking about how incredible his rise was, and you could tell
it was like, I just wish my mom could see me now."

Lewanna then sets a recent photo of Peggy Blake's nine sisters
on the coffee table in front of her, pointing out Deborah, who
is now a juvenile counselor with a family of her own, thanks to
her rescue at Wekiwa Springs 20 years ago.

"I know Jeff's mother is watching him," Lewanna says. "And I
know she's smiling."

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [Jeff Blake preparing to pass football] COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Jeff's skills, which flourished in college but were obscured with the Jets, had been polished by Emory. [Jeff Blake with East Carolina University teammates] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT TRINGALI JR./SPORTSCHROME[See caption above--Jeff Blake in game as quarterback for New York Jets] COLOR PHOTO: BEN VAN HOOK [See caption above--Emory Blake and Jeff Blake]

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