When the Giants were in training camp in August, Chase Blackburn was hoping for an invitation to rejoin the team he had led in special teams tackles each of the previous six seasons.
"By the time my agent called," Blackburn said this week, "they said no more roster spots were available."
When the Giants were playing the first half of their schedule in September and October, Blackburn was at his home Dublin, Ohio with his wife, Megan – who was eight months pregnant – and son Landyn.
"When I got up I'd give Landyn breakfast," Blackburn said. "Then I'd go to the Dublin Rec Center and work out. I'd lift weights. Twice a week I would do speed work on the track upstairs, And then I'd do long distance work. One day speed work, one day long distance on the track. And then two days on the field. I'd do my backpedals, weaves, and drops, and I did punt protections, and full covers, and kickoff, basically kickoff, full-cover kickoffs, making moves, and breaking down for tackles. Just trying to do football work, really. If it was field work day I would go to the park, later during Landon's nap. I'd come home and we'd have our normal day, and hang out. We were moving into the house so we had a lot of, moving furniture, painting rooms - we painted Landyn's room and Bentley's room."
When the Giants slogged through a challenging portion of their schedule that included a victory at New England and four consecutive losses, Blackburn was celebrating Bentley's Nov. 1 birth. He also wondered if he would get to wear an NFL uniform this season. Tryouts with Detroit, Cincinnati, St. Louis and the Giants – and phone inquiries from several other teams – had yielded no job.
"You never want to be unemployed, but it was good timing in my life," Blackburn said. "God made it right for us. The birth of our second son, I was able to help, to get the cribs together, the bedrooms painted, moved into the house, clear up the yard work. Any time it could have happened, it was the best opportunity for me to get things right at home. It worked out. God always has a plan and it worked out right."
That might be the season's biggest understatement. After the leaves were raked, the paint was dry and Bentley was snug in his crib, Blackburn began the process of becoming a permanent substitute at Sells Middle school in Dublin. The former math education major at the University of Akron always figured he'd be a teacher and coach after he was finished playing football. But Blackburn had to postpone his classroom work because it turns out his football career was still alive and well.
On Nov. 29, a day after a lopsided loss in New Orleans n which rookie linebacker Mark Herz,ich sustained an ankle injury, the Giants called. Blackburn had kept a bag packed and ready to go the entire season. He flew to New Jersey that night and practiced the next day.
"I was talking the principal (Rich Baird) there," Blackburn said. "He's one of my old coaches, and he's the principal there now. And we were talking about trying to get me to apply for the permanent sub job and what I would need to do afterward to get my teaching certificate and everything like that. Then I got called here, and said it's going to have to wait."
The turn of events was fortuitous for both Blackburn and the Giants. Blackburn has since become one of the team's steadiest defensive players and has played an influential role in the team's advancement to the NFC Divisional Playoff Game Sunday against the defending champion Green Bay Packers in Lambeau Field. Last week, Blackburn had a team high-tying nine tackles (five solo) and helped limit Atlanta to 64 rushing yards in the Giants' 24-21 wild card rout of the Falcons.
"He has been tremendous," linebacker Michael Boley said. "It shows the dedication that some people put into the game. A lot of people who had been sitting at home for four months and hadn't got picked up, it would be disheartening. But for Chase, from day one when he stepped back on the practice field, he was all out. He was flying around, he was right back in the mix of things. For him to step in and play the way he has played has been great."
Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell expressed a similar sentiment about Blackburn's return.
"Chase Blackburn has been a tremendous welcome coming back to our squad and being able to communicate with our guys and get on the same page with our guys," Fewell said. "He's played physical, he's played well, and he has a great voice. I always talk about how Jon Goff had a good voice. When Chase shouts a command, everybody hears it. He has a great voice for our defense also."
Since walking back into the locker room Blackburn has been happier than a five-year-old with a room full of toys on Christmas morning.
"If the call didn't come this year I was hoping to get into a camp next year," Blackburn said. "Really, that's what I was looking for. I'm just glad it came and I'm glad it came here."
It's almost shocking to think that Blackburn sat home for four months before getting a second chance with the Giants. But his career has always been an uphill journey.
Although he played in 45 games and had almost 300 tackles at Akron, Blackburn wasn't drafted. He wasn't signed by the Giants in 2005 until June 21, the time of year when teams are usually doing little more than adding bodies for training camp.
Despite missing the offseason program and minicamps, Blackburn impressed the coaches immediately in training camp that summer. He played well in the preseason and made the roster. As a rookie he played in 14 games and led the Giants with a career-high 22 tackles.
Each year he'd arrive at camp with the attitude that he was still the rookie free agent that had to overachieve to make the team. Each year he made the roster and was a special teams standout. Some seasons, Blackburn would play more defense than others. He started eight games in 2008 and nine in 2009. Blackburn could play all three linebacker positions. He was a smart, opportunistic player. Blackburn was so respected by his teammates, they voted him the special teams captain in 2010.
But last April, the Giants drafted two linebackers in Greg Jones and Jacquian Williams. When the lockout ended, they signed two more free agents Herzlich and Spencer Paysinger. Blackburn was eager to return, but the Giants had no room at the inn. So Blackburn stayed at his Ohio home with his family, worked out daily and hoped to get a call to return to action. The Giants finally placed it on Nov. 29 and both he and the team couldn't be happier.
In his first game, just four days after his initial practice, Blackburn intercepted an Aaron Rodgers pass, which led to a Giants touchdown. In the final five regular season games, Blackburn had 21 defensive tackles (15 solo) and five unassisted special teams tackles. He has provided an invaluable boost and earned the further respect of his coaches and teammates by stepping back in and producing immediately.
"Chase is a studier," Fewell said. "He's a guy that takes notes when you're sitting and lecturing to the classroom. And everybody respects that. He asks great questions when we're in the meetings. And so, he brought credibility. He brought a voice that, like I can speak to Chase, Chase can speak to the defense, and we all spoke the same language. We misinterpret a couple things here and there, but everybody knew he was going to get it right. And he was going to work hard to get it right. So I think it settled us down a lot more. Instead of us being indecisive, we became decisive."
When Blackburn signed he said he expected to seamlessly step back into the defense and on special teams – and that's pretty much what happened.
"Obviously, there are some new faces from all the young guys and people that weren't here when I was here last year," he said. "The defense is very similar and the coaches, they expect me to do what I did. They expect me to contribute on special teams, they expect me to come in and play on defense, and to be a leader and be aggressive and be, communicate everything. It's not like they've asked me to do any more or any less. I feel like it has been pretty seamless."
It has been a whirlwind couple of months for Blackburn. He hasn't had time to reflect on it all. Megan and the boys have joined him in New Jersey. "We're in an apartment. They rented it out to us monthly, so we're good," he said. So after a long day of meetings, practice, lifting and studying, he has a full plate at home.
"I come here, do my work, do everything I can, then I go home and I still have a family," he said. "I have boys to take care of, my wife to take care of - I try to give her a break. It gets busy, but it's a good busy. I'll take busy. I'm not ready for the offseason."
Nor are the rest of the Giants. With Blackburn back in the lineup, they're looking to extend their season in Green Bay.
"I think every week I'm getting better," he said. "I'm feeling more comfortable. I'm just trying to do my best to help this team and continue to go. It's not about me doing whatever. I'm just trying to make this a better team and help them win."
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