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Reed Blankenship is Philly's real-life 'Rocky'
From Nick Saban's "slap in the face" to a tibia sticking out of his skin, the undrafted rookie safety has a story this entire city can love. Now, "Ghost" has one final scene to write.
Finally, it was time to meet the messiah himself.
That’s how Nick Saban is viewed in the state of Alabama. Reed Blankenship grew up in the heart of the bible belt — Lester, Ala., is a town pushing 200 residents — and the Crimson Tide playing in national championships is as guaranteed as Sunday morning’s eucharist. A press-conference podium might as well serve as an altar for this 5-foot-6 deity. Football itself transformed into a religious experience since he arrived as head coach.
“It’s Jesus,” Blankenship explains, “and then Nick Saban. That’s how everybody looks at it in Alabama.”
At a very young age, Blankenship chose to root for Alabama, not Auburn, and never missed a game. He vividly remembers playing catch with his Dad during halftime and “living and dying” by the outcome. List off a few names from his childhood — A.J. McCarron, Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon — and his face still glows. “Yes! Yes!” he says, before adding more legends. “Trent Richardson! Mark Ingram!” This was before he owned a cell phone, so Blankenship could not wait to rush back to school each Monday to talk trash to Auburn fans.
Lunchtime was the best. He’d post up and relive every touchdown.
So imagine Blankenship’s excitement level when Saban invited him to a summer camp before his senior year of high school. He was one of five or six high schoolers to receive this honor for this particular camp on Alabama’s practice fields. That is, each kid ripped through individual testing for the coaches — Blankenship was running in the 4.4’s all summer, too. And after joining the larger group for 7-on-7 and 1-on-1 drills — working out as a safety — it was time for the big moment. The chance for these invitees to meet the messiah. Alabama moved them to a separate field and Blankenship started to feel special.
I’m going to shake The Dude’s hand, he told himself. Blankenship was on site with Mom and Dad.
Saban approached Blankenship, shook his hand, shook his parents’ hands and… peace. That was it. He left. He could not have shown less interest if he tried. What stung most was that Saban immediately had a full-blown conversation with the high-school prospect right beside him.
“So I’m like, ‘OK. I’m not worth anything to you right now? Alright. Bet,’” Blankenship says. “It was a slap in the face. After that day, my interest in Alabama went straight down. It killed me, honestly.”
He couldn’t get any small talk out of the coach whatsoever. There was literally nothing discussed. Only a hello, a goodbye and a “we’ll be in contact” that clearly meant Reed wasn’t on Alabama’s radar.
“He might as well of slapped me in the face,” Blankenship adds. “I would much rather have that. Like c’mon, man.”
Thinking back, Blankenship cannot remember which prospect Saban preferred on this speed date. Mostly because it wasn’t the other high-schoolers he was concerned with at this point. His blood boiled. His anger rose. He was worried about one man and one man only: Saban. In that exact moment, a coach he had worshipped his entire childhood became a singular source of motivation.
“I was just staring him down through the back of his head honestly,” he says. “I was like, ‘I cannot believe you just did that.’”
It was at this precise moment that somewhere off in the distance the guitar riff to Eye of The Tiger began to strum.
Reed Blankenship is Philly’s own, real-life “Rocky.” On to Phoenix, the undrafted rookie safety is polishing off the first volume of what he hopes becomes a full-fledged anthology. This tale has everything that made Rocky Balboa. Humble roots. He baled hay through high school. An antagonist. Saban’s slight essentially sent Blankenship to his own gym for his own training montage. Adversity. In college, he broke his leg in grotesque fashion, and the aftermath was even worse. Blankenship spiraled into depression. An epic comeback. He has now reached the point of the movie we all love, his own final scene vs. Apollo Creed.
The 6-foot-1, 230-pounder is stepping into the Super Bowl LVII ring for the Philadelphia Eagles.
How he got to this point is turbulent, yet inspiring and best of all? Completely devoid of Hollywood hyperbole.
Blankenship made the team as an undrafted rookie in camp, was inactive for six of Philly’s first seven games, and then played a critical role down the stretch. When safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson went down, Blankenship stepped in. He started five games and earned himself a role in sub-packages. In the six games he played at least 70 percent of the snaps, Blankenship totaled 34 tackles, picked off a four-time MVP and won the hearts of all in the City of Brotherly Love.
A few nicknames have popped up on social media. It’s “Ghost” he loves most. Indeed, Blankenship is the rarest of rare species in the NFL wilderness as a — gasp! — Caucasian safety. There haven’t been many white defensive backs patrolling the secondary the last two decades, period. Blankenship knows this is a big reason why he’s always overlooked, and he loves it. He wants Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes to step up to the line of scrimmage Sunday night at State Farm Stadium, see No. 32 deep and send a wide receiver directly at him.
Fifty, sixty yards downtown.
Please. By all means.
“I don’t fear anything,” Blankenship says. “I’d much rather him do that.”
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Down on the farm
OK, perhaps we should cut Nick Saban a sliver of slack for not caring much about this tiny pocket of Alabama. The nearest Wal-Mart is 30 minutes in both directions. His parents and grandparents and great-grandparents all attended the same high school. While the U.S. census indicates there were 111 people living in Lester back in 2020, Blankenship believes the number is inching closer to 200.
Here, you literally know everyone on a first-name basis.
Baseball was his No. 1 sport growing up. Blankenship ripped through the summer circuit of travel and all-star teams so much that it felt like he lived on a diamond. That can wear a kid out, of course. By the time he was a sophomore in high school, though, Blankenship was burnt out. That’s when he started to embrace football — a sport he played in third grade but didn’t touch again until middle school. Even then? “I was terrible,” he explains. Mainly because Blankenship was so unbelievably skinny in seventh and eighth grade. His father, Troy, recommended taking his ninth-grade year off to bulk up before trying to play for the West Limestone H.S. team in Lester, but Blankenship got the itch while watching the school’s spring game.
He started at corner and receiver in ninth grade and became the starting quarterback midway through his sophomore year. Southern Miss was the first school to show interest because they were recruiting one of West Limestone’s offensive linemen. There were only 30 kids on the team, so Blankenship continued to do everything as a junior and senior. His numbers were bonkers: 3,192 rushing yards, 1,056 passing yards, 1,004 receiving yards, 46 total touchdowns on offense with 295 tackles and 10 interceptions on defense.
Yes, there were some genes at play. His father was always fast — he’d tell Reed his own coach used to call him the fastest white kid he’d ever seen. Grandma and Grandpa could fly, too.
But his secret? Farming.
Into his 10th, 11th and 12th grade years, Blankenship swapped out a baseball glove for bales of hay. After summer football workouts, a small group of players helped out at a local farm for a few extra bucks. The work was shameless. He’d manually lift up square hay bales and throw them onto a trailer attached to a tractor that crawled along row… to row… to row… to row. There was nothing complicated about this. One kid hurled a bale onto the trailer and another stacked ‘em. There’d typically be two teammates on each side throwing bales and each handled their own bales to speed up the process.
Nonetheless, they’d work until sundown.
“You’re just pouring sweat,” Blankenship says. “It taught you a little something.”
The full-body motion was a legitimate workout. Two ropes would be wrapped around the bale. With one fell swoop — “a weird motion,” he says — he’d grip the rope, snatch and toss the bale. If his arms were tired, he’d start using his legs. The bales weighed up to 75 pounds and, remember, this isn’t a finite set of 10 reps in a climate-controlled gym. He’s doing what felt like an infinite number of reps in the middle of a massive field.
With temps rising into the mid-90s. Right after lifting weights in the AM. At all of 170 pounds.
When your only shade is slipping inside the truck and that 5-minute breaker is only going to delay production.
Blankenship believes baling hay is why he’s so good at power cleans and, as all NFL players know, power cleans best simulate the sport inside the weight room. That explosive exertion of force — violently torquing up a barbell with plates stacked on each end from the floor to your chin — is most similar to what they encounter on gameday.
The work didn’t stop here. Blankenship also cleaned huge chicken houses. Not coops. Houses. He’d clear all the dust out with a bulky leaf blower attached to his back. He’d need to scrub all the chicken shit up, too. Worst of all? There always seemed to be many dead chickens to scoop up. Not a fun visual.
Manual labor has fueled so many of the NFL’s best. Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler once told me installing fences on a ranch in Briggsdale, Colorado was his edge. In “The Blood and Guts,” New England Patriots great Ben Coates explained how roofing turned him into such a beast at tight end. And not only did building decks make Andy Janovich as a fullback — he’s already back at it, working more hours now than he did in the NFL.
For Blankenship, this all undoubtedly laid a foundation of true grit.
“If you want to do anything in life, all it takes is a little bit of work,” Blankenship says. “I love football because I love how hard you have to work for it. It’s a very challenging thing, and I like putting my body on the line for it.”
He’s loyal. The two schools atop his college wish list were two schools that reached out early in recruiting: Middle Tennessee State and Troy. Power 5 colleges Wake Forest, Minnesota and Illinois got around to offering scholarships. Tulane and Eastern Carolina, too. But Blankenship liked the idea of playing right away and the urge to dominate on Saturdays was palpable after that summer visit to Tuscaloosa.
Both parents received the same hasty handshake from Saban and, on the four-hour drive home, Dad tried to keep perspective. He told Reed to be thankful he received this invite. This wasn’t a make-or-break visit — he had offers. Yet, it was still impossible to escape a feeling of self-doubt. Blankenship began to ask himself, “Am I not good enough to play at the SEC level?”
The cold interaction, he admits, “crushed my dreams.” He felt “defeated.”
Once the initial sadness wore off, a different emotion overwhelmed him. He was pissed off.
“It definitely did motivate me,” Blankenship says, “a lot more than people think.”
Back home, Reed received a text from a graduate assistant at Alabama asking if he’d like to come back the following week for a game to talk about a “preferred walk-on” spot. Reminiscing about that text, a disgusted look flashes across Blankenship’s face. He calls this overture a “slap in the face,” too.
There’s a reason people love debating whether Alabama could beat an NFL team. No program in the country manufactures pro-ready prospects quite like this monster. And considering professional football isn’t exactly teeming with pale defensive backs, we cut to the chase. I ask Blankenship if Saban took one look at this white kid from freaking Lester at that summer camp and said No Thanks.
“I guess so. I was the only white guy in the group,” Blankenship says. “It usually happened like that. Everywhere I went, I was the only white guy, which didn’t bother me one bit.”
He does point out that, one decade prior, Vinnie Sunseri prowled Alabama’s secondary.
Either way, the dream died. Off to MT he went and MT told him he could play quarterback or wide receiver or safety. It was up to him. Blankenship chose safety and started through the 2017 and 2018 seasons. In 2019, he was off to a torrid pace as a junior when — in a split-second, the memory’s clear as day — true adversity struck. Game No. 7. About a minute left in the third quarter. Against North Texas in Denton, Texas.
Blankenship planted and a linebacker was, in his words, “molly-whopped” into his leg.
His life changed.
In a civil society, we typically do not see our bones. They’re safely beneath a thick layer of flesh, doing whatever bones do.
But after his leg snapped like a No. 2 pencil underneath the weight of a teammate, Reed Blankenship rolled over and the leg… “flopped.”
The tibia knifed right through the skin. On impact, his fibula had shifted over to where his tibia was and his tibia was now protruding out with blood dripping from the wound for good measure. The classic compound fracture. Luckily, he had his ankles taped. The bone broke right underneath the last strip of tape — it could’ve been much worse. As an exercise science major, Blankenship doesn’t get too squeamish around any gore. But his own gore? Yeah, this was creepy. And grisly. So grisly that the play-by-play man on the television broadcast tells viewers they will not be showing a replay.
In the moment, his foot felt “asleep.” It tingled. He accepted a half-dose of pain medication. And once he settled into the hospital? That’s when the pain kicked in. Here, he positions his hand at a 45-degree ankle. That’s how his lower leg was positioned within an aircast.
“Sideways,” he says. “Like, yeah, this thing’s messed up.”
Every time a player’s down like this, Blue Raiders head coach Rick Stockstill hopes it’s just a cramp. Every time, he views himself as a father figure for that player. Even as the fourth-longest tenured head coach in the country, Stockstill is not desensitized. He still gets choked up when he sees the pain in the eyes of Mom and Dad, and emotions were sky-high that day vs. North Texas. Making matters worse for all involved, Blankenship underwent surgery that night in Texas. The rest of the team needed to travel back to Tennessee. (“Not being able to see him was tough,” Stockstill says. “A tough deal.”) The rest of that 2019 season, Blankenship cried from both the pain of the break and the fact that he couldn’t help Middle Tennessee on the field.
He was already a captain.
It broke his heart that he couldn’t do anything. He felt “helpless.”
Somehow, his plight only got worse. Right when Blankenship started to jog in March 2020 — and headed home for spring break — the coronavirus ripped through the country. Blankenship tried doing exercises on his own, but it wasn’t anything like the treatment he would’ve received from an actual training staff. He needed to turn that jog into a run all on his own. Into the summer, players were finally permitted to return. Blankenship started lifting weights and using his leg more. And that’s when the infection spread like wildfire. Teammates started testing positive for Covid-19 left and right. Blankenship never tested positive but his roommates did, so he was caged inside his room for a 42-day period on the cusp of the 2020 season.
“That killed me again,” he says.
Oddly enough, his roommates never even got sick. Blankenship thinks now those tests might’ve been faulty.
All he could do was play Call of Duty. No lifting, no running, no rehab. Blankenship considered opting out of the 2020 season. If anyone should’ve hit pause, it was him. It was someone recovering from such a catastrophic injury surgery. Calling himself a “hardheaded guy who loves football,” he decided to play. He didn’t want to let his teammates down. All summer, the Blue Raiders had planned to face Duke in the season opener… and then the ACC shut down. They scrambled to land a date with Troy… and then this matchup was nixed. And after spending so much time gameplanning for these two spread offenses that go four wide, Middle Tennessee State ended up securing Army for its season opener. A team that throws twice a game.
Players had all of one week to prep for the school’s triple-option offense. Blankenship? He didn’t even strap on the pads to practice before his first collegiate game back. He geared up for this wonky, bludgeoning scheme on Zoom.
“I’m thinking, ‘There’s no way I can go out there and play all these dudes who’ve been at West Point this whole time.’ … I just got out of quarantine two days ago and I’m playing against them. I’m like, ‘Geez, what am I doing man?’ It didn’t feel right to be out there.”
Army predictably steamrolled the Blue Raiders, 42-0, with 340 rushing yards on 62 attempts. The opener set a terrible tone for a terrible season. There’s no hiding in coverage vs. Army. On a leg still recovering, Blankenship was right in the muck. He tried not to think about the injury but couldn’t shut off the voice in his head telling him, “Don’t do what you used to” and he fought this voice all fall.
“That 2020 season for me was awful,” he says. “I couldn’t find myself. Mentally, I would say I was depressed.”
Because not only was his team losing games. This was right when NFL scouts were checking in on Reed Blankenship as a prospect and he wasn’t himself. The tape revealed a pedestrian safety from a pedestrian conference. During 1-on-1 meetings, Blankenship would flat-out tell his coach that he was “pissing away” his football career.
“I honestly thought I screwed myself for playing that year,” Blankenship says. “I was like, ‘Did I screw my whole football career up just by playing? By showing everybody I suck?’”
His leg continued to hurt. He had issues with his muscles — they were constantly knotted up. Blankenship needed Toradol pills and/or ultra-strong ibuprofen to get through the weekend. He sure wishes he was allowed to take the more powerful Toradol injection. Blankenship got jabbed once in 2018 and, like magic, couldn’t feel a damn thing. Too many shots of Toradol, however, could’ve done long-term damage to his body.
The depression only deepened. Especially when his grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer and he couldn’t even see her. She passed away.
“It felt like everything caved in at once,” Blankenship says. “The night time was the worst, when I was by myself. A lot of thoughts going through your head: How am I going to recover from this? You’re telling yourself during the day, doing treatment, ‘I’m fixing to be good!’ I can make it out of this fine!’ Then, you’re home by yourself and it’s like, ‘What’s this voice in my head that keeps telling me, ‘You’re not going to be like you used to be. You’re not going to be able to play like you used to.’ It sucked. It was miserable.”
The stress in his mind. The pain in his leg. It all kept him awake until 3 or 4 a.m.
The best way to explain the feeling? Voices legitimately screaming in his head.
“What if this happens?!” Blankenship points to one side of his head.
“What if this happens?!” Blankenship points to other side of his head.
“I’m like, ‘Man, I’ve never been through something like this before. What am I doing? I thought I was mentally strong.”
He never sought the advice of a sports psychologist or therapist. Relying on his parents helped. They lived a short 90 minutes away. Friends helped, too.
Mercifully, the 2020 season finally ended. Middle Tennessee went 3-6 with most NFL scouts backing off of Reed Blankenship for good then. They saw no reason to waste any more of their valuable scouting hours in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Rocky was officially sprawled on the canvas with the count at “Seven! Eight! Nine!” He knew 2021 was his last chance. His only chance.
If Reed Blankenship wanted to play in the NFL, he needed to reprove himself.
And he lifted himself up.
The silver lining all along was the fact that he never hid from that Texas Tibia Massacre.
Blankenship watched the replay of his leg snapping. Repeatedly. He needed to know this was a freak accident, and not something bound to happen again because he always played with untamed abandon. He’s a safety who first made his mark at Middle Tennessee by torpedoing his entire body into harm’s way.
And, no, this isn’t normal. Countless athletes who’ve suffered compound fractures refuse to relive their trauma. Former NBA point guard Shaun Livingston once tore all the ligaments in his knee in a spill so violent that amputation was a real possibility. Several years later, Livingston still hadn’t seen a replay. You can’t blame him. The grainy YouTube clip with 3.1 million views even comes with a warning.
“I don’t know what that makes me,” says Blankenship, smiling, “if I’m sick in the head a little bit. No, I wanted to see it. Stuff like this doesn’t happen all the time but you can’t let that stop you from being who you are. Because I like to run in the pile all the time. I’m trying to hit somebody when they’re going down. That’s sort of rough. The harder you play, the less something like that’s going to happen. I go with that motto.”
Into 2021 — his do-or-die season — he told those voices in his head to shut the hell up.
A full offseason of training and lifts and running turned Blankenship into the player he’s always been, even if the NFL wasn’t paying much attention. In 2021, the safety finished with a team-high 110 tackles (10 for loss) with nine pass breakups, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
He had a thrilling 90-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown against Marshall.
He threw his body at the legs of receivers without any hesitation.
He was around the ball, all game long.
“I showed that I was back,” Blankenship says. “I know it took a year. I showed I was still physical, I was still going to run and make a tackle wherever it is. Put my body on the line.”
Stockstill believes Blankenship is being too hard on himself and that the safety never stopped being an elite athlete.
Still, he did see a defensive back who played “free-er,” and a human being who was in a better place mentally.
“He was able to get back to who he is,” Stockstill says. “He didn’t worry about his leg. He trained. He didn’t have to worry about it being sore today and taking tomorrow off. He got to being who he is, who he was. All the other outside stuff in the world with Covid was in the rearview mirror. We got back to football being fun again. Loving what he was doing.”
Murfreesboro isn’t a tumbleweed college town. This is where arguably the NFL’s best playmaking safety honed his craft. The Tennessee Titans’ two-time All Pro, Kevin Byard, is a survivor with his own compelling rise and he still makes a point to visit campus for games. Blankenship got to know him well. (“Watching his film,” he adds, “is crazy.”) Stockstill knows elite safety play. Back to his days at Clemson in the 1990s, he recruited Brian Dawkins, a headhunting Hall of Famer who’s one of the most beloved players in Eagles history.
Stockstill still loves telling Dawkins stories to all of his players. “Dawk” was relentless.
Where he lived then, Stockstill had to drive past the practice fields to go home and he’d always see Dawkins out there backpedaling or perfecting tackling angles on Saturday, on Sunday, on days he should’ve been throwing drinks back as a red-blooded college student. Stockstill once gave Dawkins a key to the weight room and told him not to tell anyone where he got it. “If somebody comes in here,” he told Dawkins, “just say it was unlocked.” Dawkins proceeded to live with the free weights and power racks. He put on 20 pounds of muscle, while shaving his 40 time from 4.6 to 4.4.
“How hard Reed worked,” Stockstill says, “is very comparable to how hard Dawk worked.”
The scouts that did reach out? He promised Blankenship would find a way to make their team.
It’s not the 90-yarder that the head coach cherishes most from the 2021 season. Rather, when he was able to hug Blankenship after Middle Tennessee beat Florida Atlantic, 27-17, in the final game of the season to become bowl eligible. And then when he embraced him again when the Blue Raiders took down Toledo, 31-24, in the Bahamas Bowl.
“Because you’re embracing somebody you know has given you everything he’s got,” Stockstill says. “You’ve been with him through the highs and lows of his career.”
As the seventh round neared its end in the 2022 NFL Draft, agent Tony Bonagura told Blankenship he’d be on an NFL roster whether he was drafted or not. Thirty minutes later, Bonagura said the Eagles wanted him. Arizona was also interested but there was a real opportunity to compete and play in Philly. Right in the same defensive backfield — minefield? — Dawkins once roamed, owned and maimed trespassers.
If his margin for error was microscopic that final season at Middle Tennessee, it was even smaller now.
White undrafted safeties typically do not have high ceilings in professional football.
“I guess we’re stereotypical slow, can’t really do anything,” he says. “We’re just shooters.”
He had a month to prove he was something more than a camp body and, as a shooter of a safety, it’s hard to get noticed in a modern training camp practice. Teams hardly hit in an effort to prevent injuries. Quickly, Blankenship realized his entire life had led to this point: The bales of hay. Nick Saban. That tibia.
The pressure of the moment no longer spiked anxiety — it fueled him.
“I knew I was one of these guys who could be cut right now,” Blankenship says. “I knew if I didn’t work hard enough, if I didn’t show that I want to be here, they’d get rid of me in a heartbeat. I was going every day, just grinding it out. Staying out of the training room. Showing up to meetings. Getting extra meeting time. Just always showing my face around the facility. I guess they noticed. I was around the ball a lot. I’ve been preached to about it — if you’re around the ball every snap something good is going to happen.”
He forced a few turnovers in practice, put his raw physicality on display in the preseason and made the team.
Back in Tennessee, Stockstill knew Blankenship would never get beat turning the wrong way and that the Eagles would love this work ethic. He preaches to his upperclassmen that when you screw up at the collegiate level, you’ve got another year. Screw up in the pros? You’re cut. Blankenship might’ve started off as a cheap camp body, but he made himself indispensable to the coaching staff. Eagles defensive backs coach Dennard Wilson sure paid attention to the 2021 film — he was intrigued.
Once Wilson got Blankenship on the practice field, he realized this safety could move far better than he thought.
“And when the pads came on,” Wilson adds, “he became a different player. He was an aggressive player. I think it had to be around the first preseason game is when I realized the game wasn’t too big for him. He’s an aggressive playmaker. He actually has outstanding ball skills as well. One of Reed’s greatest attributes is that he’s extremely smart. He can see things happen before they happen. And it’s different for a guy being a rookie. I love that we have him and he stepped into a role.”
Inactive for most of two months, Blankenship introduced himself to a national audience with one play.
On Sunday Night Football, the Eagles hosted Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. In the second quarter, Philly held a 20-16 lead but the Packers closing in. The Eagles lined up in quarters coverage and, in retrospect, Blankenship admits he lined up deeper than usual. “I ain’t going to lie,” he adds. “There were some nerves.” With that extra space, Rodgers thought he could knife a ball to one of his receivers.
He was incorrect. In flew No. 32.
“It’s crazy,” he explains, “because it was just instincts. It wasn’t anything I saw really. Muscle memory and instincts took over.”
As Rodgers headed toward his sideline, he looked downright bewildered.
Meanwhile, all of Lester, Ala., went nuts. Blankenship’s Facebook account lit up with notifications because, well, a town like Lester is more Facebook-friendly than Instagram or Twitter. It’s an older audience. He lost track, but Blankenship estimates he received somewhere between 100 to 200 texts and Facebook comments.
“It didn’t stop. It continued to go that whole week. It was good to see. I’m really not used to my phone blowing up like that.”
A cult hero was born.
Many nicknames were shared inside the defensive backs meeting room.
The Mayo Missile. (He hates this one.)
Ed Reed Blankenship. (This one’s OK.)
Other names the coach cannot share publicly. And it was Dennard Wilson who bestowed “Ghost” upon Blankenship as far back as training camp. The rookie kept making plays and, one day during positional meetings, Wilson took one look at Blankenship and couldn’t help but think of the character Tommy Egan, played by actor Joseph Sikora, in the STARZ TV show, “Power Book II: Ghost.” (For Ozark-lovers, he also played Frank Cosgrove Jr.)
Players loved it. Blankenship loved it. The moniker stuck.
Blankenship takes no racial offense. The more the other defensive backs, all of which are African-American, called him “Ghost,” the more he loved it.
“Some people are like, ‘What does that mean?’” Blankenship says. “And I’m like, ‘What do you mean ‘what does it mean?’ Just think a little bit.”
There is an element of deception to Blankenship’s game. To the extreme, another farmhand from another small town experienced this effect. As his star began to rise in 2011, wide receiver Jordy Nelson believed he was using racial bias to his advantage. He said then that it allowed him to sneak up on unsuspecting cornerbacks. Nelson routinely accelerated past DBs in catching 68 passes for 1,263 yards with 15 touchdowns on a 15-1 team that season.
Blankenship’s NFL career is young, but he’s seeing the same look in opponents’ eyes.
“I feel like sometimes they see me and say, ‘Nah, he’s whatever. He doesn’t play much,’” the safety says. “But then they see me out there and go, ‘He’s actually part of their defense a lot.’ Yeah, I think there is some type of deception. Which I love. I don’t care when people doubt me a little bit.
“I love when people doubt me. It gives me a source of motivation.”
With the Eagles secondary back to full strength, “Ghost” is preparing to play on the Eagles’ special teams units and enter the game when Philly turns to its dime package. Obviously, that’s a package the defense will need against the odds-on MVP. And if a starter goes down, he’ll be the next man in.
As he walked into the The Linc for the NFC Championship, Blankenship rocked a black Dawkins jersey. A sight that made Stockstill proud. He was sure to text Reed after the game. The safety then provided the exclamation point in the blowout win by walloping Deebo Samuel on a reverse, forcing a fumble, and recovering the fumble.
Wilson isn’t shy. He insists the “the sky’s the limit” for Blankenship.
“He takes everything serious,” the coach adds. “He has huge goals for himself. And he’s really prideful about everything that he does. If he makes a mistake, it hurts him. When you have a player who cares that much — who’s willing to do whatever it takes — no role is too big or too small for him.”
One of Blankenship’s best friends on the team is cornerback Josh Jobe, another undrafted rookie. Jobe went to ‘Bama and believes Blankenship certainly could’ve held his own in the SEC. He remembers the “Ghost” nickname also sticking because Blankenship is so sneaky in disguising his coverages. One practice particularly, quarterback Jalen Hurts couldn’t get a read on him. “A great guy,” Jobe says. “A great leader. And he has a great personality. Every day he comes into work and represents himself well.”
Honestly, Blankenship is still shocked he made the team. He knows he easily could be out of football trying to put that exercise science degree to use.
Cliches are cliché for a reason. Philly can relate to his Rocky-like trek to Phoenix.
“I love football,” he says. “I’ll do anything I can to continue it. I’ve always wanted to get paid for it, as a job, but besides that I never think about the pay. I just think about being able to play at the highest level possible. And now being able to play at the biggest stage in the NFL is just crazy. It’s so fun. I’m loving it. Even though there’s always stress — you’re always thinking about stuff — I’m loving it. I’m living the dream.”
Facebook accounts back in Lester are still abuzz.
Dad got into the habit of taking home Reed’s signed game towels to give away.
Blankenship even heard that his old elementary school is doing some sort of “Read Across America”-themed activity in his honor. Everyone’s going wild, and he doesn’t understand why friends keep talking to him differently. He tells everyone he’s the same Reed from high school. The same kid who grabs the controls for Call of Duty to relax. The same kid who loves the outdoors. He hikes. He fishes. He hunts. There hasn’t been time to post up in the woods with this whole football thing taking off, but Blankenship enjoys whitetail, turkey, dove and rabbit hunting. His dream is to take a duck hunting trip with his father one day.
Reed Blankenship calls himself “a simple guy living in America.” He hasn’t bought anything substantial with his rookie contract yet, though plans to purchase a truck.
“I haven’t changed,” he says. “I guess it’s seeing all this hard work I put in do something for me.”
That work has led him to Patrick Mahomes. To the Kansas City Chiefs. To the opportunity at immortality this Sunday night. Wilson knows the undrafted rookie would love it if the Chiefs quarterback targeted him on a deep route. Wilson assures Ghost isn’t afraid of anything.
And when he does break up that pass or deliver a big hit, Blankenship knows Nick Saban will be watching.
“I’m going to have to give him a salute or something when the camera gets on me.”
He laughs with a literal military-style salute.
“Just know,” he adds, “that it’s for him.”
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