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TCU's Tommy Blake ready to prove he can play in the NFL

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Posted: February 14, 2008

The sky is gray and forbidding, the rain cold and relentless. Days like this make it hard to smile, let alone chase fortune, fame and greatness. But on a late-January Friday in DeSoto, Texas, all those things are right inside this door. The place doesn't look like much from the outside; it's narrow and squat, and the only sign reads "Fitness Center." In truth, it doesn't look any better on the inside. But 225 pounds are on the bench. A trainer with awe-inspiring credentials is ready to rock and roll. Workout partners, including a Detroit Lions defensive end and a University of Texas safety, are bouncing on their toes, eager to get started.

Twenty-six days until the NFL Scouting Combine. All Tommy Blake has to do now, 10 days after his 23rd birthday, is walk through that door -- better yet, kick it down -- and grab hold of his future. His reputation. His new life. It's all waiting for him. Everybody here is waiting for him.

It's 1:30. The workout was called for 1:30, right? "We'll wait," the trainer says. And so we do. At 2:08, my cell phone rings. "We're rolling," says Blake's agent, a 31-year-old who struck out on his own in 2006 and is banking on the 6-3 defensive end from TCU, a 2007 preseason All-American, to be his first big-ticket client. But Fort Worth to DeSoto in this weather?

Who knows when they'll get here?

After all, Tommy Blake has been college football's mystery man since late last summer.

Exit, stage right

Where was Tommy Blake going? It was August 16, about halfway through a fall camp during which Blake, a fifth-year senior, had been, as expected, the best player on the field. He wasn't yet in peak shape -- he'd passed on many an unofficial offseason team workout led by his fellow seniors, rankling some of them -- but he was still 255 pounds of greased lightning coming off the edge. Scouts had been coming to TCU's practices in waves and leaving with notebooks filled with high first-round praise. But the day took a strange turn when Blake, known by fans and local media as one of the most pleasant and quotable Horned Frogs, began showing signs of anger. Coaches got on him, and Blake argued back. And then he simply walked off the practice field.

He called his sister, Rochella Thomas, who drove the 370 miles from their south Texas hometown of Aransas Pass and brought him back home. TCU coach Gary Patterson and Mike Sinquefield, the school's director of football operations, flew down on August 18 and persuaded Blake to return to campus and rejoin practice. "It was two-a-days," Patterson says. "Nobody was happy." But things only got worse back in Fort Worth.

Blake continued to exhibit disturbing, often combative behavior. "He was not the old Tommy," says Chase Ortiz, Blake's road roommate and the other half of what was expected to be the best defensive end tandem in college football. But neither Blake nor anyone else had a handle on what was happening. "Our morning meetings started off with, 'Here's the Tommy Blake report today,' " says a program insider. "To Gary's credit, he tried to hold the situation together the best he could."

TCU held Blake out of the season opener at Baylor with an undisclosed medical condition. He played, and not very well, in the next three games -- in hindsight, a mistake Patterson recognizes -- and then was given a medical leave of absence. Blatantly false rumors swirled: drug abuse, steroids use, legal troubles, even a decision by Blake, a devout Baptist, to enter the ministry. Reporters chasing Blake's story discovered his troubles were psychological in nature, but privacy laws prohibited anyone at TCU from speaking about his condition. Stories were written that mixed fact with fiction, driving Blake further inward and his family into a deep distrust of the media.

Blake returned to the field for the final four games of the regular season; he was overweight and at times visibly uninterested, and his draft stock plummeted. In December, as TCU prepared for its bowl game, a nervous Blake gave me his first interview in two months, declining to explain his absences but acknowledging he was in poor physical condition and not particularly enjoying football. "I kind of lost track of football for a little bit," he said. "I have to get my focus back. I've tried to play through it, but I have to handle my business." What business that was, he wouldn't say.

But late last month in Fort Worth, heeding the counsel of his agent, Reggie Rouzan, Blake went public for the first time about his mental illness, telling me -- though declining to discuss in depth -- that he is being treated, and medicated, for depression and social anxiety disorder. In Blake's words, "I still don't really want to talk about all that, but I have to. I feel fine now."

A hot spotlight

I was not the first person outside Blake's inner circle to hear firsthand about his condition. In the days leading up to the East-West Shrine Game on January 19 in Houston, Blake was grilled in private interviews by representatives of several NFL teams -- his first taste of what it will be like next week at the Combine in Indianapolis, where high-powered coaches from across the league will stare deep into his eyes and demand full disclosure.

The whole week in Houston was unpleasant. Blake weighed in at 287, roughly 30 pounds heavier than a variety of scouts agree he should play at.

According to one of them, Blake looked like an NFL star on one or two plays a day but otherwise was a nonfactor. The interviews, though, were the worst part. Back in December, Blake said the league's personnel people would "probably have to deal with me not telling them the whole thing." Rouzan made Blake understand how severely that would damage his draft standing. "I had to do it," Blake says. "It was a pressure situation."

You want pressure? Try 26 days until the Combine and at least as many pounds to lose, plus two-tenths of a second to shave off your 40-yard dash time and as many reps to gain as possible at 225 pounds on the bench. After a junior season in which he led the Mountain West Conference with 16 1/2 tackles for loss, Blake rose into the top five on some early 2008 draft boards and drew wide comparisons to Dwight Freeney for his burst off the ball and his straight-line speed. But that was when Blake, who had been timed in the high 4.4s as a high school running back, weighed 255. Today in DeSoto, less than a minute after meeting the man who will train him until the draft -- former 11-year NFL cornerback Rod Jones -- Blake is put on a scale. The number makes Jones and Rouzan look down and shake their heads: 293.

Rouzan breaks the silence with a shout: "Three and a half weeks! We're gonna do this!"

"No," says Jones, a nine-time NCAA track champion who was a first-rounder and the fastest player in the 1986 draft, running a 4.25 in the 40. "Two and a half weeks. We've got to give his muscles a chance to recover."

Turning to Blake, Jones says, "We've got a lot to do, man."

"We're gonna have to get it, huh?" Blake says.

Jones' face lights up: "Oh, we're gonna get it!"

Over the next hour, at this spartan gym owned by former competitive bodybuilder John McWilliams, Blake's chest muscles are abused as never before. He works in rotation with Lions practice squad defensive end Victor DeGrate, a 260-pound DeSoto native who, according to Jones, has gone from a 4.7 40 to a sub-4.5 under his tutelage the past two offseasons; Texas safety Erick Jackson, a Rouzan client and 2008 second-day draft hopeful; and two other players.

After two sets of 10 with 135 pounds to get loose, Blake does 21 reps at 225, with Jones spotting him, before racking the bar himself -- not exactly pushing his pecs to the limit. With no break, though, he must push up 135 as many times as possible, then do the same with just the 45-pound bar. When Blake is completely gassed, Jones says coolly, "Now get on the floor and do 25."

Push-ups are the least of Blake's worries.

"Push-ups?" Blake gasps.

"Keep your knees on the floor if you have to. Just do 'em."

Knees down, Blake can't get his massive shoulders 6 inches off the floor. His workout partners laugh. Blake laughs, too -- the first time I've seen him do what many have told me he does, or used to do, all the time.

Circle of love

"Tommy always likes to joke around," says his sister, Rochella. "He's a really good person, very caring, very hard-working. And he has a lot of support here at home."

If you want to see Blake smile, ask him about his family, which he describes as "one big circle of love." Rochella, 30, and 27-year-old Juan Bruce are old enough to remember their mother, who died of pneumonia when Blake was 10 months old. The only parent Blake has ever known is his maternal grandmother, Ernestine Chisholm. "We're all very close, but Tommy is closest to her," Rochella says. "He's definitely a mama's boy."

When Blake went home to Aransas Pass in August, he sat with his family and ate, watched television and ate some more. It was apparent Blake was struggling emotionally, but "he didn't see anyone professionally," Rochella says. "We just did it as a family."

Though that loving embrace calmed Blake's emotions temporarily, he certainly needed more help to stave off the perils of depression, which, if untreated, can lead to alcohol or substance abuse or even suicide. Patterson -- who was inaccurately reported to have "embarrassed" Blake at a summer practice heavily attended by scouts, causing Blake to go AWOL -- eventually made sure Blake received the proper care.

There are clear reasons to believe the therapy sessions and the medication -- the specifics of which the Blake camp will not disclose -- have helped. For one, Blake, described by a program insider as a student who did "just enough to stay eligible" his first four years, managed to stay on top of his studies in the fall, completing his coursework with what he says were his best semester grades. And finishing the football season -- he played far below his standard but led the team over the final five games with six tackles for loss -- was an accomplishment not to be overlooked.

Sometimes tough guys need help, too

What happens to Tommy Blake after the NFL draft? Among many other challenges, he'll have to stay on his medications and hope to be treated with care by his new team.

But psychiatric medication can sometimes contribute to weight gain, according to Dr. Steven Gans, an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. In Blake's case, though, Gans says that is doubtful: "The current ones used in the treatment of depression and social anxiety don't tend to do this."

A more troubling issue focuses on how players with mental illness are treated within the culture of pro football.

"Mental illness is quite stigmatized in the African American community," Gans says, "and it is even more enigmatic in most of professional sports and in the culture of college and professional football in which toughness, enduring suffering and denying pain are part of the value system."

Acclaimed psychologist Dr. Xavier Amador, who worked with Alonzo Spellman when the former defensive lineman's career was being threatened by bipolar disorder, likewise fears the NFL environment could be tough on Blake.

"Baseball, for whatever reason, as an organization has accepted that its players are going to be like the rest of the world and you have to treat (mental illness) and give players access to the care they need as you would for orthopedic injuries," Amador says. "From the NFL, I haven't seen that kind of response.

"Teams really need to understand that the brain is one of many organs in the body, and they need to have a psychiatrist and a psychologist, if not on staff then readily available. Anything less than that, and they're in denial."

Counters NFL spokesman Greg Aiello: "That is a sweeping generalization that is not based in fact. We have an employee assistance program in place through our player development department with every team. We communicate with all the players." --Steve Greenberg

"So many people have focused on the negative and not the positive," Rouzan says. "He went out there, with everything he was going through, and finished what he started. I mean, seriously. How about that?"

At a practice in Fort Worth nine days before the Texas Bowl, Patterson stepped off the field and told me Blake had seemed "much happier the past three, four, five weeks."

"With clinical depression or social phobia, people recover from these things all the time," says Dr. Xavier Amador, an adjunct professor in clinical psychology at Columbia University and a regular contributor to several national television programs. "The bottom line is these are really treatable disorders. If you're in treatment and follow it up with the proper medication, the response rates and the recovery rates are really high."

But in some circles, the damage to Blake is considered irreparable. "I wouldn't touch Tommy Blake," says a scouting veteran of four NFL teams who watched Blake up-close in 2007 and is familiar with the details of his medical condition. "I don't know how you can justify bringing a player in who has mental instability. One thing you have to have to play in the NFL is your head screwed on right each week."

Can't stop the ringing

Social anxiety disorder involves a fear of being judged and can be triggered by actual or perceived scrutiny by others. There was nothing "perceived" about the constant barrage of phone calls -- on some days as many as 300, Blake says -- from would-be agents and their minions after Blake decided to stay at TCU for his senior season. Really, though, 300? "I would say that sounds accurate, absolutely," says the same scout who wouldn't touch Blake.

It has been reported that the daily presence of scouts is what drove Blake off that practice field, but Blake believes those calls are what brought about his mental illness. "It started long before camp," he says. "My cell phone rang so much, I couldn't even keep it turned on. I always like to be available to my family, and that was frustrating. I couldn't even get a good night's sleep."

Adds Rouzan: "I say this as an agent -- these kids have a right to privacy, a right to enjoy the college experience, and it shouldn't be violated. And in Tommy's experience, it was violated to a very high degree. Anyone who sits there and tells me they can field 300 phone calls and do what they need to do in their everyday life without that being a burden is lying."

Meanwhile, the truth about Tommy Blake, in regard to his NFL future, is unknown. So, frankly, is his long-term desire to play football for a living. "I don't have to play football -- I choose to," he says. "I can live without football. I really can."

But it is too soon to give up on college football's mystery man.

He is doing what he has to do. Abusing his chest, arms, shoulders, back and legs in the weight room. Running with Jones every day: on hills, on the track and in deathly 40- and 80-yard sprint drills with a weighted sled fastened around his torso.

The scale is going in the right direction.

This is where the skies begin to clear and the story brightens: Blake is losing weight and picking up steam. Halfway from that first day in DeSoto to the Combine, his weight has dipped to 277, and his bench reps at 225 are in the mid 20s. "As far as his intensity when he trains, he still needs to pick it up," Jones says, "but he has impressed me. He's done everything I've told him to do, and he's really a physical talent.

"If the Combine were today, he'd probably run a little under a 4.7. But by the Combine, he's going to be in pretty good shape -- lighter, stronger. I'm looking for him to go mid-4.5s, and the goal on bench is to get toward 30. If Tommy gets down to 260-anything, he's going to run a 4.5. If and when he gets under 260, he'll run in the 4.4s."

Blake can't possibly drop that much weight by Indianapolis, but perhaps he can by TCU's pro day on March 2, or by a later date at an individual workout for scouts that Rouzan may schedule in Houston. Or maybe it won't ever happen.

At stake are the millions of reasons Rouzan urged Blake to open up. Rouzan says four or five NFL teams have assured him that if Blake runs like his old self and handles the grilling with aplomb at the Combine, he could sneak back into the late first round. But considering the TCU coaching staff hasn't given many thumbs-ups to NFL scouts about Blake's reliability, that is very doubtful. If Blake shows up with significantly improved form and attitude, however, he will give himself a chance to be a first-day pick, but Sporting News' War Room scouts project him to last well into Day 2, possibly the fifth round. Rouzon estimates the difference in signing bonus from the first round to the third round at $13 million.

Blake's story is part cautionary tale, part ray of hope. Although he has yet to reach the point of speaking freely about his mental illness, "his coming out is really a public service," Amador says.

And at a time when most draft prospects, to use Rouzan's words, "tuck tail and drop out of school," Blake -- while running and lifting for his football life and striving to maintain his emotional well-being -- is taking 13 credit hours this semester. Otherwise known as a full load.

It's what he needs to graduate -- and to fulfill the promise he made to his grandmother when he left Aransas Pass five years ago, full of laughter and hope.

"I just want to finish what I started," Tommy Blake says.

And then will come all the rest.

Steve Greenberg is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at sgreenberg@sportingnews.com

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Blake is a big time sleeper....i remember before blake start having these troubles...in 2004:23 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and 5 sacks......2005:57 tackles,13.5 tacles for loss, and 7 sacks....2006:54 tacles,16.5 for loss, and 7 sacks....and 2007(this year with his problems and only playsing 8 games):21 tackles,8 tackles for loss,and 4 sacks..........

He had a problem and received help for it and is now 100%....WE need another pass rusher to back up Abe and Tommy Blake will not get drafted until the 5th round......We should take a good look at him

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I would stay away from him. mental illness + pressures of being an nfl rookie + some money + possibly being away from family = ticking time bomb. remember the tackle from the Raiders that went psycho the day before he was going to play in the Super Bowl? he played great all season, might have even been a pro bowler that year, but then the pressure of playing in the SB made him crack

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snicker (2/14/2008)
I would stay away from him. mental illness + pressures of being an nfl rookie + some money + possibly being away from family = ticking time bomb. remember the tackle from the Raiders that went psycho the day before he was going to play in the Super Bowl? he played great all season, might have even been a pro bowler that year, but then the pressure of playing in the SB made him crack

are you totally sane?what is totally sane?everbody has a illness and if you feel you don't,than LYING IS YOURS!1

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he is worth a 5th or 6th round...with a great players owner like Mr.Blank and the counseling that the falcons have in place would be good for him....if he did not have these problems ...he would be a first round pick.............we drafted Martrez Milner in the 4th round............Quinn Ojinnaka in the 5th round.......Frank Omiyale in the 5th round ......i feel thaat this guy is worth the 5th round chance

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atljbo (2/14/2008)
BillyWitchDoctor (2/14/2008)
He will get drafted earlier than the 5th if this story has any truth to it.

David irons slip from the 2nd round to the 8th round because he has a small learning disability and irons had a great senior bowl week

I didn't know that. But let's say Blake does put up the numbers his trainer? said, the 30 reps and runs a mid to low 4.5. I just don't see a team not taking him in the 3rd or 4th even with his illness.

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BillyWitchDoctor (2/14/2008)
atljbo (2/14/2008)
BillyWitchDoctor (2/14/2008)
He will get drafted earlier than the 5th if this story has any truth to it.

David irons slip from the 2nd round to the 8th round because he has a small learning disability and irons had a great senior bowl week

I didn't know that. But let's say Blake does put up the numbers his trainer? said, the 30 reps and runs a mid to low 4.5. I just don't see a team not taking him in the 3rd or 4th even with his illness.

yup...david irons ran a 4.4 and still slipped to the 6th round

but yea...the earliest he will go is in the 4th round comp pick at best...no way in the world would a team take him in the first 3 rounds

Texas CB Tarell Brown and Florida DT Marcus Thomas both slip because they got in some trouble(Brown was drafted in the 5th round and Thomas was draft in the late 4th round)

in the 06 draft Alabama DE Mark Anderson got in some trouble and slip to the 5th round to the bears......in 06 he had 28 tackles 12 sacks...07 he had 31 tackles 5 sacks

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