Joseph Blanks has regained his swagger.
You could see it in the way he carried himself, tall and proud, and hear it in a confident voice last week as he spoke about the upcoming football season at Virginia Union and future career possibilities.
The former Purnell Swett High School linebacker enters his senior year at Union as one of the top players in the NCAA Division II Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association. The league’s coaches named Blanks to the preseason All-CIAA team, but the 6-foot-1, 240-pounder has set higher goals.
“I want to be an All-American. I want to be the leading tackler in the nation. I didn’t train and put in all that work just to be the best in the CIAA,’’ Blanks said.
The “work’’ Blanks refers to isn’t the typical offseason conditioning and training done by every college football player. For Blanks, it means the failures and mistakes he’s overcome to get a second chance that seemed so unlikely back in August 2011.
Dropping the ball
Blanks enjoyed an all-star career at Purnell Swett, earning Robeson County Defensive Player of the Year honors and a spot in Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas all-star game. He’d continued his football career for two more years at ASA College in Brooklyn, New York, where he attracted the attention of the East Carolina University coaching staff.
The Pirates are led by another Robeson County native, Ruffin McNeill. So it was especially meaningful to Blanks — JoJo to his friends and family in the Pembroke area — when McNeill offered him a scholarship in January 2011.
Blanks immediately accepted the offer and signed a national letter of intent with the Pirates a month later. But even though he’d earned an Associate of Arts degree from ASA, Blanks still needed to complete about nine hours of classwork at Robeson Community College before he could enroll at ECU.
“He had come back home and at the time there were some tough things going on with his life and family,’’ said Mark Heil, who coached Blanks his final two years at Swett. “His grandfather, who was very important in his life, got sick at the time. There were small children around he ended up having to take care of. He didn’t have access to a car to get back and forth to RCC, or a computer to handle the online class work.
“So all those things kept him from taking care of business.’’
As the summer wore on and it became clear Blanks wasn’t getting his academic work done, ECU’s McNeill traveled to Robeson County in hopes of motivating him. But Blanks, by then embarrassed by the situation, had retreated into solitude and couldn’t be found.
“Going to a Division I school was my dream,’’ Blanks said. “It was there and then I dropped the ball. That was tough for me.
“I couldn’t watch SportsCenter. I didn’t want to talk to nobody. I wasn’t going out in the community because I didn’t want to answer questions about it. I was at home, I wasn’t training. ... I won’t say I was at rock bottom, but I was very low.’’
A helping hand
James Locklear is the owner, editor and publisher of Native Visions, a magazine devoted to the American Indian community and specifically the Lumbee Tribe, most of whom reside in Robeson County.
Locklear felt a connection to Blanks through their Lumbee roots and football. Locklear had played football at Red Springs High School and later at Fayetteville State.
“I had covered a couple of his games in high school, but that was about it,’’ Locklear said. “When I found out he couldn’t go (to ECU), I saw a chance to reach out and offer a helping hand.’’
So one afternoon Locklear jumped in his car and drove to Blanks’ home.
What he encountered was a young man totally withdrawn from life.
“I drove up to his house and when he came out I almost didn’t recognize him,’’ Locklear said. “He was way out of shape and was up to about 275 pounds.
“He was in a deep depression. But I was determined he wasn’t going to stay that way and that he was going to get into some school one way or another.’’
On Labor Day 2011, Locklear convinced Blanks to start training again. They started in Locklear’s backyad gym, working out six days a week. Some days the workouts included Blanks pulling Locklear’s pickup down a dirt road by his house.
Blanks quickly returned to playing shape, but now needed a college to give him a chance to return to the football field.
“The first place I suggested was Virginia Union because I know the history of the football program there,’’ Locklear said. “Of course, I’m a Fayetteville State supporter because I played there. But it wasn’t far enough away from home. I felt it was better for him to be in a fresh environment.’’
A second chance
Virginia Union, a historically black college founded in 1865 and located in Richmond, is where Blanks got his second chance.
Blanks returned with a vengeance, making 12 tackles in the 2013 season opener against Bethune-Cookman. A knee injury suffered in that game sent him to the sidelines for the rest of the year.
The NCAA granted Blanks a medical hardship, which left him with two years of college eligibility. He responded by ranking second on the team in tackles last season with 52 and earning second-team All-CIAA honors.
“It’s been a long road for me with my ups and downs,’’ Blanks said. “But I’ve finally got a second chance at Virginia Union. Hopefully, I can inspire some kids back home to know they can do anything if they want to.’’
“He is a perfect example of you should never quit on your dream,’’ said Heil, now the head coach at Fairmont High.
Blanks is dreaming even bigger these days. He hopes to pursue a career in professional football after gaining his degree from Virginia Union in business.
“Hopefully, my name gets out there and I can impress some scouts,’’ he said. “Maybe I can get a tryout in the CFL, NFL — whichever door opens at that time.’’