Perseverance pays for NFL hopeful

Offensive linemen Philip Blake of Baylor (right) and Tony Bergstrom of Utah take part in a drill...

Offensive linemen Philip Blake of Baylor (right) and Tony Bergstrom of Utah take part in a drill during the 2012 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 25, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images/AFP)

John Kryk, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:36 PM ET

WACO, TEXAS - Never give up. Never settle.

That's Philip Blake's hard-earned advice for those with a dream.

He would know.

At age 26, the native of west-end Toronto finally is in position to realize the goal he stubbornly has clung to since playing football for the first time in his "victory lap" year of high school in 2005.

Experts believe the 6-foot-2 3/4, 315-pound centre is one of two Canadians who will be selected in next week's National Football League entry draft.

Blake's post-secondary route to the NFL has been slow, circuitous and unlikely -- from the Toronto community of Etobicoke; to Lennoxville, Que.; to Tyler, Texas; and finally to Waco, Texas.

Six years in all.

"I knew it would be a long road to get here, but I stuck with it," Blake says with pride.

Patience and perseverance. Philip Anthony Blake has had it since he was a kid.

"When he was young, he liked to play computer games a lot," says Orlando Shaw, Blake's stepfather but the man he has always called Dad. "He would sit there for hours in the evenings and play after he finished his school work.

"He is the type of person who when he starts the game, he has to finish it. Whatever he started, he wanted to finish it. That's just how he is."

Even though Dad always was a huge Pittsburgh Steelers fan, Blake didn't take to football while growing up.

He liked street hockey. His older brother, Junior, was into basketball. And his older cousin, Courtney Hudon, whom Blake considers a second brother, played all kinds of sports, especially hockey -- Blake would even carry his equipment bag.

It's rare, but not unheard of, for an NFL draftee not to have taken up the sport until his last year of high school -- as Blake did in 2005 when he transferred to Father Henry Carr Catholic Secondary School from Monsignor Percy Johnson Catholic Secondary School. It was his friend, Jeremy Maruso, who gave Blake the nudge.

"I was walking down the hallway after class," Blake recalls, "and he said, 'You're pretty big. Why don't you come out and play football (with us)?' "

So he did.

"Philip was at least 250 pounds -- a big boy," Mario Pietrangelo, still head coach at Father Henry Carr, says. "His commitment was stellar. He would not miss a practice. He really fell in love with the game.

"The first thing that we were impressed with was his foot speed for a big man. We put him at guard ... If anybody got in his way, he would roll them over like a snowball."

Blake's NFL dream was born. But his raw talent, coupled with the fact his grades weren't in order, meant that exactly zero U.S. colleges came to recruit him. Not a one.

"Both myself and my assistant coach at that time, Mark Stadnyk, told him, 'You have to continue to pursue this, Philip. You have great ability,' " Pietrangelo says. "That's when we suggested the CEGEP route."

CEGEP is a French acronym for the post-secondary level of education that functions as a segue, of sorts, between high school and university in Quebec.

CEGEP football occasionally produces top-level NCAA players, such as Michigan's Tim Biakabutuka in the 1990s. Importantly, CEGEP experience does not count against a U.S. college player's four years of eligibility, so it is well scouted.

Blake spent two years at Champlain Regional College in Lennoxville. When teammate (and future CFLer) Shomari Williams got a scholarship offer from University of Houston head coach Art Briles, Blake saw an opportunity.

"I sent them my highlights tape, too, and they called me about two days later," Blake says. "They took me down to Houston for a visit, and they said, 'Do you want to play here?' I said, 'Yup.' I didn't want to go through the whole recruiting process. The first school that took me down on a visit and offered me a scholarship, I was going there."

But the NCAA's academic clearinghouse still found holes in Blake's scholastic resume. Undaunted and already in Texas, Blake enrolled at Tyler Junior College in Tyler, a city halfway between Dallas and Shreveport, La.

How much do they love their football in Texas?

"I was just blown away," Blake says.

It actually took him a while to understand people. But that went both ways.

"Their thick southern accent threw me off. Because sometimes I'd be like, 'Huh? What d'y'all say?' But about two months in, I was kind of starting to sound like them. I'd call back home and they'd be like, 'Oh, you don't even sound Canadian anymore!'

"I used to say, 'eh?' and 'aboot' and stuff like that. But I'm Canadian, and I'm proud of it."

With the Apaches in 2008, Blake earned second-team all-league honours at left tackle on offence. Even better, Blake crammed two years of schoolwork into three semesters and graduated from TJC with three years of NCAA eligibility yet remaining, instead of two.

By then, coach Briles had moved on and up to Baylor University in Waco from Houston. Briles had not forgotten about Blake and offered him a full-ride scholarship to Baylor, which plays against the likes of Texas and Oklahoma in the Big 12 conference.

Blake started all 12 games at right tackle in 2009. In 2010 Briles moved him to centre, where 6-foot-2 linemen aren't deemed too short. Blake blossomed.

Despite graduating from Baylor in spring 2011 with a degree in sociology, Blake returned last fall with a senior class of veteran starters, which included a quarterback named Robert Griffin III. Yes, RG3 -- the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner and, at worst, the No. 2 overall pick in next week's draft in New York City.

Blake himself was the first-team all-Big 12 centre.

"We've had a journey, Philip and I," coach Briles says. "And that's really what I appreciate about him. He's very mature because of his journey. He was a great player and a great leader for us, so he'll certainly transfer all that to the next level, and without any question he'll be a great professional."

This past winter, Blake impressed NFL coaches and scouts at the Senior Bowl all-star game, and at the scouting combine.

"I like the big Canuck," NFL Network's Mike Mayock raved at the combine. "I had a third- or fourth-round grade on him, and I believe that he's a starting centre in this league ... He actually did a tad better in the measurables than I expected.

"The lower-body explosion -- really, what I like about this kid is how stout he is. Like I said earlier, he squats the house."

Well, he can squat 635 pounds, anyway.

Blake now is regarded as one of the top draft-eligible centres. Mayock rates him No. 2, while other experts have him anywhere from No. 3 to 5.

It would be a shock a week from Saturday night if Blake was not taken by the end of the seventh and final round. He might be selected on the Friday night (when Rounds 2 and 3 are held), but more likely he'll learn his NFL destination on Saturday afternoon (Rounds 4-5).

Dallas, Carolina and Indianapolis have shown the most interest in Blake since the combine. Each has worked him out.

One team that hasn't approached him? The Pittsburgh Steelers. Yes, Dad's team.

Says Shaw: "The other day I told him, 'If you go to Cleveland, or Chicago, or wherever -- when you come to Pittsburgh, I have to cheer for Pittsburgh!"

Blake himself says he has no preference.

"I just want to have a long-lasting career. I've put so much into it, I want to at least get back what I put into it. I played six years to get here, so I want six-plus in the NFL."

Philip's mother, Patricia Blake, and cousin Courtney will be with him in Waco on all three days of the draft, as he awaits the phone call that has been his obsession for six long years.

After his football career ends, Blake wants to become a high school teacher -- to give back to young people "what all my coaches gave to me."

Pietrangelo says Blake would make an excellent one: "He has the patience, he has the personality to help young kids."

Most of all, perhaps, Blake has a valuable message to share.

"Through this whole process, I never gave up, and I never settled," he says. "I never gave up on my dream, and I never settled for something I didn't want. I could have stayed in Canada and played university ball there. And there'd have been nothing wrong with staying in Canada, but that's not what I wanted.

"I wanted to pursue a career in the NFL. So, my advice is to never give up, and never settle."

john.kryk@sunmedia.ca

@JohnKryk

blogs.canoe.ca/krykslants/


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