Working hard to catch on; Exposed late to football, Shelbyville's Blackburn has progressed far.

Date: 2000-09-22

Indianapolis Star, The (IN)


SHELBYVILLE, Ind. -- As late as the ninth week of the 1999 football season, Shelbyville High School's Thad Blackburn was still struggling to improve.

With the Golden Bears trailing Delta 28-7 at halftime, coach Pat Parks had spent two quarters shouting largely ignored instructions to the sophomore defensive end, who continued to miss reads and opportunities.

Then came Blackburn's breakthrough moment, the play that turned his career around. Charging from the outside, he sacked Delta's quarterback, causing a fumble that the Bears recovered.

"That was the one that got it stirring," Parks said of what became a remarkable 42-31 comeback victory. Shelbyville used the momentum from that win to eventually reach the Class 4A Sectional 14 final.

Blackburn, one of the keys to the late-season surge, was born in Puerto Rico. He also spent time in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

Although he never received official notification, Blackburn believes his natural parents died. Eventually placed in an orphanage, he was adopted by missionaries Dan and Kathy Blackburn. On Dec. 18, 1989, he, along with his fellow adoptees --11 sisters and 17 brothers -- moved to Indiana to live with the Blackburns.

"I liked the plane ride," said Thad Blackburn, who was six at the time he left Haiti. "I'd never even been on a bus before that."

His memories of a Caribbean childhood have grown foggy over the years. But he does remember swimming in a river in Haiti, and playing baseball and Frisbee with his brothers in the back yard.

When he got to the United States, he'd never seen American football.

"My brothers watched pro football and I just started studying it and trying to learn and understand it," said Blackburn, who played organized football for the first time in seventh grade.

Even with his great foot speed, the smallish Blackburn played offensive line throughout middle school because he couldn't understand the offense or remember plays. Now, he doubles as a fullback.

"Where he's come from and what he's doing now is amazing," said Parks. "He had no knowledge or history or familiarity with the game until middle school. But he is a very hard worker he's always done that. He runs the ball so hard, he's hard to bring down and he'll fight for every yard he gets. And on defense, he just wants to make the big hit."

The 5-9, 185-pound junior has benefited from dedication in the weight room. His bench (300 pounds), clean and jerk (230) and squat (600) rank near the top of the team's strength charts. He's also been timed at 4.8 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

As a fullback, Blackburn has 162 yards on 41 carries this season for the Golden Bears (2-3). On defense, he has 17 tackles with four sacks and seven tackles for loss.

In the classroom, Blackburn is an above-average student. In the summer, he works full time at the Shelbyville McDonald's and during the season works weekends.

Last summer, he took home every Shelbyville game tape and watched relentlessly, trying to learn from his mistakes. He hopes to play football in college and study business, so he can one day own his own restaurant.

His teammates love him. But there have been instances of cultural isolation.

Parks said his players have great respect for Blackburn because of his work ethic, personality and most importantly, his smile.

"I don't think anyone makes fun of him for the color of his skin or where he's from," said 6-1, 240-pound senior lineman A.J. Martzall.

"My parents always taught me you don't judge people by the color of their skin or the color of their eyes. He's a real modest kind of person. And I can't say enough about his smile. He hits people like a truck and he's even smiling then. I don't think I've ever seen him without a smile on his face.

"If he was only a little taller, he could be a star. It's really amazing. He's never played the game before and he comes here and gives it a try and look at him now."

Coming from a land of poverty, Blackburn understands how fortunate he is now. He appreciates the twists of fate that brought him to Indiana.

"Yes I do, I think how we got here from Haiti," Blackburn said. "There's also my brothers. Some of them haven't done too good in society here. But there's a lot of people like me, pretty good in basketball and football and trying to do some good things in the community. That's very important to me. Doing the right things and working hard."

Contact Steve Hanlon at (317) 865-4903 or via e-mail at


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