From walk-on to bowl winner, Bishop Dwenger alum Antonio Blackmon’s unique role in Purdue’s football revival

Antonio Blackmon holds the Foster Farms Bowl trophy after helping Purdue to the win over Arizona. (Courtesy photo)
Antonio Blackmon talks about his career at the News-Sentinel.com office last week. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of news-sentinel.com)

Antonio Blackmon enjoys sharing a photo where he’s holding the Foster Farms Bowl trophy, a hefty, gaudy trophy symbolizing winning, but also confirming Blackmon is exactly where he’s meant to be as part of the Purdue Boilermakers.

It wasn’t always so clear. It certainly didn’t seem clear when Blackmon called his high school coach after a few days in the University of Saint Francis football program and said, “I’m done. I’m quitting.”

That moment, in the fall of 2014, Blackmon didn’t quit. He started. What he started was a quest to prove he can play with anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Maybe the end result was something only Blackmon could see, but he could see it in living color.

“He said, ‘I think I can play at a higher level,’ ” then Bishop Dwenger football coach Chris Svarczkopf said of that phone call. “He said: I want to play at Purdue.”

“I ended up making the decision to apply to Purdue with about three weeks left until school started,” Blackmon said. “A week later, I got an acceptance letter and it went from there.”

It sounds simple now, with Blackmon sitting calmly in his Purdue gear, part of the Purdue revival, looking back on the beginning as a means to explain where he is now. But it wasn’t simple. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t guaranteed.

“I decided if I was going to play college football,” Blackmon said, “I was going to go big.”

THE LONG ROUTE

To play football at Purdue, Blackmon would have to join the team as a walk-on. To land that opportunity, he’d have to attend a tryout in the spring. In the meantime, that first fall, he’d have to stay in shape, work out, and live the life of an anonymous freshman.

He did all of that, without ever second guessing or veering from his goal.

Keep in mind, Saint Francis is a terrific NAIA program. The Cougars won their second straight national title in December. Blackmon gave up some good scholarship money when he left to pay his way to Purdue.

“I couldn’t look back,” Blackmon said. “When you make that decision, there’s no turning back. I made the decision to go as hard as I could, to do as much as I could. If I didn’t work out for me, I’d be a normal student. Being a normal student just wasn’t an option.”

Blackmon tried out for a walk-on spot in the spring of 2015. He ran sprints, bounced around other drills, demonstrated his agility. Blackmon was an outstanding cornerback at Bishop Dwenger his senior year after sitting out as a junior to concentrate on basketball. “He was one of the best corners we ever had,” Svarczkopf said. He had talent.

“We didn’t even touch a football at the football tryouts,” Blackmon said. “They wanted to see if you could move, pretty much.”

Walk-on players serve as practice fodder. If they’re fortunate and talented enough, they play on special teams. At Purdue, in the Big Ten, those players have to demonstrate a level of athleticism on par with the scholarship players. Blackmon had it. He was in.

He spent his first season as a practice player, didn’t see a second of playing time.

“I was getting stronger, faster, learning the game a little more,” Blackmon said.

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS, BLACKMON ANSWERS

In his second season with the Boilermakers, Blackmon earned a spot playing special teams. It’s a relatively thankless job, although it would pay off big when the Boilers finally reached a bowl game this past December.

In the fall of 2016, Blackmon handled the needed, but not glamorous, role of a special teams player. Early on, he was on the kick return, “on the front line, getting smashed,” he said. Eventually, he would settle into a mainstay on kickoff, punt and punt return teams.

Along the way, Blackmon also gained the trust of defensive coaches. He found his way onto the field on defense, in “nickel” or “dime” packages.

The early high point came against Minnesota in November 2016. The Gophers’ Mitch Leidner threw a late first-half pass, the kind of pass a quarterback knows he shouldn’t throw, but just can’t resist.

“It looked like he threw me the ball on purpose,” Blackmon said.

Blackmon intercepted the pass and returned it 34 yards before being tackled at the Minnesota 2-yard line. Purdue scored on the next play with five seconds left in the half. The Boilers lost, but Blackmon had shown, again, that he had what it takes to be on a Big Ten field.

He played special teams and spot work on the defense all season. He was given the hint that he would be put on scholarship. Then coach Darrell Hazell and his staff were fired.

“When they left, it was back to being just a walk-on again,” Blackmon said.

HANDLING TOUGH SITUATIONS

Blackmon has excelled after temporary setbacks before. He started his high school career at Snider, but it didn’t go so well. He was running with the wrong friends, finding himself in the principal’s office for “goofy things.” He talked with his mother Kimberly Parker and his father Angelo Blackmon and decided to transfer to Dwenger.

“It was a new level of discipline,” Blackmon said.

That focus, the result of “something so simple as wearing a shirt and tie,” would pay dividends down the road.

Discipline and focus helped him as he dealt with trying to reestablish his worth for new Purdue coach Jeff Brohm and his staff. Blackmon’s track record as a special teams standout gave him an in, and the coaches said it was a “clean slate” for everyone. Blackmon played more in 2017 than he did in 2016, with more time as part of the regular defense.

Brohm led Purdue to a 7-6 record, capped by the 38-35 win over Arizona in the Foster Farms Bowl. Blackmon made the first tackle of the game on the kickoff, a solo mark that earned him a splash of TV time. He made another big special teams tackle in the second half.

“Coach Brohm is such a great coach, a great football guy,” Blackmon said. “He has a dying desire to win and he put that in us. He made sure we knew we were playing to win. Just playing hard isn’t enough.”

Blackmon holds out hope he’ll still earn a scholarship at Purdue as he heads into the spring of his senior season. But that’s not his No. 1 goal.

His top goal is to reach a big-time level, and he’s not afraid to vocalize it.

“I want to become a Big Ten lock-down corner, and this offseason I’m really focused on that,” Blackmon said. “I want to be a starting cornerback at Purdue and I believe I have the ability and I believe it will end up happening for me.”

Blackmon has long had a vision for goals that seem just beyond his reach.

“If you aim low, you get low,” Blackmon said. “Lock-down corner – it’s high, but it’s a realistic goal.”

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