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REGGIE HAYES: University of Saint Francis receiver Duke Blackwell’s best day, worst day and brighter days ahead

University of Saint Francis wide receiver Duke Blackwell in a game against St. Xavier last season. (Photo courtesy Saint Francis)
University of Saint Francis receiver Duke Blackwell, center, is lifted high after a touchdown catch against St. Francis (Ill.) last season. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
Duke Blackwell

The best day of Duke Blackwell’s college football career came in the NAIA national championship game. The worst day of his career came the same day.

Six months later, Blackwell looks back fondly and also cringes.

Blackwell, stepping in at slot receiver after senior Sean Boswell went down with injury, caught five passes for 96 yards and a touchdown as the University of Saint Francis won its second-consecutive national title in December. But on Blackwell’s last catch, he made a cut to try to elude a Reinhardt safety and suffered a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in his right knee.

“Everyone asked did I hear a loud pop? That’s the basic question,” Blackwell said. “Honestly, no. I made a cut and it gave out on me. As I rolled over, the Reinhardt safety hit me and I thought when he hit me he blew my leg out. But when you watch the film, I cut by myself and as soon as it happened, I grabbed me knee and rolled. I looked up at Rocky (James), the first person I see, and said, “I think I tore my ACL.’ ”

Blackwell is attacking his rehab with his sights on returning to the field this fall. It’s a fairly quick turnaround, especially considering the demands and requirements of his position. Common sense might say it’d be better to wait. But Blackwell, from New Palestine, isn’t the patient type.

Slot receivers have this extra edge of toughness, a requirement for darting into linebacker territory and withstanding all sorts of hits.

That hasn’t changed.

“For me, I’m full-go at all times,” Blackwell said. “Even my doctor said that. We do this little jump test at the facility in Indianapolis, it’s a one-legged hop straightforward. He always tells me to take it easy, but I always go full-out all three attempts. That’s my personality. Even if they tell me I’m not ready, I’ll listen, but I don’t think they can stop me from getting back on the field this fall.”

Blackwell returns as part of a receiving corps largely intact from a year ago. Four of the top five receivers return, with the exception of the graduated Boswell, who caught 74 passes for 1,020 yards.

Dan Ricksy caught 73 passes for 1,172 yards, James 51 passes for 751 yards, Blackwell 25 passes for 431 yards and Will Chrisman 22 passes for 315 yards. Blackwell was fourth in touchdowns receptions with five. Ricksy had 10, James seven and Boswell six. The four returning receivers are all juniors this fall.

“It’s been a blessing coming through Saint Francis with the receivers we’ve had – Seth (Coate), Montay (McDowell), Akeim (Kelsaw), our old wingback Nico (Jason Nicodemus), Zach Gegner,” Blackwell said. “They’ve all showed us the ropes of how to create separation, hustle plays, blocking, what it takes to be a receiver at Saint Francis. And Sean. Sean’s my man. I’m going to miss him the most.”

The Cougars will be transitioning to a new quarterback, with transfer Matt Crable expected to take over for graduated record-setting passer Nick Ferrer.

Blackwell said his progress has been smooth and he hopes to be able to be back on the field within the first month of the regular season. He’d like it to be sooner, but he’s trying to be patient.

“It’s been a challenge for me, a lesson and it’s made me humble at the same time,” he said. “As a 20-year-old kid, I thought I was invincible. This happened and it put me in a reality check that anything can happen at any time.”

Some friends of Blackwell’s from Indianapolis helped him by sending messages, letting him know how they dealt with their ACL tears. The Saint Francis training staff has been a great source of support, too, he said.

The hardest part for Blackwell is fairly predictable: Standing and watching.

He is able to run some routes at less than full speed and work on his hands while catching and warming up quarterbacks. But he’s not yet ready for change-of-direction drills and his sprinting is about 85 percent, he said.

“I never thought I’d miss running, but I’m missing sprinting with them, seeing them go the extra mile, the grind no one else sees that helps us get to the national championship back to back,” he said. “It’s the stuff we have to go through as a team, as a unit, to get back to the level we want to compete at. I feel like I can come back physically in shape, but the cardio is what I’m really worried about. Other than that, I feel really strong.”

Blackwell didn’t receive any major-college interest out of high school, but the Saint Francis coaches’ belief in his ability convinced him to join the program. Two NAIA titles into his career, he and his teammates’ drive continues to increase.

“Saint Francis being one of the only schools to offer me anything motivated me to prove those other schools wrong,” Blackwell said. “A lot of us have that chip on our shoulders because I believe a lot of us have the talent to compete at a higher division. But, I couldn’t be happier with the team I’m with. We all play with a chip on our shoulders.”

When Blackwell looks back at the title game, he remembers the best part of his day – catching, running, scoring and celebrating, even on crutches. He’s been tackling the worst part of that day ever since. He’s impatiently but determinedly on a mission to return.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.

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