In a perfect world, Kansas University senior Brian Blackwell would be in China right now, soaking up the culture and reaping the benefits of a class trip he had a heck of a lot to do with arranging in the first place.
Instead, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound safety from Herington elected to stay in Lawrence, choosing the 100-plus-degree heat and two-a-day practices with teammates over the trip of a lifetime with his classmates.
Blackwell has been a member of the KU football team since 2007 but has not played a single snap. For him, the idea behind joining the Jayhawks was not to gain fame and follow that up with a long and lucrative professional career. Rather, he simply wanted to be on the inside of the college football experience, making memories with teammates while playing the game he loved.
“Some days you hit your head against the wall wondering why you go out there and beat yourself to a pulp, but I love football,” Blackwell said. “This is the opportunity that was given to me, and I’m going to make the most of it whether I get on that field or not. My goal is to be out there on that field in front of 50,000 people and make a tackle, just one time. I’m still part of this team, so the wins still come to me. I’m going to do everything I can to make us the best team we can be.”
It’s that same attitude that allowed Blackwell to become a key player in securing the Self Engineering Leadership Fellow (SELF) group a trip to Shanghai for the 2010 World’s Fair.
A mechanical engineering major with a 4.0 grade-point average, Blackwell worked tirelessly to help SELF raise the $31,000 necessary to cover the cost of the trip. All so he could stand by and watch as his classmates boarded a plane for China while he stayed behind for the start of preseason football camp.
His classmates are scheduled to return from China on Tuesday. By then, Blackwell will have been through three sessions of two-a-days and 13 preseason practices total. Without them, Blackwell would stand next to no chance of getting onto the field this season. Because of the extensive depth and talent in the defensive backfield, Blackwell remains a longshot for playing time anyway. Still, the decision — though painful because of the realization of what he’d be missing out on — was an easy one for Blackwell, a young man who has proven, if nothing else, that he’s as loyal as the day is long.
Though they have little understanding of what the others in the SELF program have been doing in China, Blackwell’s coaches and teammates have taken notice of his sacrifice.
“Brian Blackwell is a very dedicated young man,” KU safeties coach Robert Wimberly said. “You know that football means a lot to him. The way he carries himself and understands the game, he does a very nice job.”
But Blackwell’s effort and attitude on the gridiron only tell half the story about the kind of man he has become during his time at Kansas. During the school year, Blackwell pounds the books as hard as he hits opponents in practice. During his down time, he looks for ways get ahead, be it through extra film-watching sessions or advancement of his studies. In the offseason, he sets aside time to spend mentor children at local elementary schools and does it with the same youthful exuberance of the young people he’s there to see. Then there’s the SELF program, which demands a lot of his time and gets 100 percent of his attention.
“I can’t imagine how hard it is for Brian to keep great grades in his mechanical engineering classes, maintain his dedication to KU football and stay committed to the SELF Program, but he does it with grace,” said SELF director Lucy McGilley. “He has an uncanny ability to make all types of people feel included, appreciated and motivated to be their best.”
Blackwell is scheduled to graduate in 2012. He has yet to pin down what field he will go into after school and football are finished, but recently told officials from the School of Engineering that he hopes to put his degree to work by developing cheaper green energy options for third-world countries or by decreasing the risk of injuries during strength training in sports.
“I’ve always tried to live a humble life,” Blackwell said. “I love working toward something and trying to achieve goals, but if I’m not the front man on it, it’s not going to bother me.”
Added Wimberly: “I’ve been doing this for quite a bit of time now, and what I tell people is a young man like Brian Blackwell, when they come back for Homecoming, 15 years from now, those are the ones that are successful men in society. It’s those men that don’t get the glory … years from now, those are the young men that are very successful in life.”