If Free State High is playing football, odds are spectators can find senior Blake Winslow on the field.
Appropriately built for his linebacker position, the 6-foot, 215-pounder also lines up as a running back or slot receiver on offense. Oh, yeah. He also punts.
Winslow only rests on the sideline for kickoffs, kick returns and punt returns.
“You never really get a break,” he said, “so conditioning is really big.”
Funny to hear that from a guy known for his strength. Winslow is a bit of a FSHS weight room legend. He benches 315 pounds, squats 515 and power cleans 330.
Said fellow senior linebacker Stan Skwarlo: “He’ll just rep 225 easily (on the bench) and we’ll be over there kind of struggling with it. He’s a strong kid.”
Senior quarterback and free safety Joe Dineen wishes he knew Winslow’s secret.
“High school kids really shouldn’t be able to do that,” Dineen said, chuckling.
All that power, coach Bob Lisher added, most often shows up when Winslow gets a handoff or hauls in a pass. The coach credited him for his hands and ability to pick up extra yardage in spite of the defenders trying to take him down.
“He’s not gonna make you miss so much,” Lisher said, “as he is gonna make it very difficult for you to tackle him, because of his strength.”
As one of the hybrid backs/receivers in Free State’s offense, Winslow can punish opposing defenses out of the backfield or over the middle. It is difficult for opponents to predict how the Firebirds (9-1) will use him most going into a game. Last week, in Free State’s playoff-opening victory over Shawnee Mission Northwest, Winslow carried the ball 11 times for 64 yards and a touchdown. Two weeks earlier, against Leavenworth, he caught four passes for 64 yards. No wonder Winslow loves his rushing and receiving responsibilities most.
“It’s obviously a lot more fun to be running around and trying to score touchdowns than going up against huge linemen every play like you are on defense,” Winslow said. “Everyone wants the ball and everyone wants to score.”
A contributor at the varsity level since his sophomore year, Winslow didn’t play running back the previous two seasons. That was before FSHS added the dimension of lining up hybrid players in the backfield. Winslow said his days as a running back in youth football made it easy for him to pick up things. But he noticed a significant difference to carrying the ball in high school.
“There’s a lot bigger guys at the line. You can’t do so much dancing,” Winslow said. “You’ve gotta go downhill as much as you can. You can’t bounce it outside all the time. You’ve gotta cut it up the middle. You’ve gotta find the holes.”
Skwarlo, Free State’s starting running back, called his teammate and longtime friend an all-purpose back, because he blocks well, too.
“He’s just relentless on the field,” Skwarlo said. “He just doesn’t quit, and I love to have him on the team because of that.”
Winslow admitted he’s not quite as comfortable as a punter, even though a muffed low snap last week that allowed SMNW to bring him down for a loss has been the only serious miscue. Punting can make even the strongest player a little nervous.
“You’re sitting back there all alone,” Winslow described. “I look to the right and I see an overload. They always have more guys than we do over on the right, and I know they’re coming off the edge. If you rush it too much you’ll get a bad punt, but you can’t take too much time, because then it’ll get blocked. It’s nerve-wracking at times.”
That’s not the case when he’s playing linebacker. Winslow and Skwarlo combined to deliver one of Free State’s plays of the year earlier this season, at Olathe North (7-3) — their opponent tonight in the second round of the Class 6A playoffs. FSHS trailed 13-0 in the second quarter on Oct. 3 before a diving Skwarlo batted a pass from O-North quarterback Cole Murphy out of the air and Winslow saved the ball from hitting the grass before returning the interception 77 yards for a touchdown.
The play would have meant a lot more to Winslow had Free State not lost, 26-19. That’s part of what makes tonight’s rematch so appealing.
“We know we can play better,” Winslow said. “They’re a really good team, so there’s no guarantees. But we think if we come out hot we’ll definitely have a better chance this time.”