Sometimes, Katisha Rose looks at her son and still can’t believe the resemblance to his father, Al Blades Sr., the former Miami Hurricanes star safety who died in a car crash in 2003 after celebrating his 26th birthday — the car struck a bridge abutment and plunged into a Miami-Dade canal, where Al Blades Sr. and driver Martel Johnson drowned.
Al Blades Jr. was 3.
“A lot of people in my family say my father lives through me because I’m the same exact person,” said Blades Jr., a Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas cornerback, honor-roll student and four-star prospect who signed with Miami on Dec. 20 during the NCAA’s inaugural early signing period, and will enroll after he graduates in May.
“Similar is an understatement,” said Katisha, who, along with her family, calls Al Jr. “AJ’’ and told him when “he was a baby” that ‘“Daddy went on an airplane to see God.’
“He’s a very smart kid, but you don’t understand death when you’re 3.”
Fifteen years later, Blades has grown up and will be right there among the other Canes cheering as the rest of the #Storm18 recruiting class begins to fax in their letters of intent Wednesday, Feb. 7, National Signing Day.
“This class and the rest of the players are amazing,” said Blades, one of four defensive backs who signed early. “A lot of kids with similar personalities and mindsets, free-spirited kids who are all about being successful. We just want to work and get better and bring a national championship back to this city.”
Blades, listed as 6-1 and 180 pounds, has been all about the Hurricanes since his dad brought him to the locker room as a baby.
“Having experienced this has let me know science is real,” Rose said. “My son does things every day that his father did, even the same facial expressions. Al Sr. lit up rooms. He made people laugh, he didn’t care what people thought, he let you know what was on his mind.
“The only way AJ is different is that he was raised by a woman, and he’s a little smoother. But he’s definitely a comedian. He’s everything that his father was. He’s everything I loved about his dad.”
And like his dad, a gregarious, charismatic, fiery All-Big East player who was a Hurricane from 1996 through 2000, and his dad’s famous, former football-playing older brothers Brian and Bennie, Al Jr. will become the fourth young man with the last name Blades to play for the Hurricanes when he arrives on campus this summer.
“After Al died it was kind of hard for me to go back to UM,” Brian Blades, of Fort Lauderdale, said last week. “It took a while. But oh, man, we’re very happy AJ will soon be there. We’re looking forward to seeing him blossom and grow into a great man.
“He’s going to help us at UM, especially after losing a corner [starter Malek Young] to a neck injury. He has great footwork and cover skills and is very aggressive. AJ has been saying it since I can remember: ‘I am going to outwork everybody because I want to finish what my dad never had the chance to finish.
‘I’m going to do whatever I have to do to get this done.’”
Al Sr. signed as a free agent with San Francisco in 2001 and was placed on the practice squad, signed to the active roster twice and released during training camp in 2002.
Brian, 52, redshirted as a receiver in 1983 and played from 1984-87 before being drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in the second round and playing there for 11 years.
Bennie, 51, a safety who also lives in Fort Lauderdale, won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back in 1987 and in 1988 was drafted third overall by the Detroit Lions, where he spent nine seasons before ending his career in 97 with Brian in Seattle.
Bennie was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008.
So, that’s two national championships, a Hall of Fame induction, Thorpe Award and combined 23 NFL years for the three brothers.
But while Al Sr. told the Miami Herald during his senior fall camp that his older brothers’ athletic greatness affected the way others perceived him and “put pressure” on him, Al Jr., an Under Armour All-American this season, seems to follow his own beat, proud, but unfazed by any expectations that might accompany such a dazzling legacy.
“People put pressure on me,” Al Sr. said in August 2000, when Baby Al was 10 months old. “They were always calling me Little Blades. ‘You’re not going to be like your brothers,’ they’d say. ‘You’re not as fast or as good.’ It hurt me, but my father taught me never to let people see that or they’d do it more. I just used it as a motivator to prove them wrong.”
This is what Al Jr. said after being read his father’s quote: “People are always going to talk. You just have to keep your head down and work in silence to prove your worth. I don’t feel any pressure at all. As long as I work every day and be the best I can be, there’s nothing that can make me feel any particular way.
“It’s really just the fact that he passed away while he was in the NFL and didn’t finish his NFL dream. I really want to get there and finish it out for him.”
ESPN’s recruiting site lists Blades as eighth at his position and 67th among the top 300 players, regardless of position. “Tall, explosive playmaker,” the analysis begins. “Smart with good instincts. Knows where to be and what to do. Smooth kid who can bend and explode in transition. … Possesses the speed and savvy to take it to the house from anywhere on the field.”
Areas of improvement? “Not exactly a ball hawk and will need to improve ball skills on defense.”
Al Jr.’s former high school coach, Henry Colombi II, said he “built a program around Al Blades” when Colombi was at University School and Blades played there as a freshman and sophomore, amassing on defense 65 tackles, three interceptions, 30 pass deflections, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Once he got to national powerhouse St. Thomas, opposing quarterbacks tended to throw where Blades wasn’t. According to Max Preps, he had 56 tackles, one interception and 16 deflections the past two seasons
“With us he was utilized on both sides of the ball in every capacity, which you can’t do at St. Thomas because they’re two-and-three-deep at every position and the backups go in,” Colombi, now the secondary coach at Delray Beach American Heritage, said. “He’s a vocal leader that shows up on the field. And he’s the most authentic, caring, loving young man you’ll ever come across. He’s got a heart of gold, and it’s a side that not a lot of people see.”
Unless you follow him on social media.
In late December 2016, Blades took a beat that was spreading across the internet in what he said was the “10 toes challenge” and wrote the lyrics for a rap that was dedicated to his mother.
“… I’m trying to make it for my mama so her pain no longer lasts,” he sings. “And the haters on my back always trying to call me trash, but I’m going to stick to the grind because I refuse to come in last.
“…She’s why I grind the way I grind, shine the way I shine and when I get knocked down she’s why I get off my behind,’’ he wrote of his mother. “Because that’s my mama and I love her and she keeps me 10 toes down.’’
An accountant for an aerospace company, Rose raised her son to know his father through family photos and stories passed down from his uncles and mom and friends. She framed Al Sr.’s UM jersey and hung it over Al Jr.’s bed, which, naturally, had a UM quilt on it and UM-themed accessories.
“It’s been a dream of his forever,” said his mother, who graduated from Broward College and also has a 21-year-old daughter, Ladeja. “He has always been a UM baby.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t tell AJ how proud I am of him. I’ve been telling him for a long time about his last name and that people were going to compare him and talk about him and bring up his father and say good things and say bad things.
“I’ve taught him to tune the world out and do what’s best for you. He doesn’t allow his circumstances to conform him to something else. He is true to himself.”
UM cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph played with Al Sr. for three years at UM and with the 49ers.
“There’s a personal side of me that loves it and there’s a business side, too,” Rumph said. “It’s special that I played with Al’s father and saw him as a baby in the locker room with his dad. He was always here.
“He’s a player who has a lot of energy, loves to work and fits our locker room very well. I expect him to be a leader.”
Rose strongly believes her son is in good hands.
“It was once a tough situation, but we got through it,’’ she said. “Through tragedy, I’m still blessed because I have a piece of his father here.’’