By Walter Villa, Special for USA TODAY High School Sports | August 14, 2017 1:28 pm ET
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Alphonso “Al” Blades Jr., 11 years old at the time, had just scored his first career touchdown.
But instead of lasting joy, that TD brought him overwhelming pain.
Al Jr., who was just three when his father – former Miami Hurricanes safety Al Blades – died in a car crash, began sobbing on his ride home from the aforementioned Pop Warner game.
“It was the first time I had seen him break down,” said Katisha Rose, Al Jr.’s mother. “I think that was the first time he realized, ‘I scored my first touchdown, and my dad’s not here.’
“I had to pull over and console him. My heart was broken. As a parent, you wish you could carry the pain for your child.”
Fortunately for Blades, he has a close family supporting him. That includes his uncle, former Miami Hurricanes and NFL wide receiver Brian Blades.
Rose, whose nickname for her son is A.J., phoned Brian on that fateful day.
“I told Brian, ‘A.J. is a complete mess, and I’m a complete mess,” Rose said. “He told me to come by, and we got through that moment together as a family.”
Now, six years later, Al Jr., 17, has grown into an impressive young man with a 3.7 grade-point average, a ton of football ability and uncommon maturity for someone so young.
A defensive back like his father, Al Jr. is the nation’s 14th-ranked cornerback, according to 247 Sports. The 6-0, 180-pounder is a senior at Fort Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas, which is No. 5 in the preseason Super 25 football rankings.
Al Jr. has accepted a scholarship offer from the Hurricanes, which would make him the fourth member of the family – following Brian, Al and former NFL safety Bennie – to play for “The U.”
Former NFL linebacker H.B. Blades, Bennie’s son, is the only football-playing member of the family to buck the Miami trend, signing with Pitt instead.
Al Jr. said his father was one of the ones who pushed H.B. to leave his hometown because the pressure to live up to the family name might be too intense in Miami.
But Al Jr., who has recommitted to Miami after briefly reopening his recruitment, feels that the time is right for him to join the Canes.
“I think it’s different because there’s now more of a gap between Blades,” said Al Jr., who had one interception and 13 passes defensed for Aquinas last season. “It’s kind of a new tradition or a re-starting of the tradition rather than just following.”
A FAMILY FORMS
Rose, a former high school track sprinter, had a one-year-old daughter, Ladeja, before she met Blades.
She resisted his charms at first, but once they had their first date, “we were inseparable,” she said.
In fact, Blades would not allow anyone to call Ladeja anything other than his daughter.
A 6-0, 205-pounder, Blades was a first-team All-Big East safety in 2000, and he signed with the San Francisco 49ers as an undrafted rookie in 2001.
The family – Rose, Ladeja and newborn Al Jr. – moved to San Francisco as Blades tried to crack the 49ers roster for two years.
Then, on the night of Blades’ 26th birthday – March 19, 2003 – he went out to celebrate with Martel Johnson, his childhood buddy. Johnson was driving when their car hit another vehicle. The Blades car careened into a canal.
Blades and Johnson both drowned.
Rose, who was set to marry Blades that summer, got the dreaded phone call at about 1 a.m. on March 20.
When she arrived at the hospital, Rose was met by Bennie Blades.
“Bennie said, ‘He’s gone.’ … I just went crazy,” Rose said.
AL JR.’S TIME TO SHINE
As a sophomore at Fort Lauderdale’s University School, Al Jr. was an all-around force, scoring one touchdown rushing, one receiving and one on an interception return.
He averaged 15.6 yards on his 17 rushes, 28.2 yards on his five catches and 38.6 on 19 kickoff returns. He had 88 tackles, including 10 for losses, broke up 29 passes, caused four fumbles and had three interceptions and one blocked field goal.
After that breakout year, he transferred to a larger school, Aquinas, winning a state title in his first year at the national powerhouse.
Aquinas Coach Roger Harriott said Blades has distinguished himself in numerous ways.
“He’s charismatic,” Harriott said. “He lives his life to the fullest every day. And I love the way he conducts himself as a professional.
“From a football standpoint, he’s extremely athletic and talented.”
Al Jr. has worn No. 7 – his father’s number – ever since he started playing football at age five. It remains to be seen if he can have that number next year with the Hurricanes since it now belongs to junior defensive tackle Kendrick Norton.
Regardless, Blades thinks of his father daily. His father’s framed jersey rests above Al Jr.’s bed. The remainder of the room is filled with photos of his father, Hurricanes posters and other memorabilia.
Al Jr., who considers himself an “old soul”, said it’s a “blessing and a curse” that he lost his father at such a young age.
“I am the man I am today due to everything that happened and how I was raised,” he said. “It’s a tragedy, but it’s a blessing at the same time.
“Someone can die physically, but, spiritually, they will still be there. My family has kept my father in my life through stories, faith and preaching.
“It’s him being in my life, knowing what kind a man he was, knowing what he would want from me and knowing his love and spirit are there for me.”
Most everyone is struck by how much Al Jr. looks and acts like his dad.
“It’s freaky,” Al Jr. said, “because I was just three years old when he died – I have no recollection of how he acted.”
Rose said it is proof of the power of genes.
“A.J. stands like him, he moves like him,” Rose said. “They are both comedians, both people persons.
“I just think Al’s legacy continues with our son.”