This is a continuation of a series on TCU’s 2007 season. To read the first part, The Genesis of Andy Dalton, click here.
For as many questions as there were about TCU’s offense heading into the 2007 season, TCU’s defense was primed to be one of the best units in TCU history. Guys like Jason Phillips, David Hawthorne, and Rafael Priest were preparing to once again be one of the top defenses in the country.
In 2006, the Frogs were second in the nation in total defense, allowing just 234 yards and 12.3 points per game to opposing offenses. While Phillips, Hawthorne, Priest, and others all played major roles on defense, arguably the best player on TCU’s defense was junior Tommy Blake.
Tommy Blake was a force to be reckoned with. Several years ago, Marshall Weber wrote that Blake was “the most naturally gifted defensive player TCU’s ever had.” It’s high praise to hand to someone from a TCU defense, considering the staggering amount of talent that has graced Amon G. Carter. And yet, it suited Blake, who, as a sophomore in 2005, earned Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year and All-American honors while recording 13.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks.
He followed up his 2005 campaign by earning a second-consecutive first-team All-Mountain West Conference player honors in 2006, recording 16.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks over the course of the season. He totaled 54 tackles from his defensive end spot, as well as two forced fumbles and two fumbles recovered.
2007 was Blake’s senior season, and the hype around him had reached peak levels. He was tabbed as an ESPN preseason All-American, and a potential Top 10 draft pick in the upcoming 2008 NFL Draft. Everyone expected him to lead TCU’s defense, and thus the entire team, to greatness.
All of a sudden, Blake wasn’t there...
Blake disappeared in mid-August, just a few weeks before TCU’s home opener against Baylor. It happened suddenly, and at first, quietly. Then, the rumors began, and everything from drug use and steroid abuse to Blake leaving to go into ministry was suggested as the reason for his abrupt departure. None of that was true.
Blake returned a few days later, but was a shadow of his former self. His performance on the field suffered. He appeared in just three of TCU’s first eight games of the season. Eventually, it came out that he had gone home for four games in the middle of the year, but questions still remained as to why.
When he was on the field, he wasn’t the same force he had been in previous seasons. He was overweight, and a step slower. In the three games he played before leaving the team, he recorded just 11 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, and one sack. While those seem like decent numbers for your average college defensive end, they were a stunning departure from the norm for a player of Blake’s ability.
As TCU prepared for Colorado State, Patterson announced that TCU would be giving Blake a medical leave of absence. "For the next two games, we're going to give Tommy a medical leave of absence.” Patterson said in his weekly press conference, “We've tried to push through the last three weeks and haven't helped him. We're concerned with Tommy Blake. Hopefully, in a few weeks, we'll see some improvement and revisit it again."
In his absence, TCU went 2-2, dropping games to Wyoming and Utah in the process, while picking up wins against Colorado State and Stanford.
When Blake returned, though, it seemed as if the old Blake was back. While he only recorded one tackle, Patterson praised him after the game for his impact off the edge.
“It was a spark having Tommy (Blake) back. He seemed to cause pressure from the other side. It helped having him on the other side of Chase Ortiz."
Over the final four games of the season, including TCU’s bowl win over Houston, Blake would record nine tackles, six for loss, with three sacks. He had started to look like the Blake of old at times, but inconsistencies still plagued him, as it was clear his conditioning hadn’t held up. He looked disinterested at times, and was still incredibly out of shape by season’s end.
The guy who was once projected to be a top 10 pick, was now surrounded by question marks.
Then, the 2008 NFL Draft came and went, and Blake was undrafted
Blake had understandably tumbled down NFL draft boards after missing half of his senior season. Leading up to the draft it was finally revealed and confirmed why the once-dominant defensive end had seemingly lost interest in football.
Depression and social anxiety had taken hold of Blake, and, like they do with so many people, left him a shell of himself, tearing his potential away from him.
There has always been a stigma surrounding depression and anxiety. As someone who doesn’t struggle with either, I can’t speak to the full effects that they have on a person, but many others can.
Rebecca Perkins, a life coach and author in the United Kingdom, describes it as such:
Depression is not about feeling sad. It is not about feeling a bit down or being in a bad mood. Depression is a blackness. Depression sucks all emotion from you. You are left feeling hollow and numb and with a deep sense of hopelessness and loneliness. Depression drains the world of color and sound and taste and smell.
I’ve heard it described as like having an elephant sitting on your chest. You can’t breathe. It’s almost impossible just to get out of bed, more or less actually go about excelling at anything. Playing football at an elite level seems like it would be completely out of the equation.
Blake has always been quiet about his struggles. After going undrafted, he was signed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and he didn’t seem interested in talking about off the field things in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.
"There's ups and downs to life," Blake said Saturday. "A lot of people deal with a lot of things. Unfortunately, I had to deal with some things.
"I'm not really going to talk about it too much after this. I'm here to play football now."
So, what’s Blake’s legacy?
He is, undoubtedly, one of the most elite defensive linemen TCU has ever had. He was a dominant force, and I don’t think his battle with depression and social anxiety should alter that too much.
It’s disappointing, yes, that he didn’t have the senior year we all wanted, nor did he go on to NFL greatness like many expected, but Blake’s legacy should transcend that. He was a great player for the Frogs at a time TCU needed great players. He continued the line of great TCU players who showed that NFL talent could still make its way to the “mid-major” school in Fort Worth.
Talent like Blake’s is what raised the profile of TCU nationally, and for that, he deserves nothing but the thanks of a grateful Frog Nation.