The beginning of Robert "R.J." Blanton's life started with a slight roadblock, but like he always has in life, the Butler high school star overcame that speed bump with both feet on the ground running.
"He was a hard labor," mother Katherine remembered. "I had to stop working. He was a high risk so I had to be put on bed rest. Then he decided he didn't want to come at all so I had to have the labor induced. He was almost nine pounds."
Blanton may have entered the world leisurely, but that's been the only slow thing in his life.
"He was diagnosed as hyperactive," Katherine said. "That's how he got into sports. I had a physician who was against drugs to calm them down, so I went to parenting classes to learn how to control a kid who was hyperactive. We kind of control his through diet and self-discipline, and I just got him into every kind of sport I could think of to drain all that energy he has inside of him."
"I used to tell people that he was so bad I almost didn't marry his mother," said Robert Edwards, stepfather of R.J. and overall family comedian. "He was always so busy. I'd come over and he was always messing with me. He's always been a great kid, but he was a handful."
That extra boost of energy the young boy had quickly turned into something very valuable when playing sports.
"I think what made him good was he would hustle and do whatever he had to do to get the job done compared to a lot of other kids," Katherine recalled of R.J.'s first sports experiences. "When he played AAU basketball, one of the coaches asked us if R.J. could play. I told him, ‘he's not really good at basketball,' and the coach said, ‘No, I love the way he plays defense. He really hustles for the ball.'
"He's always been a kid who played hard, and he never wanted to give up. He never wants to lose. He'll always go in and fight."
"I think it was when we were in Italy and he was in soccer," Robert recalled when asked when he knew R.J. might have more athletic skills than most kids. "He would kick the ball so much harder than all the other kids, and all the other kids would be scared of it. R.J. has always been fearless. He's always been small, but he's always been fearless. He'd kick the ball so hard, and he's was 100 percent go from the time they started until the time they stopped. People were just surprised he'd play so hard, so aggressively at such a young age."
The Notre Dame commitment's efforts and physical play didn't stop at soccer.
"Football was his favorite," Katherine recalled. "I think that's because he loves to hit."
"I remember when he was younger. He was playing in a game and he always played defense, and the team was struggling so they put him on offense," Robert recalled. "He started making plays on offense. Then he was playing both ways and he was just laying kids out. Some parents in the stands didn't like that and started yelling that R.J. weighed too much. They had weight limits in those leagues. And I'll never forget, the dude who ran the league stopped the game and brought the scale out and weighed him on the field. My wife was so mad. Everyone was booing. They were yelling, ‘tie some bricks on him and he still wouldn't be overweight.' After the game, he was sad. He didn't understand why they had to weigh him on the field. He was kind of embarrassed about it.
"We had him in a youth league when I retired and moved to North Carolina. He always played in a league with kids two or three years older than him. He was out practicing one day and he hit a kid really hard and a guy turned around and said, ‘who's kid is that?' Years later I found out it was (North Carolina Tar Heel running back) Ryan Houston's dad. They played on the same team. Ryan's two years older, but R.J. played on the same team."
Both Houston and R.J. would play again together at Butler high school and win a lot of games, and it seemed R.J was one of the only kids who liked taking on the much bigger Houston.
"Ryan Houston, when he was in high school, he was about 6-foot-3 and 250. He's ballooned up since then, but R.J.'s coach would take R.J. and make him tackle Ryan because he was the only one who wasn't scared of tackling Ryan. He'd use R.J., who probably wasn't even 150 pounds at the time, and he show all the other kids how to tackle. He's fearless. He loves to hit. He loves to play the game, and he'll talk a lot of trash. I'll tell you that right now. It just gets him pumped up."
We asked Robert what he felt R.J. does best on the field.
"Hitting and tackling. He's an excellent tackler," he said. "He has excellent corner skills. I'm saying this based off of what I've been told. He's been to so many camps all over the country. They say his footwork is the best they've seen. For the past two years, he's had over 100 tackles each year, almost 150 last year. Those guys aren't just running into him, and he's on just one side of the field. He reads the plays and diagnosis the plays so well. Many times he'll come off his man and he'll make pick or make the play. He just has a real good feel for what's coming."
Blanton's physical play and ball skills earned him his first offer at Michigan camp before the start of his junior year.
"I was really happy for him. His first offer came from Michigan and he called me after their camp,' Katherine said. "I cried. He was just so excited. I could hear it in his voice and it just made me cry. I don't think R.J. really thought about ever getting an offer from anyone until it happened."
It wasn't long before other schools started taking notice including Notre Dame. While many other schools offered Blanton right away, the Irish still had to go through their normal process-something that made an impression on Blanton's stepdad.
"I remember talking to coach Brown and R.J. already has a lot of offers, and some offers from teams like Michigan and Virginia Tech," Robert said. "I asked him why Notre Dame hadn't offered him yet and coach Brown told me they couldn't offer because they haven't seen his transcript yet. I told my wife that was the only school that had even asked about his transcript before they offered. I told her that I guess that's the difference between Notre Dame and everyone else."
The offer eventually did come from the Irish.
"I was excited for him. I only knew about Notre Dame from people talking," Katherine said of the Irish offer. "My brother-in-law is a real big Notre Dame fan. When R.J. did get his first offer from Michigan, my brother-in-law said, ‘You haven't done anything unless you get an offer from Notre Dame.' R.J. said, ‘I might just go there because I've heard they have real gold in their helmets.' That was the only reason he was interested in Notre Dame."
But before Blanton would become Irish, the whole family had to visit Notre Dame, and the Irish coaching staff had some serious work to do once they arrived.
"I'll never forget the drive," Robert said. "The second we got up there, I told him, ‘If I've got to drive up here with your mother and your little brother again, it won't be happening. I won't be coming to too many of your games.' That drive was ugly."
"I didn't like the 12-hour drive, and I didn't like the fact that my baby would be so far from home, but I loved the place," Katherine said.
"I loved it. I loved the history. I loved talking to the people. I felt like the people were really sincere. They weren't trying to be used car salesmen and sell us something. That's the thing that I really liked about Notre Dame."
"I remember sitting across the desk from Charlie Weis. We had a great conversation. He told me, ‘people don't usually like me,' and I told him ‘people don't usually like me, either. I'm a big girl. If you hurt my feelings I'll get over it.' He was just real blunt, like I am, and I really liked that about him."
Even though Katherine loved her visit to South Bend, she still was having a hard time letting go of R.J.
"That was a really hard decision," she admitted. "I had to pray about it. I had to talk to my grandmother about it. I knew that I could probably persuade him to go to Virginia Tech and stay closer to home. He asked me about it several times. From the time we left Notre Dame, that's all we talked about on the way home, and that's all we talked about for awhile. I really knew he wanted to go there.
"He's been my baby for a long time until I had another child. It was very, very hard. He lay across my bed one night and he asked me which place I felt was the best place for him. He said he needed me to tell him I'd be OK with whatever decision he made.
"I wasn't going to put that kind of strain on him. We talked about each school and laid out the pros and the cons of each school, and then I just told him whatever choice he made I was going to back him 100 percent. It was hard. I did want him close to home. I told my husband earlier I didn't want him to talk to me about it because I was going to use mom's weakness on him and make him go to Virginia Tech, but I realized it was time to let him go, and I had to take myself out of it and do what's best for him."
R.J.'s decision to attend Notre Dame was a happy decision for all, and it's affected the whole family since.
"It's been really nice," Katherine said of the reaction the family receives since her son's commitment. "So many people come up to us, even people I don't even know, and they'll give me a hug and say how proud they are he's going to Notre Dame. It's been really exciting. It's been nice to know so many people are excited that he's going there. I've had about 50 million people ask me if I could get them tickets. I didn't know there were so many Notre Dame fans in North Carolina."
Now that Blanton is headed to South Bend, just what type of kid is R.J.?
"R.J. is a character," Katherine said. "He's going to make sure if you're around him you're having a good time. If you're sad he's going to make you smile.
"He's a very happy-go-lucky guy. He's always thinking positive. When I went through my divorce he was the person who always kept me going. The little things he'd do to make me laugh and smile. He's just one of those people, and I worry about him, because he'll do anything for anybody, and I worry about people taking advantage of his kindness because he has such a good heart."
And, it's universally known that Robert "R.J." Blanton is a very confident player on the field and will even talk some trash out there. It's also undisputed where this attribute comes from.
"I think it comes from mom," Katherine said with a laugh when asked where R.J.'s confidence on the field comes from. "Not to try to take credit, but he and my daughter are kind of both that way. I think it has to do with kind of the neighborhood I grew up in and how I grew up. I've just always kind of stayed on them and put it to them that they could do whatever they wanted in life, and nobody could stop them but them. I'm blessed because that's something that's stuck with both of my kids."
"Yeah, it's definitely her," Robert said. "She has a big mouth. If you go to any game at Butler (high school), you'll hear her voice. I don't care where you're sitting. Everybody knows not to sit in front of her."
Football aside, both of R.J.'s parents are proud of him and thrilled with his decision.
"I think it will be a little easier because I know he's going to be around a lot of great people," Katherine said of coming to terms with R.J.'s decision. "When he went up there for that week he met so many people and just really loved it. I know he's going to be around some coaches who really care about him. He loved the players and regular students when he was up there, and he's going to get a great education at Notre Dame. "
"I tell him all the time that I don't care about the NFL, none of that junk," Robert said. "All I want him to do is to go to college, graduate, and at a certain point in time to be able to take care of himself. Because at a certain point in time dad is cutting him off. It's coming sooner than later.
"I'm really happy for him because I know he's worked really hard, and not just because of sports. School hasn't been easy. He has to work at schoolwork. For me, school was easy. He's really worked for all of this. That's what I'm most proud of. This is something he wanted to do and he did it."
Note: As always, it was a pleasure to speak with both Robert and Katherine about R.J. I got a real kick out of both of them. They both had me laughing throughout the interview. I'm sure there are a lot of good times in this particular household with these two big personalities running the show. Thanks again for your time, and best of luck to both R.J. and the two of you.
Confidence Drives Blanton
IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories
N.C. safety ready for Elko reconnectNorth Carolina safety Jeremiah Gray is well known to a pair of Irish coaches. He previewed his weekend visit to Notre Dame with Irish Illustrated.
Master List: DefenseThe summer camp season hasn’t netted Notre Dame much in the way of commitments, but the summer months have offered at least a little clarity on this side of the ball.
Prister’s Thursday ThoughtsMost pre-season “watch lists” are meaningless. So, too, are individual rankings by writers who have no bearing on the draft. Quenton Nelson the No. 21 OG? Please.
Irish A-to-Z: Alizé MackThe highest ranked recruit on Notre Dame’s roster plans to return with a vengeance after a season sidelined by academic suspension.
Can Irish build a Midwestern D-Line in ’19?Notre Dame has struggled to land defensive linemen from SEC country and the West Coast. But next cycle could offer a strong crop within the Midwest. Can the Irish take advantage?
IrishIllustrated.comYesterday at 12:06 PM