This article appears in the September 2004 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
A personal detail most folks wouldn't know about Tray Blackmon is his recreational relationship with freestyle rap. He conjures a thought or two, scrawls some notes and later, "when I can make something out of it," he crafts some verse. It's a hobby he indulges often.
Lately, the LaGrange (Ga.) 6-foot-1, 193-pound senior linebacker has been scribbling lyrics about the Grangers' 2004 season. And though the SchoolSports All-American won't offer any previews, the theme is pretty self-evident. LaGrange will be gunning for its third Class AAA state title in the past four years, and Blackmon's relentless, pedal-to-the-metal style is a huge reason why.
To watch him play is to witness a predator on two legs. Effortlessly and powerfully, he gravitates to the ball with an attitude and purpose only he can coherently explain.
"When I was an underachiever on the scout team as a freshman just trying to give the starters a workout, a coach pulled me aside and told me something very important," recalls Blackmon, who is rated the nation's No. 3 linebacker and No. 13 overall recruit in the Class of 2005 by SchoolSports.com.
"He told me as long as you go hard on every play, you can make up for a lot of mistakes," continues Blackmon, who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.49 seconds. "Ever since then, I try to go full speed and be aggressive. That way, you can at least be satisfied with your own effort whether you win or lose. As long as you're coachable, you'll always be able to coach up on the little details. But you can never coach up on all-out effort."
Blackmon, who will turn 19 on Oct. 20, is one of those special few who play every down with full intensity. And he's done it from those first snaps of meaningful playing time as a freshman reserve on the Grangers' 14-0 state title team in 2001 right through last fall's 14-1 march to a second state crown in three years. As a junior, that intensity helped Blackmon record 71 solo tackles, 45 assists, 12 sacks, five forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries (including one for a touchdown) and earn first team All-State honors.
Blackmon is most definitely coachable. And personable. But the word "phenomenal" belongs at the top of that list.
"You really see it over the summer when he's playing at camps or in passing leagues where there's no hitting," says LaGrange head coach Steve Pardue, 42, now in his 10th year at the Grangers' helm. "You see how quickly he closes to the ball and how explosive he is. He's got the speed to elude people and also the power to run through you, which makes him very hard to block. There's no doubt he's one of the best linebackers I've seen at the high school level."
Blackmon patrols the no man's land between the line of scrimmage and the defensive secondary without hesitation or reservation. His game is free flowing and fluid, but powerful. It's almost as if the freedom in his movement is born of a concept more than it is about concrete skills.
That, in fact, is what makes him special. Although he's a bit small for a blue-chip linebacker, the way Blackmon flies around the turf more than makes up for his size. And his passionate play is grounded in four simple rules of engagement.
"First of all, I think of having a chance that so many before me have had but didn't take advantage of," says Blackmon. "I try to learn from others' mistakes.
I also remember that all my life — since I played sandlot ball with my friends — I've wanted to do this. You know, to play football at a high level. Next, I make sure to remember that football is a game. You should have fun with it, but also realize it can take you a long way. After that, I just try to give it all on every play because anything can happen in football, and you never know when the next play is your last play.
"I'd like to be remembered as a true player," he adds. "A guy who gave all I got every game, every play."
Wanting his dream badly enough elevated Blackmon from those childhood pickup games to elite national recruit. It took hard work — work that must now be acknowledged as barely a beginning.
"High school is the easy part if you're talking about going to the next level," says Blackmon, who lists Georgia, Auburn, LSU, Florida State, USC and Kentucky among his collegiate favorites entering his senior season. "The hard work hasn't come yet. But nothing worth having is easy, and you've got to work hard to achieve your goals."
There is, without question, a price for reaching lofty heights yet still thirsting to climb even higher. A guy must survive the exposure that comes with being something of a local legend. The exposure that comes with being the No. 1 defensive stopper for a program that's gone 40-2 over the past three seasons.
Blackmon could probably scribble some lyrics about that as well. For now, though, he's content to simply think about it a bit and go with the flow.
"I always wanted to play in the spotlight, but I didn't know it was going to be like this," says Blackmon, the second oldest of nine children (five sisters and three brothers). "The way I figure, the more people who want to talk to me and the more people I get to meet because of it, that will end up helping me, too. I try to focus on the important things, like earning a degree and getting an education. The football is the easy part. I'll just try to use the rest to my advantage."