When Leominster native Rob Blanchflower was 11 years old, he wrote a letter as part of a middle school project to West Point, where decades ago his uncle Tom Cafaro had set the nation’s all-time points record in lacrosse. Six years later, in 2009, they were one of two Division 1 schools, along with Holy Cross, to offer the St. John’s High tight end a full scholarship.
Blanchflower turned down both, instead taking out a $15,000 student loan and accepting a partial scholarship to UMass, at the time an FCS program. Four years later, he’s ranked the 16th-best tight end by ESPN, a potential third-day pick looking to chip away at his college debt.
“My parents thought I was crazy. I turned down two of the best schools in the country, both gave me full rides,” he reflected. “But it ended up working out. It is what it is.”
A year ago at this time, Blanchflower’s name was rising up the ranks of watch lists, with scouts routinely checking in. Since then, however, staying on the field has been difficult.
During the preseason, Blanchflower was told he had a fracture in his pelvis. Turns out, it was actually a bilateral sports hernia. Blanchflower suited up for the first time on Sept. 21 against Vanderbilt, and appeared in only five games the rest of the way.
Playing through pain was excruciating enough that Blanchflower rarely practiced during the week, limited typically to biking or swimming to keep his conditioning up. Days after games, he said, he’d lay in bed all day from the pain, with friends delivering food for him. It showed on the field, where he often felt winded, and “had more dropped balls than I ever have in my entire career -- Pop Warner up through my entire life.”
Still, Blanchflower finished second on the Minutemen in receiving (27 catches, 333 yards, 3 TDs) and received invites to the coveted Senior Bowl in January as well as the NFL Combine in February. Due to his injury, he had to sit out both events, as well as UMass’ pro day on March 25 -- though two dozen scouts still showed up to interview and measure.
Blanchflower held a private workout on the UMass campus on April 23, his first action since November, and says he’s felt as good as he has in a long time. Around 20 NFL scouts watched him run over a dozen routes from each side of the field, and he says he didn’t have one drop.
“I tell my dad, I feel like a golden retriever with a tennis ball when you put a football near me,” he laughed. “That’s all I wanna do is run out there and catch the ball. It was good just to be out there and show my skills and play catch, so that was all good.”
When Blanchflower arrived at his hotel in Indianapolis for the NFL Combine, he was greeted to a pleasant surprise. Cal tight end Richard Rodgers, his former high school teammate at St. John’s, was his roommate. The two hadn’t seen each other in nearly two years.
Together the two led the Pioneers to state championships in both football and basketball, kick-starting the school through one of its most dominant eras in athletics. In a way, though, the two couldn’t be more different.
Rodgers was a golden boy coming out of high school, a three-star prospect ranked No. 3 overall in Massachusetts by ESPN, blessed with natural gifts that seemingly come once a generation in Worcester. At Cal he followed the footsteps of his father, Richard Sr., a three-time special-teams captain who famously handled two of the five laterals in “The Play,” -- the chaotic kick return in the final seconds of the 1982 Cal-Stanford game considered one of the most famous plays in the history of college football.
Having previously ballooned to 275 pounds under Jeff Tedford, Rodgers slimmed down to 257 in Sonny Dykes’ new spread-oriented regime last fall, moving to wide receiver and ranking third for the Bears in catches (39) and yards (608). ESPN currently ranks him as the 12th-best tight end.
“It’s a lot of weight, but I can carry it well,” Rodgers told reporters at the combine. “I’m as capable at 275 as 260. Whatever weight they want me at, that’s what I can do.”
Blanchflower, who is listed at 6-foot-4 and 256 pounds, is in a similar mold to another local tight end prospect, Dartmouth native Arthur Lynch, the draft class’ 11th-ranked tight end out of the University of Georgia. In an era where “move” tight ends are in vogue, Lynch is a throwback to a more traditional prototype.
“I’ve had to block the best players in the country for four years. There isn’t a tight end in the SEC who’s done that, and I’ll continue to do that at the next level,” Lynch told reporters at February’s combine. “I can block the power, I can block the lead, I can go down the seam and catch the ball, I can do intermediate routes. My film as a collective whole has a body of work that’s much different than anyone else in this draft from a tight end standpoint.”
Having four locals potentially drafted is a rarity for Massachusetts, a state that on average produces just 10 to 15 Division 1 FBS signees a year. Even rarer, perhaps, is that three come from the long-overlooked Central Massachusetts region, with Worcester-bred linebacker Yawin Smallwood of UConn ranked as the sixth-best inside linebacker prospect. The region has produced a number of Pro Bowlers over the years, from Joe Morris (Ayer) to Howie Long (Milford) to Jerry Azumah (Worcester).
“We always talk about it, just a blue-collar, tough area, guys growing up the right way in my opinion,” Blanchflower said. “The things we experienced, I learned, is not common to other areas of the country. Guys from Texas, Florida, California, Jersey, Pennsylvania, I feel like people from there don’t experience the same kinds of things people from Central Massachusetts experience.”
And this weekend, home is where he’ll be. While others are getting dressed to the nines for a night out in mid-town Manhattan, or huddling around the television screen, Blanchflower will be out fishing with his father at one of their favorite spots, Round Meadow Pond, in neighboring Westminster.
“I’m not gonna waste any anxiety sitting around watching every pick of the draft,” he said. “I’m going to be with my family. Whatever happens happens, I have no control over it.”