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Chase Blackburn: An unlikely journey

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- He has the kind of personal story that happens to rank-and-file NFL players so often it's easy to overlook the toll they go through sight unseen. Their sagas make the agate type, not big headlines. But put yourself in linebacker Chase Blackburn's place for just a minute. Consider how the longest long shot on this long shot Giants team got back to the Super Bowl.

He's only 28 years old, and he has a wife and two infant sons back home. He was the Giants' special-teams captain, a man well-liked throughout the locker room for his team-first attitude, sharp grasp of game plans and ability to step in as a spot starter and impeccably make all the right defensive calls. He was with the Giants for six good years. Then last summer's NFL lockout ended and all of a sudden he wasn't.

There was no announcement. No big stir. No formal explanation given for why the Giants let him walk as a free agent. "And I still haven't asked," he admitted.

Like a lot of unsung players, Blackburn just slipped off the radar. He was gone like a wisp of smoke. Three other NFL teams -- the St. Louis Rams, Cincinnati Bengals and Detroit Lions -- all brought him in for workouts in subsequent weeks, but they didn't sign him, either. He was at a crossroads, and he knew it. But this is the part of being a professional athlete that often goes unnoticed, too: Success is more often explained by what you do when nobody's looking.

Do you know what Blackburn did as he waited and waited back home in Dublin, Ohio?

When the Giants went to training camp without him, Blackburn was still lifting and working out by himself. Every day. And when the regular season began and injuries began to stack up across the league and he was still without a job, Blackburn would sit on the sofa each Sunday watching NFL games and literally call out the defensive signals when the Giants' games happened to be on TV -- predicting to his wife, Megan, what was going to happen next, what this guy could've done or where that guy should've been.

Even when their second son, Bentley, was born three months ago, Blackburn just adjusted his schedule if Bentley or his brother Landyn, now just 17 months, were having a bad day or refused to sleep through the night or his wife needed help. Sometimes it would be 10 or 11 p.m. before Blackburn could get to Avery Park near his house, but he always still went and did his pass drops and footwork drills in the dark. Still always by himself.

Blackburn didn't have an NFL job but he still thought like a pro athlete. His mindset didn't change. He was all the things -- dedicated, persevering, hard-minded and tough -- that jocks always talk about being. He controlled what he could control. Slammed the door on personal doubts and anxieties as best he could. Flushed disappointments as quickly as they came.

But Blackburn stresses he's a husband and father, too. And he also had enough humility when he was still out of work by October to be open-minded when a former youth coach of his who's now a middle school principal approached him after he gave a little talk to the kids at his school. He asked Blackburn if he'd be interested in taking a temporary job as an eighth-grade math teacher, filling in as a permanent sub for a woman due to go on maternity leave.

"It wasn't anything that was said and done, but we were going through the steps," Blackburn said.

"We kinda said, 'OK, maybe, we need a job. We need to support our kids. This is good for now,'" Megan said. "But honestly, we didn't think it was the end. It was hard for me to see him go to those other tryouts and then come back home disappointed. I was the one who found it nerve-wracking. But seeing how positive Chase was helped me stay positive, too."

Blackburn was still that guy who had a reputation among the Giants for trying to do everything right. He kept in touch with numerous players, especially close buddies like Dave Tollefson and Zak DeOssie, Lawrence Tynes and Justin Tuck. And it mattered that they acted the way athletes often do, sight unseen, too. The other Giants privately rallied around Blackburn and supported him, texting with him week after week, telling him he wasn't forgotten, urging him: "Keep your head up, you'll be somewhere. You should be somewhere. You still have years left in you."

"That belief meant a lot," Blackburn admitted.

Why Blackburn initially fell through the cracks with the Giants seems simple when you look at it: The team drafted three linebackers in the offseason with nice upsides, management already knew what he was and planned to start veterans Clint Sintim and Jonathan Goff alongside Michael Boley this year. Then Sintim and Goff both suffered season-ending injuries. But instead of bringing back Blackburn right away, the Giants at first tried plugging in rookies Greg Jones, Jacquian Williams and Mark Herzlich.

The Giants even got by during their 6-2 start. But the defense was still having numerous breakdowns for big plays and the Giants were staring at a murderous stretch run, which began with an upset win in New England, followed by a very, very bad 49-24 dismantling by the New Orleans Saints that the Blackburns watched on "Monday Night Football."

A game against then-unbeaten Green Bay lay just six days ahead. Chase was in the basement at home, playing with Landyn on the floor. Megan was sitting on the couch, looking on, when Chase's cell phone rang beside her.

"Do you want to answer it?" she asked.

"Nah, don't worry about it, it's just the Giants," Chase joked.

But the phone kept ringing. So Chase asked Megan to toss it to him. And when he looked at the number he said, "It IS the Giants!"

She still thought he was joking -- until she overheard the conversation.

Kevin Abrams, a Giants assistant general manager, asked Blackburn, "Are you in shape?"

"Yep," Blackburn said.

"Then let's go -- there's a flight in two hours," Abrams said.

Blackburn hung up and told his wife, "I have practice tomorrow!" He scrambled up the steps to pack a bag. He texted that middle school principal and told him thanks, but that eighth-grade teaching job would have to wait. The Blackburns got one of Chase's buddies to drive their car to New Jersey and Megan and the boys flew there a couple of days later. They're living now in a rented furnished apartment not far from MetLife Stadium. And their NFL life has begun -- again.

Blackburn might have even slipped back into the Giants' roster as quietly as he left if in his first game back he hadn't intercepted Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers -- one of the few picks Rodgers gave up all season -- and set up a 12-yard Giants touchdown drive. And then later, in the NFC divisional playoff, picked up a fumble and rumbled 40 yards to the Packers' 4-yard line before Rodgers, well … um … caught him.

"Rodgers didn't catch me -- he was in front of me the whole time!" Blackburn protested with half-shriek and a broad smile Thursday, drawing a lot of laughs from the reporters at his locker.

"Jordy Nelson [one of Green Bay's fleet receivers] caught me. But he wouldn't have either if Michael Boley had just given me a block."

Everyone laughed again. Soon Blackburn was grabbing his game plan out of his locker and apologizing for cutting the conversation short. He had to run. He was due at a defensive meeting in two minutes. The next day, he'd have another practice to go to. And another Super Bowl week to look forward to after that.

Amazing, right?

Blackburn is the longest long shot on this long shot Giants team. None of them were supposed to be in Super Bowl XLVI opposite New England. And like most of them, Blackburn's attitude right now is why ask why?

"All that matters is I'm here now," he explained. "I always believed."

Megan and their two boys will be at the game in Indianapolis next Sunday. She and Chase first met in high school and they dated throughout college. They were together when he first made the Giants as an undrafted free agent out of Akron. They were married just a few months after the Giants won their Super Bowl shocker against New England in '08.

So when asked if anything about Chase surprised her during all that time he was out of the NFL, Megan's answer is what you might expect from the wife of a man who's always tried to do everything right, and a guy who -- out of all the messages he might've picked when he walked into a tattoo parlor at the age of 18 -- chose the one that's now on his left shoulder. It reads, "Truly Blessed."

"Was I 'surprised' by how he's handled all this? No," Megan said.

Every once in a while, even the longest long shots come home.