Blades anchors improving Pitt defense

Pittsburgh middle linebacker H.B. Blades' pedigree suggested he would play college football at the University of Miami. His father, Bennie, was a two-time All-America safety for the Hurricanes, and two uncles -- wide receiver Brian Blades and safety Al Blades -- also played there. All three Blades brothers won national championships while playing at Miami and later played in the NFL.

But Horatio Benedict Blades' personality seemed to be a better fit for Pittsburgh, the then-Big East rival in the blue-collar, steel mill city far from the beaches of South Florida. And, after growing up mostly without his father around, Blades wanted to establish his own identity.

"It was a change of scenery," said Blades, an All-Big East linebacker and the league's top tackler in 2005. "My personality fit with the city's personality. My family's tradition at Miami was very good. My father was an All-American and won national championships. But I wanted to go somewhere I could start a tradition of my own."

Growing up in Plantation, Fla., H.B. Blades was aware of his father's celebrity but had little contact with him. Bennie Blades was a senior in high school when Kim Chapman became pregnant with their son in 1983. Bennie Blades made a verbal commitment to play college football at Michigan, but later decided to stay close to home and signed with the hometown Hurricanes.

Bennie Blades was one of the biggest stars on the trash-talking, brash Miami teams coached by Jimmy Johnson. After intercepting a then-school record 19 passes at Miami and winning a national title in 1987, Blades was the No. 3 choice in the 1988 NFL draft, picked by the Detroit Lions.

H.B. Blades was only 4 when his father signed a lucrative contract with the Lions. Blades lived with his grandparents, Rosa and Fredrick Blades, who thought the NFL road was no place for their grandson. For the next decade, Blades watched his father play in the NFL, nine seasons with the Lions and his last with the Seattle Seahawks. Blades watched most of his father's games on TV and some of them in person. He saw his mother every other weekend.

"Growing up, it was more difficult because my father was doing the football thing and he was gone a lot," H.B. Blades said. "My grandparents raised me when I was young. But I looked up to him because he was my father. I thought he was the greatest thing in the world. But with the football lifestyle, my grandparents thought I should be raised in a normal lifestyle and normal atmosphere."

Blades became especially close to his youngest uncle, Al, who was less than eight years older than him. They shared a bedroom in Blades' grandparents' home. When Al Blades left to play football at Miami in 1996, H.B. Blades often joined his uncle for workouts and stayed in his dorm room. Al Blades became a hard-hitting safety for the Hurricanes and signed as a free agent with the San Francisco 49ers. He played parts of two seasons in the NFL before he was released.

"He was my favorite person in the world," H.B. Blades said. "We grew up in the same house since we weren't that far apart in age. He was my best friend and somebody I really looked up to."

It was Al Blades who encouraged his nephew to blaze his trail somewhere other than Miami.

Like his father, H.B. Blades verbally committed to play at Michigan during the spring of his junior season at Plantation High School. But then he visited Pittsburgh and fell in love with the city. He also considered playing at Virginia and Auburn.

"When it's time to go to work, you bring a hard hat and go to work," H.B. Blades said. "When it's time to have fun, you go and have fun. That's what it's like here. I love it."

In March 2003, as Blades was preparing for his high school graduation and getting ready to leave for Pittsburgh, Al Blades celebrated his 26th birthday. Early the next morning, H.B. Blades was awakened by a phone call from his grandmother. Al Blades had been involved in a car accident, she said, and had drowned. She wanted H.B. Blades to see him at the hospital one last time.

Witnesses said the car accident was the result of a drag race. The car Blades was riding in struck a bridge abutment and plunged into a Miami canal. He left behind a 3-year-old son, Al Blades Jr.

"When he passed away, I thought I lost a big part of me because he was the greatest influence on my life," H.B. Blades said. "It was really rough on me. I'm doing all of this in memory of him."

Al Blades would be proud of his nephew, who has started the past two seasons for the Panthers, at strongside linebacker as a sophomore and at middle linebacker last season. He has played in all 36 games during his college career and twice has been named All-Big East. Blades is a strong preseason candidate for the top defensive honors in college football: the Butkus Award, Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Rotary Lombardi Award and Ronnie Lott Trophy.

Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt, who was the defensive coordinator at Miami when Bennie Blades played there, moved H.B. Blades to middle linebacker last year. The position seems to be a better fit for the 6-foot, 240-pound player, who isn't as tall as many college linebackers.

"Coach Wannstedt is from the area and played here and coached here," Blades said. "He likes tough guys. My personality fits his system as far as being hardworking. When your body is aching and you're tired, you've still got to go to work."

With Blades playing in the middle and All-Big East cornerback Darrelle Revis roaming in the secondary, the Panthers should be much-improved on defense this season. They have more depth on the defensive line, and Wannstedt really likes the toughness of senior linebacker Clint Session.

"I'm not worried about Clint Session and H.B. Blades and Darrelle Revis," Wannstedt said.

"Those guys are going to have a great year. For us to take a major step, the guys on our defensive line need to take a major step and really mature."

As Blades has matured, he has repaired his relationship with his father. Bennie Blades, who couldn't be reached to be interviewed for this story, reportedly fathered six children, each with a different woman. In 2003, he was arrested for failing to pay nearly $300,000 in child support for a teenage daughter in Michigan. The elder Blades pleaded guilty to a felony and reached a settlement with the girl's mother. Blades, who retired from the NFL in 1997, was working as a substitute teacher in Florida at the time.

Bennie Blades will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in December. H.B. Blades hopes to attend the ceremony.

"We're making up for lost time now," Blades said. "We're a lot closer now than we were when I was young."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.