Justin Blackmon maintains that he doesn't have a problem with alcohol or drugs despite two DUI arrests and a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
Longtime friends and Blackmon's former coaches still support the Jacksonville Jaguars ultra-talented wide receiver.
“Justin doesn't think he has a problem,” said Putnam North basketball coach Rick Harris, Blackmon's hoops coach at Plainview. “Maybe there's a whole other side of him I'm unaware of. Maybe I'm naïve.
“I know Justin genuinely cares about other people. I know Justin honors his mother and father and wants to do the right thing. Knowing him like I do, these isolated instances aren't the Justin I know.”
Blackmon's troubles earned him a four-game suspension to start this season. Blackmon, though, has reminded everyone the past two Sundays why he was a two-time Biletnikoff winner at OSU.
Last week, Blackmon and the downtrodden Jaguars, a 27-point underdog, trailed the Broncos 21-19 midway through the third quarter. Denver pulled away, but Jacksonville, for a change, was competitive.
Blackmon hauled in 14 catches for 190 yards. He exploited Denver's defense even when the Broncos double-teamed him.
But the underlying story is that the Plainview High School product is also one substance-abuse violation away from being suspended for an entire season.
Blackmon's attorney, Cheryl Ramsey, said Blackmon underwent a DUI assessment earlier this year in Florida, administered by a psychologist. No alcohol treatment was recommended.
“Justin hasn't made it easy for himself, but I think he's stronger for having gone through this,” said Garrett Moore, a former Plainview teammate. “This isn't his normal character. It doesn't change who he is as a person or a competitor.”
Jarrod Fields is living with Blackmon in Jacksonville. They've been friends since their Ardmore days. They grew up together at Corinth Baptist Church. Blackmon played for Plainview, while Fields played at nearby Ardmore High. Fields walked on at OSU.
“This bold but humble man has shown me so much about his character,” Fields said. “I get to see all the things he does when the cameras aren't rolling.”
While serving his suspension, Blackmon was prohibited from speaking with the media. He's conducted a couple interviews since he rejoined the team, but his responses have been brief.
“I'm probably more excited than anybody,” Blackmon said. “I'm just ready to go play.”
Out of character
Blackmon lived with Moore's family for his and Moore's senior year after Michelin transferred Justin's father, Warren, to South Carolina. Blackmon's parents have since moved back to Ardmore.
“I didn't move to Plainview until eighth grade,” Moore said. “We've been really close friends for nearly 10 years, but a lot of people think we've been friends forever.”
Before he made his pro debut, Blackmon got a misdemeanor DUI in Dallas while at OSU when he and some buddies drove down for a Dallas Cowboys game. Blackmon reportedly got behind the wheel because he was the least inebriated.
“He felt he could drive that night. He made a bad decision,” Moore said. “He's definitely a stand-up guy. These two incidents are not his normal character.”
Harris is convinced Blackmon never ran with the party crowd.
“You'd hear about the kids that went out to have a good time, but I never heard of Justin's name in the middle of it,” Harris said. “When that incident happened in Dallas, I thought it was an anomaly.
“With me he was, ‘Yes sir, no sir,' a great example for his teammates. He was great working with kids. He didn't have a huge ego. Some people in the NFL see him as some sort of misfit. I'm in the other camp. He's obviously made some mistakes, but I believe Justin will overcome all of this.”
There were no extenuating circumstances surrounding Blackmon's second arrest in June 2012, when police reports revealed he tested three times over the legal limit for alcohol. Blackmon said he made a mistake, had no excuse for his actions and said he was truly sorry to put the Jaguars organization in a negative light.
“I think it really hurt him to know the consequences from his decisions,” Harris said. “I think he kicks himself in the rear a lot for what happened. I feel he's frustrated, embarrassed. I think it really bothered him.”
Blackmon's unique personality
Johni Bell first met Blackmon when she taught freshmen English at Plainview. The former Plainview athletic director later coached Blackmon in track. She said Blackmon frequently offered comments from his desk but wasn't comfortable standing in front of the class.
“He enjoyed being the center of attention while not being the center of attention if that makes any sense,” Bell said. “He didn't like it when all the attention was focused on him and only him.”
Bell, who is now Plainview's assistant principal, said when Blackmon returns to Ardmore he often wears sunglasses, a hat and hoodie to not draw attention.
“He has always had a very strong family upbringing, very strong ties to his family and his community,” Bell said. “The good thing about Justin is he loves success, but he loves success for the whole team.
“Obviously he's gotten a lot of glory, but he doesn't thrive on that. He's in the limelight, but he's not a selfish player. He's not a glory seeker. That's why when he comes home he prefers not to be the Biletnikoff winner or an NFL player. He just wants to be Justin.”
People in Ardmore said Blackmon's team-first philosophy combined with an ultra-competitive fire is a strong combination that's helped him develop into a prototype NFL receiver. Blackmon has huge hands, can outleap defenders and has “football speed” to take it the distance.
“He's very humble, the type of kid everybody loves, someone everybody gravitated to,” Harris said. “But he was super competitive. He didn't like to lose even if it was a shooting drill in practice.”
The NFL didn't release details on why Blackmon was suspended. Because performance-enhancing drugs weren't involved, Blackmon was allowed to attend team meetings. During the month Blackmon was restricted from practices and games, he caught balls, lifted weights and studied film.
“He's got a lot of talent and he's competitive,” said OSU coach Mike Gundy. “He's one of those guys you say, ‘I wish he'd just get back to playing football.' We call it being hungry ... It's mental. It's human nature. Sounds to me like he's hungry.”
Out of second chances
Beleaguered Jacksonville fans, beaten down by a team that was 2-14 last season, are excited Blackmon might help turn around a moribund franchise.
Blackmon's last nine games, including the final seven games last season, would be the 16-game equivalent of a 101-catch, 1,675-yard, nine-TD season.
“On the field he's given them a jolt offensively because they were just pitiful the first four games,” said Ryan O'Halloran, the Jaguars beat writer for the Jacksonville Times-Union. “He's given fans hope he can be a playmaker for the future.”
Blackmon arrived in Jacksonville with baggage and has added more baggage.
“Most fans probably are skeptical,” O'Halloran said. “After the way he played late last year, I'm sure some fans felt: ‘This kid is on the right track.' Some fans probably moved on and don't want him around. But the majority still supports him knowing he can really help the team if he can stay out of trouble.”
Jacksonville's management has changed since drafting Blackmon. In January, the Jaguars named Dave Caldwell general manager.
Caldwell hired Gus Bradley, 47, as head coach. Following 15 years in small college football, Bradley moved to the NFL in 2006 to coach Tampa Bay linebackers. For the past three seasons, Bradley was Pete Carroll's defensive coordinator in Seattle.
Blackmon can still earn his rookie-entry, four-year $18.5 million deal, but the suspension released the Jaguars from all guaranteed payment obligations.
Bell talks with Blackmon when he returns to Ardmore.
“This summer I didn't preach to him but told him, ‘You know how you've been raised. You know what's right. You know what's wrong. And you're a smart young man,'” Bell said. “I told him he has a wonderful opportunity but he has to make all the right decisions.”
Optimism Blackmon will succeed
The Jaguars are the leading candidate to own the No. 1 overall pick for next year's NFL Draft, but Jacksonville won't be an automatic win the rest of the season. Blackmon and Cecil Shorts, another young, talented receiver, form a potent tandem. Defenses can no longer just focusing on stopping All-Pro running back Maurice Jones-Drew.
Blackmon sat out 38 days between the final preseason game and the Jaguars' Week 5 game. His first catch of the season was a 67-yard touchdown, outrunning the St. Louis secondary for the final 50 yards.
The Jaguars have shown faith in Blackmon, but he is required to meet regularly with Bradley and director of player development Marcus Pollard.
“Those four weeks we talked all the time,” Bradley said the day Blackmon returned to practice. “We've had many conversations. It's all positives that he's done. We celebrate each day and celebrate the next day. Just like offense, defense or special teams, we stack on the victory and hopefully it becomes behavior.”
Fields said Blackmon is motivated on and off the field.
“Knowing the world will persecute him despite his accomplishments, I believe he's learned to not put so much pressure on himself,” Fields said. “Every child that hears his story will instill Justin's name into their memories, someone who overcame and was a beast from a small town in Oklahoma.”