EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — A little less than two months ago, Chase Blackburn was considering a career as a substitute middle-school math teacher.
Out of work for four months after the Giants failed to re-sign him and with a recently born second child, Blackburn was ready to move on. Playing middle linebacker in the NFL for six seasons would be replaced by teaching algebra to teens and pre-teens in that limbo between grammar school and high school.
Reality had set in and a second career was about to begin — that is until the New York Giants called and told the 28-year-old to grab his bags and get back to New Jersey.
Blackburn not only got back, he earned the starting job on a defense that has helped propel the Giants (11-7) into Sunday’s NFC title game against the San Francisco 49ers (14-3).
“It’s great to be back in the game,” Blackburn said Wednesday after the Giants finished practice. “It was getting to the point where I thought it might not happen this year. I just kept on hoping and hoping and praying that God would give me an opportunity at some point this season, or even next year.”
Blackburn’s break came after rookie linebacker Mark Herzlich suffered a badly sprained ankle in a lopsided loss to the Saints in New Orleans. With weakside linebacker Michael Boley sidelined because of a hamstring injury and rookie middle linebacker Greg Jones a little green, the Giants called Blackburn at his home in Ohio on Nov. 29.
His bags were packed and he was on a plane for New Jersey less than two hours later. He practiced the next day and played on Dec. 4 against the Green Bay Packers.
Blackburn even intercepted an Aaron Rodgers pass in a game the Giants lost 38-35.
“Chase is a studier,” Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. “He’s a guy that takes notes when you’re sitting and lecturing to the classroom. And everybody respects that.
“He asks great questions when we’re in the meetings. And so, he brought credibility. He brought a voice that, like I can speak to Chase, Chase can speak to the defense, and we all spoke the same language. We misinterpret a couple things here and there, but everybody knew he was gonna get it right. And he was gonna work hard to get it right. So I think it settled us down a lot more. Instead of us being indecisive, we became decisive.”
The Giants’ special teams captain last season and their leading tackler on special teams in his first six seasons in New York, Blackburn has helped solidify the run defense. He’s also been timely in making big plays.
None was bigger than his fumble recovery and 40-yard return to the Packers 4-yard line in the fourth quarter of the NFC divisional game this past weekend in Green Bay. Eli Manning hit Mario Manningham for a touchdown on the next play to give the Giants a 30-13 lead that was never threatened.
Defensive end Dave Tollefson is one of Blackburn’s closest friends on the team, and he can’t say enough about him. He even joked that this is par for the course with Blackburn, who first made the Giants’ roster as a free agent after being signed a week before the season.
“For him to come in and make an impact like he has, it’s just been tremendous,” Tollefson said. “I am just so proud of him. When he came back, I was surprised it took so long to bring a guy like him back. All the good things you can say about a guy, locker-room guy, plays hard, smart, and I mean he doesn’t get enough credit for how athletic he is. It’s just another chapter in the Chase Blackburn story.”
Defensive captain Justin Tuck said Blackburn is one of those veterans with the ability to step in and get the job done without much practice or film time.
“As he has gotten back and gotten accustomed to it, he has been a great addition for us,” Tuck said. “I wish we could have had him all year.”
Blackburn was ready to come back at any time. He stayed in shape after no one signed him as a free agent and didn’t slack off until the beginning of November when his wife Megan gave birth to their second child — a son named Bentley.
“I was in the hospital with my wife, and bringing them home and helping out, that was the hardest part,” Blackburn said. “Once he was born, I wasn’t worried about not getting the opportunity, that wasn’t what made me frustrated. It was more I had a family and I have to work.”
Blackburn, who graduated with a math degree, came close to working in Dublin, Ohio, where one of his former coaches was a principal at a middle school.
“We talked about it and he thought I would be good for the job,” Blackburn said. “He was trying to get the ball rolling because there was a job that was about to be available because of a maternity leave. It wasn’t a done deal, but we were trying to get the ball rolling.”
The ball is now rolling in a different direction and there is a chance Blackburn could follow it all the way to Indianapolis for a second shot at the Super Bowl with the Giants.
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After shutting down the Packers, how will the Giants’ defense fare against the 49ers?