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No substitute for this

When linebacker Blackburn got the call from Giants, class was dismissed

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / February 4, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS - The call came up as Giants Stadium, the number that Chase Blackburn had been hoping for, waiting for, praying for. His suitcase stood packed and ready as his wife tossed him his cellphone.

It was Kevin Abrams, the Giants’ assistant general manager. He asked if Blackburn was in shape. Blackburn said he was. Abrams told Blackburn there was a plane leaving for New York in two hours, and he should be on it.

Within 20 minutes, Blackburn was on his way.

The call had come the morning after the Giants lost to the Saints Nov. 28, their third straight defeat. New York’s linebackers kept getting injured - this time it was rookie Mark Herzlich - and there was a need for a man who had spent all season at home, anticipating that such a call would come, disappointed when it didn’t.

“It’s humbling,’’ Blackburn said. “It was good because I was able to be home for the birth of our second son [Bentley, born on Nov. 1]. I was able to have a family Thanksgiving with everyone there. There were a lot of positives that came from it, but at the same time I was ready to get back to work.’’

Blackburn had never thought he would be in that position. He believed that, at the end of last season, a new contract with the Giants would be forthcoming. He was, after all, a special teams captain, a contributor to New York’s defense for the past six years. He was just 28 and didn’t seem to be slowing.

Then, all of a sudden, he was stopped.

No contract. No spot for him. And as the offseason wound down, as the season wound up, no one else was offering one, either. There were calls and a few workouts, but no job.

“I wasn’t under contract,’’ Blackburn said. “That’s their decision, it’s a business and the front offices make those decisions every day. I was just hoping I’d get another opportunity.’’

So Blackburn worked out at home in Dublin, Ohio, in between the kids’ naps and late at night. He kept that bag packed and ready, in the hopes that someone, at some point, would realize that he could play. He watched as injuries mounted, as linebackers fell.

As he said, “I’m a pretty optimistic guy.’’

But not foolish. So he talked to one of his former coaches, the principal of a middle school in Dublin, about substitute teaching. One of the teachers was going on maternity leave to start the spring semester. Blackburn thought that might be a good safety net. It wasn’t what he wanted, but with two young children, it might be what he needed, knowing that football doesn’t last forever, that the future would come eventually. He just hadn’t thought it would come so soon.

Then came the phone call.

Suddenly Blackburn was off the couch, and into the starting lineup. He was the Giants’ middle linebacker, someone who defensive coordinator Perry Fewell was relying upon to make the calls, to stabilize the linebacker corps.

“He came in and calmed things down,’’ Giants general manager Jerry Reese said.

Blackburn had the knowledge and understanding of the Giants’ defense, the ability to step right in. So, even as he arrived in the most crucial part of the season, the point at which the Giants had to win, there was little to learn, little transition.

“Chase is kind of that guy that was the missing link, so to speak, in our defense from the first half of the year to the end of the year,’’ Fewell said.

He made Fewell’s job easier. Communication became better on the field, more seamless. And the Giants started winning, six times in the eight games in which Blackburn has played, rolling toward the playoffs and the Super Bowl.

“From the moment he arrived, it was like he never left,’’ coach Tom Coughlin said. “He absorbed where we were really fast, jumped right back into special teams, jumped into the linebacker role.

“He’s really jumped right in and done more than you can ask of anybody to help in as many ways as he can. He’ll volunteer to do anything, he’s just that kind of guy.’’

As safety Kenny Phillips said, “He knows the game, he knows the defense, and he just gave us presence in the middle of the field. He’s been spectacular for us.’’

And he has given up teaching for the moment. When he got the call from Abrams, Blackburn texted the middle school principal to tell him that their discussions about a job would have to be put on hold. He was going to play football again. Teaching could wait.

For now, his only plan is to get another Super Bowl ring. He has one from the win over the Patriots in February 2008. But Blackburn has two sons. And as he said, “I don’t want them to be fighting over the same ring. So it would be real nice if I could get a second one and they could each get one of their own.’’

Making that statement would have seemed ridiculous not long ago, when his packed bag was waiting by the door. He wanted to simply make a team. He wasn’t looking toward anything more.

“Obviously, if Vegas took odds on whether I’d be in the Super Bowl eight weeks ago,’’ Blackburn said, “no one would have bet on that.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.

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