FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A YouTube video blinks to life and the camera pans wildly until a face eerily familiar to Miami fans fills nearly the entire frame.
“What’s going on?” he asks the camera and the hundreds who will eventually come across the video. “It’s your boy BladesBoy—”
An off-camera voice interrupts the streamer. Al Blades Jr. and three friends are pulling into Universal Studios for Halloween Horror Nights, and Blades is making sure to catch the whole thing on camera, even as they have to deal with a ride-sharing service and parking attendant.
A few cuts later, and Blades and his friends are finally inside the park. For the next 10 minutes or so, Blades offers a window into his life, complete with sarcastic reactions to the costumed park workers and gentle ribbing of the friends with whom he traveled to Orlando. If he hadn’t been born with his natural love for football, Blades has an idea what his career path might be.
“I would be a YouTuber,” Blades told DieHards. “I would be a successful YouTuber. I’m good at video games, top in the nation at Fortnite. … I’m just an entertainer. I sing a little bit, I’m pretty funny, I can dance.”
If Al Blades Sr. had been a teenager in 2018, maybe he would’ve been like this, too. Blades Jr. posts videos of himself singing on his Instagram. He went viral with a Twitter photo of himself throwing up the U at midfield at Florida State’s Doak Campbell Stadium. Blades Jr. did so again with a Twitter post mocking the Seminoles and Florida, ranking them behind teams such as “Miramar Optimist” and “Miami Lakes YMCA.” On his YouTube channel, Blades Jr. catalogs everything from his most impressive Fortnite Battle Royale victories to the workouts that helped make him one of the nation’s most coveted recruits.
From everything Blades Jr. has heard, read and watched about his father, he thinks Blades Sr. would have maybe been doing the same.
Florida Football Rankings currently 🤧 pic.twitter.com/gEaKaRvjJh
— ⚜Al Blades⚜ (@AlBlades_Jr) October 31, 2017
As he prepares for his freshman season at Miami after enrolling in May, Blades won’t shy away from comparisons to his late father. He’s spent just about his entire life hearing how similar he is to the former Hurricanes safety whose name he shares. To him, it’s all an honor.
“Everyone will say, ‘Oh, you need to be like your dad. He needs to be better than his dad,'” Blades said. “I’m going to be the best me I’m going to be, and my legacy is going to stand next to his, and whether it’s above, below, the same, it doesn’t matter. That’s how I look at it.
“None of that stuff bothers me. I’m just that type of person.”
Katisha Rose was never exactly sure how to explain it to her son. Blades Jr. was only 3 years old at the time “the incident,” as Rose calls it, happened. Blades Sr. was in the passenger seat early March 20, 2003, when the driver lost control of his car and plummeted into a canal. He died only a few hours after his 26th birthday ended.
Rose figured her young son wouldn’t be able to process the full story. His father, Rose told her son, “went into the sky to be with God.” Her son complied for a little while until — as is often the case with kids — he didn’t.
One day, the junior Blades had a response. “Can we go on an airplane to see daddy?” Rose remembers him saying.
“At that moment I was like, ‘Oh my God,'” Rose said. “He kind of had a breakdown then because I had to say, ‘No, he’s not coming back.'”
Blades Jr. spent countless nights crying alone in his bedroom. Rose worried again as he got older. For children of Blades Jr.’s generation, laptops, iPads and cellphones are omnipresent. It was only a matter of time before Blades would start Googling his father’s name. It was only a matter of time until he stumbled across all the stories from the day Blades Sr. died.
Blades Sr. turned 26 on March 19, 2003. He still had NFL aspirations after spending parts of the previous two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. Either way, he was already a Hurricanes legend after earning first-team All-Big East honors as a senior in 2000.
Around 2 a.m., Blades Sr. was riding shotgun in a 1999 Mazda Millenia driven by a former teammate of his at Plantation (Fla.) High School. Police suspected Martel Johnson, the driver, was racing someone else down Northwest 22nd Avenue in Miami Gardens, Fla., when he lost control of the car. The Millenia collided with a bridge and plunged into a nearby canal. Paramedics rushed Blades Sr. to Miami’s Parkway Regional Medical Center, now Jackson Memorial Hospital. At 2:37, doctors pronounced Blades Sr. dead on arrival. He had drowned in the canal.
Because of how young he was when his father died, Blades Jr. went through his grieving process when he was older. The internet, as much as anything, became his gateway to learn about his fan-favorite father. He loaded his cellphone up with photos of his father from his playing days in Coral Gables. He tracked down all the videos he could find, whether they were the famous ones chronicling Blades Sr.’s locker-room escapades or more obscure highlight films of what the defensive back actually did on the field.
Blades grew cornrows like his father. He wears No. 7 like his father. It’s mostly subconscious, but the ways he walks, talks and acts are all uncannily similar to his father.
“He became almost obsessed, I would say,” Rose said, “to the point I didn’t know what to do. It’s his dad.”
Sometimes, it’s hard for Rose to even be around her son. Blades Jr. tells the same jokes his father did. Like Blades Sr., Blades Jr. will just sing at the top of his lungs as he walks around the house.
On the field, Blades Jr. loves to talk trash. He’s been a captain on every team he’s represented.
The three years Blades Jr. spent with his father left a major impression. Inevitably, Blades Jr.’s life revolved around football and, most importantly, the Hurricanes. Rose and Blades Sr. decked out their son’s room in green and orange, and filled it with Miami memorabilia. Blades Sr. would take his son down to campus to run around at the Hurricanes’ practice fields. They all spent more than a few Saturdays together at the Miami Orange Bowl, or at least gathered around a television with uncles Bennie and Brian Blades, former Hurricanes themselves, to watch Miami play.
Blades Jr. didn’t start playing football until about a year after his father died. Rose never pushed him to play the sport, but it was inevitable. Football — specifically Hurricanes football — is in Blades Jr.’s blood.
“I think I’ve been carrying a football since I was around 3,” Blades Jr. said. “I was kind of upset I didn’t play.”
The day Blades Jr. spent nearly his entire life dreaming of finally arrived Feb. 22, 2015. Blades Jr. took his first real recruiting visit to Miami and the coaching staff, then led by Al Golden, offered the 14-year-old cornerback a scholarship.
“All my life, this is the moment I looked up to,” Blades Jr. said, “so I knew immediately I’m going to Miami.”
Blades was just a freshman at NSU University School in Fort Lauderdale. He admits he knew nothing about the recruiting process. An offer didn’t really mean anything to him. All he really knew about commitments was sometimes older kids will post on Twitter they’ve committed.
Blades Jr. called his mother and his uncles to tell them he wanted to commit. He just wanted to hear what they all thought first. All three told him to do it if it was what he really wanted.
Even though he ultimately wound up signing with Miami in December, Blades Jr. considers the on-the-spot commitment to be one of his biggest mistakes. He eventually de-committed Oct. 25, 2015, when the Hurricanes fired Golden and most of his staff.
Blades Jr. became one of the nation’s most coveted prospects in the next few years. A 4-star cornerback, Blades finished as the No. 97 overall prospect in the 247Sports composite rankings for the Class of 2018. Thirty schools offered the 6-foot, 170-pound defensive back, including Florida State, Pittsburgh, Alabama, Georgia, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan, Minnesota, Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois, UCLA, Florida International, Florida Atlantic and Central Florida. He competed in both the Under Armour All-America Game and The Opening Finals in the past year, and thrived in both all-star showcases.
“I know from just seeing it so many times with former players’ kids that there’s so much pressure put on their shoulders at a young age to live up to their father or their brother, or whatever the case may be,” said Kevin Beard, who coached Blades Jr. at NSU University, later recruited him while on staff at Miami and now coaches at Toledo. “For a lot of people it gets hard. The main thing I was trying to really establish is, you’re your own person. You’ve got the same last name, you’ve got similar attributes and all those things, but you don’t have to let that pressure consume you. And you can take that spotlight and that attention and turn it into whatever you want to turn it into.”
Miami, Florida State, Tennessee, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State all texted Blades Jr. just about every morning throughout his junior year. He thought about putting out a top 5 until someone stole his phone. For about two months, Blades Jr. didn’t have much of a way to communicate with coaches. When Blades Jr. finally tracked down the phone, the Volunteers were the only team from which he had a significant amount of missed text messages. Tennessee was ultimately the only program Blades Jr. visited other than the Hurricanes.
Blades Jr., however, couldn’t spurn destiny. Last June, Blades Jr. celebrated Father’s Day by once again committing to Miami. This time, he knew what he was doing.
“I have the opportunity to go to a school that I love,” Blades Jr. said. “No matter whether you’re from Tennessee, no matter you’re from, where are you going to retire? To Miami and all of my connections are down here, so I go to school down here, was raised down here, build connections down here, build my legacy down here, I’m going to retire and live down here.
“If I would’ve went to Tennessee, thrived, built my legacy in Tennessee — I could’ve been the greatest player to ever come through Tennessee — I’m going to move back down here.”
Wandering the concourse at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens was always an adventure for Blades Jr. By the time he was about halfway through high school, everyone agreed the athlete looked exactly like his father. You didn’t have to know what Blades Jr. looked like to know he was a Blades.
Any trip around town usually meant getting stopped at least once. It happens at the Chick-fil-A near St. Thomas Aquinas High, where Hurricanes fans will tell Blades Jr. how much his father meant to them and how excited they are to watch the son play for Miami.
And, of course, it happens whenever he steps foot inside Hard Rock. Fans 20 and 30 years his senior will stop Blades to take pictures with him. One time, a fan presented Blades Jr. with a “Hit stick, bust d—k” shirt, referencing one of his father’s famous pregame speeches, asking for it to be signed.
“When people see me, they immediately know whose son I am,” Blades said. “It’s a very weird emotion.”
It’s happened even before Blades Jr. was well-known in his own right as an elite college prospect.
Blades Jr. was just 13 or 14 the first time he met Ed Reed. The former Miami All-America safety was playing for the Jets at the time and was down in South Florida for a road game against the Dolphins. Blades and some of his family were down on the field for warm-ups when Reed glanced his way.
“It was like he saw a ghost,” Blades Jr. said.
Everyone has their own Blades Sr. memory. Blades Jr. has heard too many to count now, plenty of the not-safe-for-work variety, but just as many that would’ve never made waves publicly.
Blades Jr. heard them when he was down on the field before Hurricanes home games. He heard them whenever he went out to the practice fields and saw the alumni hanging around. One of the athlete’s final visits to campus before enrolling was for Miami’s final practice of the spring on April 21. The Hurricanes made it into an alumni day and brought about 100 former players by to watch. Even at 18, Blades Jr. heard a story about his father he never heard before.
The player, who Blades Jr. declined to name, was a walk-on when Blades Sr. was an upperclassman in the Miami metropolitan area. Like most walk-ons, this player caught some flack from some teammates until Blades Sr. stepped in.
“He started to tear up when he was talking to me, saying how my dad would step in and protect him, and kind of like stand up for him,” Blades Jr. said. “And then the team kind of got used to him, kind of embraced him just due to the simple fact of someone higher on the hierarchy stepping up and helping someone.”
For every beloved Blades Sr. story Hurricanes fans have all heard, Blades Jr. has heard dozens more. If a photo or video of Blades Sr. exists, Rose figures, Blades Jr. has it saved somewhere on his phone.
Sometimes it’s hard for Rose to even distinguish her son from his father. As Blades Jr. grew older and his mannerisms became more similar to his father’s, Rose started to feel like she was living with Blades Sr. once again. There are times she’ll have to step out of the room to stop from crying because Blades Jr. will do something so similar to his father.
Decades after he played for Miami, Blades Sr.’s legacy can live on through ESPN documentaries and YouTube highlight reels. In some ways, Blades Sr. might have been the ideal player for the social media era.
His father’s legacy never fazed Blades Jr. He’s his father’s son. Nothing he could do would ever prevent it.
“My father, as you know, had a loud personality, as well. He was fun. I think I’m the same way as him except for in a new generation,” Blades Jr. said. “I’m like the reincarnated version of him in a new generation with just more technology, just raised in a slightly different way.
“I just don’t let anyone try to change me. I just be me.”