MOSCOW, Idaho – They were all buddies back in Los Angeles. Dominique Blackman, Brandon Wimberly and Ken McRoyal – three gifted athletes bonded by football and family.
Now just two of them remain, and Blackman – Idaho’s new starting quarterback – knows it could easily be just him.
One friend’s life was narrowly saved; the other didn’t make it.
Three months ago, Blackman and Wimberly – former teammates at L.A.’s Gardena High – were reunited to mourn the death of McRoyal, the Idaho receiver who was shot outside a Los Angeles party on May 13.
Blackman and McRoyal were second cousins and best friends. Wimberly, a receiver at Nevada, was also close to McRoyal – and he nearly died from a gunshot 11 months earlier.
Wimberly took a bullet in the abdomen in June 2011 in Reno, Nev.
He spent two weeks in a hospital and missed all of last season recuperating.
Blackman, 21, smiles widely as he relates the details of Wimberly’s recovery and return to football.
But as the hulking, charismatic QB enters his first game with the Vandals – and his first collegiate start since 2009 – he’s still shrouded by loss and grief.
“I lost so many people this summer,” he said. “It’s just been so much motivation, man. And that’s kind of why I come out here on the practice field and kind of use it as my sanctuary.”
Fred Matua, Blackman’s cousin and a former USC offensive lineman, died Aug. 5 from a heart-related issue. And Calvin Johnson, whom Blackman described as another one of his best friends in high school, was also shot and killed.
Raised in foster care in south central L.A., Blackman is used violence, and heartbreak. When he was 5, his father died in prison.
His mother, a drug addict, was never part of his life.
From the age of 2, Blackman lived with his aunt, Pauline Moses. He still refers to Moses as his mother and to her daughters as sisters, even though they’re his cousins.
To Blackman, the family he’s had has always been important, which is why McRoyal’s death stung so much. He and other members of the Idaho program wear wristbands with McRoyal’s name to remember their former teammate, and Blackman plans on getting his cousin’s face tattooed on his leg.
“That’s my family,” he said. “That’s my cousin. We’re cut from the same tree. I think about it everyday.”
Summer workouts in Moscow and near-daily practices the last month have helped ease Blackman’s pain. The 6-foot-5, 251-pound junior won the Vandals’ starting QB job in the second week of fall camp.
Well before then, he and roommate Tracy Carter determined they would ratchet up their intensity after what happened with McRoyal.
“Football, football, football. That’s all we talk about it,” said Carter, a junior cornerback. “He really wants to step up and grind and get this team to a bowl game.”
Blackman has lost around 30 pounds since coming to Idaho as a transfer in the spring of 2011.
He redshirted at Old Dominion in 2010 before having to sit out at UI last season. In 2009, he played at Los Angeles Harbor College after originally signing with Washington out of high school.
Since his last game at L.A. Harbor, a bowl loss to Cerritos College that he remembers well, he’s poured all of his energy into scout games and scrimmages.
They’ve been his only avenues.
How will that translate into live action after two full seasons off? UI offensive coordinator Jason Gesser is happy with Blackman’s preparation, but he said it’s still a major unknown.
“I’ve seen guys who can play very well in practice, but now there’s people watching and they don’t know what to do,” Gesser said.
“So we’re all going to find how that comes forward (against Eastern Washington in the season opener).”
Blackman has absorbed the offense and shown an ability to make rapid-fire decisions, Gesser noted, all while showcasing a quick release.
But the Vandals’ new offensive coordinator has had to work with his gregarious QB on managing the different personalities on offense – including Blackman’s.
“He’s a very charismatic guy,” Gesser said. “He understands things and gets out there. But he needs to understand how to approach certain areas when he’s talking to the line, when he’s talking to receivers, when he’s talking to other guys.”
Blackman didn’t start football until his freshman year of high school, instead focusing on basketball.
He played on a Nike Elite team with Russell Westbrook and Brandon Jennings, two NBA guards who are “my homies,” he said.
During Blackman’s first year at Gardena High, he made the football team as a tight end. Given his size, agility and hoops background, it seemed to be his ideal position. But it wasn’t meant to be.
Wimberly, a quarterback at the time, broke his ankle in Blackman’s first year of organized football. That set the stage for Blackman to move to QB, a change that proved to be permanent.
He transferred after his sophomore year to Carson High, where he played with McRoyal. The two eventually reconnected at Idaho, but they never got to play together as Vandals.
“We’ve been on the same team forever,” Blackman said. “It just don’t feel right taking that field without him.”
|Aug. 30||EWU||6 p.m.|
|Sept. 8||at Bowling Green 4|
|Sept. 15||at LSU||5|
|Sept. 29||at N. Carolina||TBA|
|Oct. 6||N. Mexico St.||2|
|Oct. 13||at Texas St.||4|
|Oct. 20||at La. Tech||4|
|Nov.3||San Jose St.||2|
|Nov. 10||at BYU||TBA|
|Nov. 17||UT-San Antonio 2|
|Nov. 24||Utah St.||Noon|
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