FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — The old heads inside the annex of the recreation center at Carter Park stopped their game of dominoes the minute Bennie Blades walked through the door.
A little bigger now than when he played his nine seasons with the Detroit Lions, Blades still cuts an imposing figure wherever he goes.
“That’s the enforcer,” one of the center’s regulars, a 70-something-year-old man with a Bluetooth in his left ear, said as Blades made his way to a small kitchen in the back, packed with bags of hamburger and hot dog buns and boxes of chips and Capri Suns for the Kids Festival later that day.
Two decades after he retired from the NFL due to back problems, Blades remains an icon in his hometown of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
He made his name here as a football and track star as a youth. He went on to play for some of the greatest college football teams in history just down the road at Miami. And after playing 10 NFL seasons with two different teams, the Lions and their opponent Sunday, the Seattle Seahawks, Blades returned home and has worked in the city’s parks and recreation department the past 10 years.
But a lifetime of football has taken its toll on Blades’ body.
One of the most physical players of his era, Blades, a two-time college All-American who made one Pro Bowl with the Lions, said he suffered eight documented concussions in his NFL career, including four in one season.
He has four or five herniated discs in his back, injuries that he said made his muscles seize up every time he hit someone late in his career to the point “it would leave my right leg pretty much paralyzed.”
He suffers from regular migraine headaches that sometimes force him to shut himself in his office at Central Charter School with the door closed and lights off.
And at various times in the past two decades, he said he has battled bouts of depression severe enough that at one point he didn’t leave his home for 20 days.
“You get into a lull,” Blades said in one of five interviews he has given to the Free Press about his health over the past three years. “You say, ‘What have I left on this earth that’s worth me living?’ And then when you come out of it, you say, ‘I don’t want to be the Junior Seaus of the world to feel as though I haven’t done anything worthwhile, to take your own life.’ And those are the things that you deal with.”
Blades, 52, was a gun enthusiast during his playing days, a hobby born out of “a fascination of I guess being militant.”
He got his first gun, a TEC-9, when he was still playing at Miami, and he occasionally had guns delivered to him in the locker room at the Pontiac Silverdome. At one point, Blades said his collection was 56 guns large and included an AK-47, an M-16, a pistol-grip shotgun and even a grenade launcher.
Since the end of his playing career, Blades has gotten rid most of his collection, gifting guns to relatives and putting them in storage for safe keeping. He said he keeps just two guns at his house now, a Desert Eagle handgun that he recently bought and a .357 snub-nose revolver, both secured safely away in a gun safe, inside another gun safe, with trigger locks also in place.
Blades said two incidents caused him to re-examine his fascination with guns. First, his brother, Brian, was charged with manslaughter in the accidental shooting death of his cousin, Charles, in 1995. Bennie and Brian had been arguing before the incident, and Charles was attempting to play peacemaker when Brian went to his house to retrieve a gun. Second, when an unarmed intruder broke into his house after his playing career, Blades said he realized that had the situation been different, he might have shot and killed the young man.
Beyond that, Blades said there’s one more reason he decided to ditch most of his collection:
“Self-preservation,” Blades said three years ago. “You don’t ever want to get into a situation, because the Dave Duerson situation, the Junior Seaus, all of those come back. And you always tell people, what could have been that bad to where that person wants to take their life? And until you go through it, now you realize.”
Duerson and Seau are former NFL players who committed suicide 15 months apart in 2011-12.
Both were hard-hitting defensive players like Blades who made a living laying people out on football fields, and both were found to have the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
They were assassins in a sense, paid to administer pain in a game of a different era.
Enforcers, like the man with the Bluetooth said.
“A lot of those old guys, they were my age when I was young, so they’ve watched me, they’ve watched my whole family,” Blades said last Saturday. “They won’t let you forget your place.”
It’s a complicated relationship Blades has with football now, even if he doesn’t always see it that way.
The love and adulation the game provided made Blades who he is and gives him a purpose today — giving back to the community that gave so much to him.
But the game also is at least partly responsible for the health problems he has endured.
Last Saturday, as he made his way around the recreation complex he helps run, Blades took a golf cart almost everywhere he went, from the three basketball courts out back, to Orange Bowl Field across from the aquatic center, then back by the annex to check in on the day’s cookout.
His knees swell up occasionally, one of his co-workers, Otis Hawkins, has noticed, and Blades said he deals with constant pain in his back that he tries not to take medicine for “because at one point I started getting addicted to oxycodone.”
“I probably popped those pills a good two, three years,” Blades said. “And when I knew I was getting addicted to where I didn’t go get a prescription filled and you just, you’re fiending for it. And so when your body just needs that as a normal, everyday substance to make you work, that’s not normal.”
Despite his myriad health issues, despite the depressive episodes and suicidal thoughts and migraines that are so sharp “it’s like your whole left eye socket feels like it’s about to come out of your head,” Blades said he still feels “extremely grateful” for the situation he’s in.
He was on the sideline when Mike Utley was paralyzed during a game in 1991. He played with Reggie Brown the season before he suffered a severe spine injury six years later. And he has seen other former teammates, including his good friend, former Lions safety William White, deal with more serious ailments like ALS.
“I tell people, I wouldn’t trade anything that I’ve done,” Blades said. “I’ve been playing that game since 7 years old, I retired at 31. And the only reason I retired is because they told me I was going to be paralyzed. If it wasn’t for that, I probably would have still been playing the game.”
Even now, even when he wakes up occasionally with a numb right foot from the ankle surgery he had as a player, Blades does his part to champion the game.
Along with his jobs managing the fields at Carter Park, serving as dean of students at Central Charter School and helping oversee club sports programs at the small Christian college, University of Fort Lauderdale, which makes its home in a drab Florida strip mall, Blades coaches a youth football team and officiates youth football games in Fort Lauderdale.
“My relationship with football has not soured one bit,” Blades said. “There’s nothing about football that I’m ever going to shy away from because it’s given me some tremendous opportunities.”
Everybody loves Bennie
Without football, without the parks and rec programs in Fort Lauderdale that helped raise him, Blades said he’s not sure where he’d be at today.
His father, Fred, was a professional boxer. His uncle, Harold, was a standout baseball player. And football runs deep in the Blades family. Brian Blades played 11 seasons with the Seahawks after a standout career at Miami. Bennie’s son, H.B. Blades, spent five years in the NFL. And another brother, Al, and his son, Al Jr., both played for the Hurricanes.
Bennie started playing organized football as a 7-year-old for the Western Tigers in a league with kids a year or two older, and even then he was a physical force.
Johnny Alexander, a longtime former youth coach in Fort Lauderdale who now works with Blades at Carter Park, said Blades once hit an opponent so hard that coaches ran onto the field and covered the kid with a yellow raincoat because they feared he was going to die.
“I was on the sideline when he hit the kid,” Alexander said. “I was shaking so hard I couldn’t hardly go onto the field because I thought the kid expired, you know what I’m saying? That was impact.”
Blades kept a home in Florida during his playing days with the Lions and was one of the parks and rec department’s biggest benefactors. He donated equipment to football programs in the city, and he once gave Alexander money to help buy an old Greyhound bus the department could use to help transport kids to games, not just in the area but throughout the south.
When he retired, Blades said one of his former teachers suggested he work even more hands-on with kids, an idea he initially scoffed at.
“I thought it took a different element (for) a person to become a teacher,” Blades said. “I went from just wanting to knock the (expletive) out of people to now you’ve got to have a whole lot of compassion and sit down and understand why.”
Because he came from the same area of little means, Blades understood why better than most.
He understood how youth sports give kids hope, how they help keep kids away from trouble, and what they mean to a community just down the road but a world away from the million-dollar boats docked in Coral Bay.
“I’ve got to give these kids what people gave to me growing up,” Blades said. “Even though they don’t have much, when you show them you care, they tend to start thinking, ‘OK, somebody does care about me.’ Cause when they go back home to dark and blight, that’s all they see.”
Blades, the No. 3 pick of the 1988 draft, made about $9 million over the course of his NFL career, but most of that money is gone today.
He has six kids by six different women and paid out more money than he can count in child support. All of his children are grown, and in his life, but he said he’s still in arrears on some payments. He has had federal tax liens filed against him. Fourteen years ago, he filed for bankruptcy protection.
But Blades still uses what spare money he has to buy bicycles for a couple dozen kids every winter. He still runs an incentive program for troubled youth at his school where he doles out pricey awards like video-game consoles that he buys with his own money. And as he made his way around the park last Saturday, searching for extra knee pads for the football team and preparing for that day’s Kids Festival, he stopped three boys to remind them food was free later that afternoon and to ask the biggest of the bunch, “Why you ain’t playing flag football? … Come and see me during the week.”
“Everybody in the community looks up to Bennie Blades,” said Nigel Dooling, a recreation programmer who works with Blades at Carter Park. “Great influence, great role model for the kids.”
‘My brain is mush’
Blades is quick to admit that his personal life is a contributing factor to some of the health problems he has faced after football.
His depression stems in part from the fact “I can never make enough to help the people that I want to help.” That goes for both his family — he has nine grandchildren — and his community.
Still, Blades plans to donate not just his brain to science but “every organ that I have.” CTE, which has only been diagnosed postmortem, has been linked to depression in some football players.
“With all the concussions I’ve had, I’m sure my brain is mush right now,” Blades said on the night he was inducted into the Gridiron Greats Hall of Fame in 2015. “And what scares me, sometimes I wake up, I have twitching of an eye and real bad migraines and you wonder, ‘OK, look, how long do you have?’ ”
Blades said he has consulted with a neurologist in the past, but he’s not currently seeing anyone or taking any medication for his problems.
Instead, Blades said he has found peace in the relationships he has with his children and grandchildren, including 7-year-old Ryan, who spent much of last Saturday by his side at Carter Park.
“He’s more than like a granddad. He’s really treated Ryan like more like his son,” said Ashley Healey, Blades’ daughter and Ryan’s mom. “They’re really close. He’s with him every day. He has him almost every weekend, he’s out here with the sports. They bond on another level. So he’s really good with him.”
Blades took Ryan to his first Miami Hurricanes game earlier this year, and when Ryan looked up, he saw Blades’ name in Miami’s ring of honor.
“He looked around the little ring and he said, ‘Papa, is that you?’ ” Blades said. “I said yeah. ‘Papa,’ and a look came across his face that I never seen before. It was a look of true admiration. ‘My grandfather really is somebody.’ ”
Blades’ eyes got wide as he sat at the cluttered desk in his window-less office recounting that story.
For a moment at least, the enforcer felt nothing but pride.
Contact Dave Birkett: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Download our Lions Xtra app for free on Apple and Android!