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Coming full circle

Quarterback Bart Blanchard, center, has regrouped since a knee injury in high school put his football career in jeopardy.
Quarterback Bart Blanchard, center, has regrouped since a knee injury in high school put his football career in jeopardy.

That first snap, Bart Blanchard said, was just like any of several thousand he's taken in a lifetime of football.

It was a regular, nothing-out-of-the-ordinary exchange, and he turned it into a 9-yard crossing pass to Tim Higgins. Nothing special, nothing unusual.

It was.

It really was.

"I can't say enough about him," The Citadel coach Kevin Higgins said in a statement, describing his redshirt freshman quarterback, after Blanchard's second start. "I have a lot of faith in him."

Faith that's been rewarded.

Blanchard, a Rock Hill native and former star at Northwestern High School, has turned that faith into a starting job and a record-setting performance, despite not having taken a live snap since the first game of his senior year.

What a strange trip it's been.

"It's been incredible," Blanchard said, warming up for the Bulldogs' season-ending rivalry game at VMI on Saturday. "I always knew I could play somewhere, but the way this has kind of came about has been kind of amazing."

His first collegiate action wasn't quite enough, a final series in relief of starter Duran Lawson against Georgia Southern when the Bulldogs weren't able to overcome a 21-17 deficit. He started the next week when The Citadel hosted two-time defending Division I-AA national champ Appalachian State and threw for 197 yards and two touchdowns, running for 67 yards.

That wasn't enough, either, after Armanti Edwards gashed the Bulldogs for 439 yards of total offense in a 45-24 loss.

But last week, with No. 19 Elon in town, Blanchard passed for 370 yards and three TDs as the Bulldogs won 42-31 and clinched a winning season for the first time in 10 years. Blanchard was named Southern Conference Freshman of the Week and put his name in the record books -- the third-most single-game passing yards in school history and the leader of the Bulldogs' first win over a ranked opponent since 2005.

"All that credit goes to my teammates and coaches," Blanchard deferred.

Can't take just a little for yourself?

"I thought I played well, but not as good as them," he rebutted.

He'll take the reins again Saturday against the Keydets, seeking a strong performance and a win, which he says is a lot more important than setting himself up as next year's incumbent quarterback.

"I've been in those situations, just like Northwestern and Rock Hill High," he said. "It's a rival game, and we want to come out and have a good week of practice.

"As for me starting next year, I just want to win, want our team to win, want to make my teammates happy. I can't take anything for granted. (Starting next year) doesn't really mean anything."

Local fans remember Blanchard as an all-star signal-caller who was attracting interest from Middle Tennessee, Marshall, even South Carolina as he prepared for 2005, his senior season. A strong-armed leader expected to lead Northwestern as it entered a new era -- coach Mike Allen had taken over for veteran Jimmy Wallace -- Blanchard was the guy everybody pointed to.

A strong season would make him the most prolific passer in school history and perhaps earn him a scholarship to a mid-level college, maybe even one of the big Division I schools. Entering his first game against Charlotte Country Day on Aug. 26, 2005, Blanchard was ready.

He looked good that night, real good, throwing for 177 yards on only nine completions with two touchdowns as the Trojans rallied to win 20-9. But with eight minutes to go before the horn, Blanchard went down hard and got up limping.

That crucial strand of tissue known as an ACL had snapped. It was ridiculous to believe, but a junior year that had seen Blanchard throw for nearly 2,000 yards and 22 touchdowns, plus a box containing letters from more than 150 colleges, was about to be completely negated by a tiny knee ligament.

He waited a few days and got the news he dreaded. He needed surgery and 4-6 weeks of rehabilitation. Yes, it was possible for him to return during the later games, but realistically, he was done for the year.

"When I got hurt, all the colleges stopped calling, stopped sending letters," Blanchard said. "I didn't know what I was going to do. It got to May or June of my senior year and I had no clue where I was going to college."

He wanted to play football so badly that he couldn't see himself just going to college as a student, so he kept trying. It wasn't until May that he was talking with his friend Miles Tinsley, whose older brother Blake was attending The Citadel.

"I just said to him, 'Bart, what about The Citadel?,'" said Drenner Tinsley, Miles' and Blake's father. "He said, 'I just want to play football.' I called coach Higgins and told him a little bit."

After a few mixups -- The Citadel thought Blanchard was at Rock Hill High and kept calling the wrong numbers -- Blanchard got in touch with the Bulldogs. There were some preliminary exchanges, nothing definite, until fate dropped into Blanchard's lap.

A beach trip with his girlfriend to Charleston turned into a tour of The Citadel's campus. While Blanchard was there, he ran into an assistant coach who recognized him.

Higgins got a call from the assistant and called Blanchard on his cell.

"That night, I was eating at Sticky Fingers with my girlfriend, and coach Higgins called," Blanchard said. "He said, 'I'm going to offer you a full scholarship.' That was like July 4."

Blanchard immediately accepted, got home and started packing. On July 23, he was with the rest of the Bulldogs' football team in preseason camp.

His rehab had gone well, enough for him to run track for Northwestern in the spring, and there were no mobility problems. The biggest hurdle was he had to beat out five other quarterbacks after his redshirt year, bidding for time as Lawson began his star-studded senior year.

Blanchard won the backup job but figured he'd never get on the field. Against Georgia Southern, Lawson went down and tried to get back up, but it was obvious he was hobbling.

"The play before, I could tell he was hurt," Blanchard said. "I thought, 'I probably need to start getting ready.'"

The same type of knee injury that threatened Blanchard's football career was about to re-start it.

The journey's come full-circle, Blanchard again a rising star and ready to win the big game he never got to play his senior year of high school. He's been keeping tabs on his alma mater this year -- Trojans quarterback Will King, who's shattered a few of Blanchard's records, is Blanchard's protege -- and is ready to take on VMI.

"Will and his dad actually came to me, said 'I want to play quarterback,'" Blanchard said. "I took him under my wing, spring of my senior year. Me and Will threw every day for two months straight. He's like my brother."

As for himself, Blanchard didn't want to think too hard about the past two years of charmed life, disaster, the grasping of the only straw he could find and back to a charmed life. Just like he did two years ago against Charlotte Country Day, the only thing he's concentrating on is the next game.

"I don't ever think about those things when preparing for a game," he dismissed. "I just want to play football."

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