During the first week of football practice during his senior year at Meridian High School, Spencer Blackburn broke his right foot.
It was a fractured fifth metatarsal, the long bone connecting to the little toe. Of course, Blackburn – now a sophomore lineman at Eastern Washington University – didn’t know it at the time.
He just knew his foot hurt. A lot. When it was stepped on, it hurt even more.
But Blackburn didn’t go to a doctor, fearing they’d put his foot in a boot and his senior year on ice.
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“I didn’t have any scholarships then,” he said. “I really didn’t have a choice, in a way.”
Blackburn didn’t tell anyone about the injury until his foot received a blow during a late-season game, forcing him to be examined by a trainer.
I was just excited to step in and see how good I could do, and how it turned out. It worked out really well.
Spencer Blackburn, Eastern Washington University offensive lineman
He still finished the season, and – after surgery left a two-inch screw in his foot – eventually received a scholarship offer from Eastern Washington.
Now, the Eagles are a win away from vying for a national championship. They play Youngstown State at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Cheney in the semifinal round of the Division I FCS playoffs.
Second-seeded EWU (12-1, 8-0 Big Sky) has won 11 straight games, nine of them by 15 points or more. They beat Richmond 38-0 in the national quarterfinals last week.
Blackburn entered this year as a backup, after sitting out 2015 with a broken thumb, but a knee injury to center Jarrod Jones during the third game this season elevated him to a starting spot on the offensive line.
The 6-foot-3, 285-pounder has capitalized, starting each game and recently being named to the Big Sky’s All-Conference second-team. It’s not where he expected to be when the season started.
He (Spencer Blackburn) figured football out real early in life. (He was) cerebral and physical. In all the things we saw in him when he played for us, I think they are seeing in him now.
Meridian football coach Bob Ames
“I was just excited to step in and see how good I could do, and how it turned out,” he said of taking over for Jones, a senior. “It worked out really well.”
Blackburn’s injury last year was a freak incident. His thumb got caught in a jersey during practice, pulling off ligament and half his knuckle. He thought it was only dislocated, but the next morning in the shower, he was unable to clutch a shampoo bottle with his hand.
Blackburn eventually had surgery, and now has a screw and a plate holding down the other half of his knuckle.
Meridian head coach Bob Ames isn’t surprised to see his former player succeeding after recovering from the injury.
“He figured football out real early in life,” said Ames of Blackburn, who was only the second freshman in 43 years to start on Meridian’s offensive line. “(He was) cerebral and physical. In all the things we saw in him when he played for us, I think they are seeing in him now.”
As a senior at Meridian, Blackburn was a unanimous first-team offensive and defensive all-state and All-Class 1A NWC selection. He played several positions as a Trojan, including offensive right tackle and, defensively, as both an inside and outside linebacker.
“Wherever we needed him, he was more than happy to play,” said Ames, who added that the two stay in touch, occasionally texting and usually visiting in-person when Blackburn is on a school break.
I knew that by going to Eastern I’d be going to a winning school. I’m definitely excited. I feel confident in our team. And having that home-field advantage always helps.
Blackburn said the coaches at Meridian prepared him well for the transition to college, putting him ahead of the curve in football knowledge and work ethic.
“I knew I had really good coaching there, but I didn’t realize how good it was,” he said. “Coach Ames definitely teaches you how to work hard and be responsible.”
One big difference between high school and college games, Blackburn said, is the noise level.
“You can’t even have a cadence,” he said of playing in front of loud crowds. “You have to look between your legs to see when you’re ready to go just because no one can hear anything.”
Eastern coaches, however, help simulate game-day situations in practice so players are ready for the situations they’ll encounter. For noise, they’ll turn up the volume on stadium speakers.
After going 6-5 last year, Blackburn said he isn’t surprised Eastern Washington is now one win away from playing for its second national title in six years, given how much effort the Eagles put into 2016.
“I knew that by going to Eastern I’d be going to a winning school,” he said. “I’m definitely excited. I feel confident in our team. And having that home-field advantage always helps. Especially with the weather we have.”
That weather has been extremely cold recently. Lows in the Cheney area have dipped below zero in the past week, and the National Weather Service estimates a game-day high of only 6 degrees.
“It’s terrible being out there in the cold, but it’s definitely really memorable,” he said. “When you look at it after practice, it’s like, that was actually pretty fun.”
The fun of being on the field with teammates, regardless of circumstance, is what Blackburn said he loves most about football.
“Being on a successful team helps out a lot, too,” he said with a laugh.
NCAA Division I FCS national semifinals
Youngstown State at No. 2 Eastern Washington
Time: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
No. 4 James Madison at No. 1 North Dakota State
Time: 4 p.m.