Defensive force Bennie Blades burst onto South Beach and helped lead the Miami Hurricanes to a National Championship in 1987. He was a key component of the famed defense, even earning the unit the moniker of “Bennie and the Jets” due to free flowing and hard hitting the style of play exhibited by the squad. His play that year also earned him the prestigious Jim Thorpe Award, given to the top defensive back in college football each year.
The Fort Lauderdale native then took his talents to the Motor City, when he was drafted third overall by the Detroit Lions in the 1988 NFL Draft. He picked up in the NFL right where he left off in college, quickly earning the reputation as one of the most fierce, violent and intimidating defensive backs in the history of the game.
“The Punisher” earned his nickname each and every Sunday afternoon, as he received All-Rookie honors in 1988. He was also named an All Pro in 1988 and a Pro Bowler in 1991. He was the defensive anchor that led the Lions to two NFC Central titles and an NFC Championship game appearance in 1991. He retired as the team’s second all time leading tackler with nearly 800 stops.
I caught up to the College Football Hall of Famer who talked about the placement of his Jim Thorpe Award, having some pretty cool signed boxing gloves around the house as a child, the stack of Barry Sanders memorabilia in his garage and more.
Tony Reid– As a high level athlete in college at ‘The U’, you were a Thorpe Award winner and a National Champion. When was the first time you were asked for your autograph?
Bennie Blades– It took me by surprise. I had just got back from the Jim Thorpe Award ceremony. I was with my brother back in here on South Beach. There was a young kid who came up to me. I didn’t think he even knew who I was. He said ‘Sir, can I have your autograph?’ I thought he was talking to one of the other guys. He said ‘My dad says you are one heck of a safety.’ So, I signed the autograph and I didn’t think anything of it.
TR-You were then drafted third overall in the 1988 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions. When was the first time you were approached as a professional by the fans of Detroit?
BB-My first encounter with the Detroit fans made me fall in love with them. I was flying into Detroit for the first time. Instead of picking me up by limo or taxi or even Uber, they picked me up by helicopter. They took me to the Silverdome because the Pistons had a game that night. I get there on the helicopter. We get into the Silverdome. As soon as I get in the dome they put on the song ‘Bennie and the Jets’. So, it’s blaring “B…B…B… Bennie, Bennie,” I look and Pistons Point Guard Isiah Thomas is holding up a number 36 jersey. It was that moment when I realized I was going to give this city everything I had to give. That was the beginning of my love affair with the city. Being introduced by Isiah Thomas, man, that was incredible.
TR– Being a top five pick, your rookie cards appeared in most products that year. How special was it the first time you saw yourself on a trading card?
BB-Back then, even though I won the Jim Thorpe Award and had won a National Championship, kids coming out of college didn’t really have trading cards. Being down here in South Florida, I would see trading cards of all of the baseball players all the time. That first year, somebody had a card of me and wanted me to sign it. I just kept looking at the card. I was looking at the front of the card. I was looking at the back of the card. I am on a card! I always tell people that is when you know you have arrived. You know you have arrived when you have a trading card.
TR-Do you hold on to those cards of yourself?
BB– I have a few of them. Now that I have gotten older, I keep a few around the house. My grandson will ask me about me playing football. Showing him those cards is affirmation to him, to the younger generation, that I did play. I have a card to prove it.
TR-Do you still sign your autograph for fans today?
BB-I welcome all the fans who send their trading cards out to me. As a matter of fact, I just signed about 100 today that I had sitting there during the pandemic. I just mailed them all back. I tell people, fans are who made you who you are. Without these people admiring you for your prowess on the field, that’s who makes up the brand of who you become later on. People don’t have to go buy Bennie Blades cards. They buy Bennie Blades cards because they want Bennie Blades to sign them.
TR-Did you collect sports cards as a kid? If so, who or what did you collect?
BB-I didn’t collect anything sports related. My dad was a professional boxer, though. He had a pair of Cassius Clay signed gloves and a few pairs of boxing shorts around the house. It was just part of life but that stuff is priceless right about now!
TR-You might have been the most physical safety in the entire NFL during your playing days. Who or what inspired that mentality and style of play?
BB-When I was at Miami, I was a free safety that was a ball hawk. That’s all they needed me to do. I hit people now and then when need be. We had linebackers that would make tackles all over the field. When I got to Detroit, they needed me in other ways. They needed me as a strong safety, as an outside linebacker, as a free safety. I had to play different roles. I knew that ball hawk safety was a role that they didn’t need. If I can’t be that, then let me be the most physical safety the league has ever known. Ronnie Lott was a corner that moved to safety. Dave Duerson was the guy I patterned my game after. Dave Duerson, Kenny Easley and Jack Tatum, those were the guys I wanted to be. That’s why I called myself ‘The Punisher.’ (Laughs)
TR– Do you have a sports card or memorabilia collection today?
BB– The only thing you see if you walk into my house is the Jim Thorpe Award displayed. All of my jerseys are folded up. I have the shoes that Barry Sanders wore when he broke the 2,000 yard mark. I have those signed. Everything is packed up and nothing is displayed. People ask me all the time why I don’t display any of this stuff. I just have no need to display it. If you walk through the house you wouldn’t even know I won the Jim Thorpe Award. I’ve had people come over and ask why there is a trophy with an old hat (helmet) on it. I had to tell them it was my Jim Thorpe Award. I’m so nonchalant about those things. I have so many game balls and so much stuff. Back in my playing days, I was The Wilson Player of the Week so many times I had 14 or 15 sets of golf clubs. I just started giving them away.
TR-Wait, so you own the cleats Barry Sanders wore when he broke the 2,000 yard mark?
BB-Yep. For me, it’s just Barry. OK. I have a Barry Sanders signed jersey. I have other Barry Sanders signed items, too. They all just sit in my garage.
TR-Is there a Barry Sanders story you can share with us?
BB-I got drafted the third pick the year before Barry got drafted. Everybody always wonders about that high pick. What are they going to do to keep the people of Detroit loving the Lions? We got a chance to see him in practice from day one. The things that he used to do in practice, we were just in awe. That first game, I want to say it was against Atlanta, he made some of the best moves against Jessie Tuggle. Man, Chris Spielman, and all of us just looked at each other and said ‘This kid is going to be something really special in this league.’