March 9, 2023

Bad Breaks Wouldn’t Shake Blake

Philip Blake is not one to miss snaps, even when he can hear them.  

“I always told myself, ‘I’ll play until something breaks,’ ” the 37-year-old Saskatchewan Roughriders offensive lineman says. “Something broke and I’m still playing.”  

And still celebrating.  

Blake is coming off the first championship season of his lengthy football career, having started at left tackle for the Toronto Argonauts when they edged the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 24-23 on Nov. 20 at Mosaic Stadium in the 109th Grey Cup game.  

Such was the culmination of a landmark season for Blake, who refused to cede his starting spot despite suffering a broken left hand during the summer of 2022.  

“We just casted it every weekend,” Blake says matter-of-factly from his off-season home in Mabank, Texas. “Every time the cast would break, I’d go get a new cast and put it on. I think I had five or six casts over eight games.”  

Along the way, he made the seamless transition from left guard to left tackle as the Argonauts encountered other injury issues along the offensive line. Yes, there was pain, but the notion of not playing was even more discomforting.  

Hence the decision to play with a cast.  

“I thought, ‘I’m in the last year of my contract and I’ve got a broken hand. I can not play, someone else will come in here and take my job, and it will be the end of my career, or I can tape it up and suck it up and finish the rest of the season with a broken hand,’ which I did,” he says.  

“I didn’t want it to end like that, so I played with a broken hand.”  

Resiliency is a trademark for Blake, who was starting at left guard for the Roughriders when he suffered a broken leg in the fifth game of the 2019 season. 

Although surgery was required, he was back in the lineup three months later for a team that posted a 13-5 record and finished first in the CFL’s West Division.  

The following February, Blake signed as a free agent with the hometown Toronto Argonauts, only to lament the subsequent cancellation of the 2020 season due to COVID-19.  

When play resumed in 2021, Blake was back in the trenches alongside former Roughriders offensive lineman Dariusz Bladek, who had also joined the Argonauts in 2020. They were both part of Toronto’s championship season in 2022.  

“It’s funny, because when me and Bladek both signed in Toronto as free agents, we saw Saskatchewan as a possible destination for the Grey Cup and we said, ‘We’ve got to go back there to win the Grey Cup,’ ” the Toronto-born Blake says.  

“It was a special moment. I’d never won a championship. I’d won a bowl game, but I’d never won a championship in my football career.”  

The bowl game conquest was notable in that the score was more reminiscent of an NCAA basketball game.   

Led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III, who was reliably protected by Blake and associates, the Baylor Bears defeated the Washington Huskies 67-56 in the Valero Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29, 2011 in San Antonio, Texas. (Washington’s head coach at the time was Steve Sarkisian, a Roughriders quarterback from 1997 to 1999.)  

Griffin III would soon be selected second overall by the Washington Commanders in the 2012 NFL draft. Blake was claimed that year in the fourth round, with the 108th pick, by the Denver Broncos.  

Barely a month earlier, the Broncos had signed a legendary NFL quarterback.   

Philip Blake, meet Peyton Manning — whose attention to detail quickly made an impression on a rookie offensive lineman.  

“He didn’t leave anything to guesswork,” Blake recalls. “He had a coach listening to the audibles and recording his audibles in practice. He had a coach filming his snaps, because his snaps had to look right. He would talk to the centres to make sure of that.   

“Even during the season, he would watch the telecasts and say, ‘I used this word too many times, so this week it means this.’   

“There were little things that people don’t think about. He would have players-only meetings and if a guy made a mistake, he would have to own up to the mistake. It just showed accountability, where a guy would say, ‘This is my mistake and this is what caused a play to mess up.’   

“Everybody knows what you have to do to correct it and, if you don’t correct it, everybody’s going to see it. That’s when you find someone else who can play the position.”  

Blake was on the Broncos’ practice squad in 2012 before being released on Aug. 31 of the following year.  

“That was an obstacle to overcome — being cut and not understanding the business side of football and how it is,” Blake says. “It’s not like college where it’s, ‘This year didn’t work out, but I’ve got another year to try to figure it out.’ Some guys don’t get that grace period.  

“Getting cut and watching other guys come and go and learning from other guys’ experiences changes you and really gives you an appreciation for the game of football.   

“NFL stands for ‘Not For Long,’ so I always kept that in my head. You could be good, but every year there’s new competition coming. You have to keep that in the back of your head to keep going forward.”  

That he did, signing with the Arizona Cardinals only three days after being cut by Denver. After spending the 2013 season on the Cardinals’ practice squad, Blake was again part of a late-August cutdown — an experience that, as unpalatable as it was at the time, has ultimately been used to benefit himself and others.  

“You play this game and you think you know everything, but I didn’t know,” Blake reflects. “It was a huge learning curve that I had to go through.   

“I went to the NFL and I didn’t have a playbook. I was learning the professional game of football on the run. Those are the little things that altered my career.  

“Me learning it that way is how I showed all the guys. I see the young guys making the same mistakes I did when I first came into the NFL in 2012. Guys are still making the same mistakes to this day.   

“I’ll see a young guy or an old guy making that mistake and I’ll say, ‘Don’t do it that way, because I went through it. I’m not going to make you waste your time going through it all over it again.’ ”  

At a time when the unforgiving realities of professional football were all too apparent, Blake was on the verge of establishing himself in the three-down game.  

Early in 2015, he signed with the Montreal Alouettes, who had selected him in the third round (23rd overall) of the 2011 CFL draft.  

Blake was an Alouette until Oct. 18, 2018, when he was dealt to Saskatchewan with fullback Patrick Lavoie for receiver Joshua Stanford and a second-round draft pick in 2020.  

“At that time, (the Alouettes) weren’t in the playoffs,” Blake says. “We were in our bye week. I was packing to go home. Then they traded me to Saskatchewan. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’  

“It was a blessing in disguise. Going to Saskatchewan changed my career. So now I’m thinking, ‘Lightning could strike twice.’ ”  

Blake joined a Saskatchewan side that went 12-6 in 2018. A 13-win year ensued.  

Now a second-time Roughrider, Blake hopes to help the team — which is coming off a 6-12 season — return to the echelon it occupied when he was previously with Saskatchewan.  

“They told me how much they want me to change the culture and they like the style that I play,” says Blake, who can play any of the five positions along the offensive line. “It’s an organization that wants you to be there. As a football player, what more could you want?”