Tim Blair was in full pads at the hospital when he was told to take them off so doctors could examine him. The Seton-La Salle senior reluctantly removed his equipment, not knowing if he would wear his Rebels helmet and green-and-gold No. 4 jersey again.
“Since I was 3 years old, I can remember going to all the Seton games,” Blair said. “I was always thinking, ‘This is going to be me. I can’t wait.’ I had been looking forward to this forever. It was finally my time to shine.”
Seton-La Salle has had at least one of the DelSardo cousins on its football team every season since 1998, and Blair is the last of the eight first cousins to play for the Rebels.
They were no ordinary players, either: Six were selected all-conference, five all-state, four played major college football, and two are in the NFL.
In that span, Seton-La Salle has won 121 games, six conference championships and two WPIAL Class AA titles.
Ralph DelSardo ranked among the WPIAL’s receiving leaders in 1999. Bruce Gradkowski set a WPIAL record by passing for 2,978 yards in 10 games in 2000 and plays for the Cincinnati Bengals. Joey DelSardo starred in leading Seton to the 2002 WPIAL championship, setting a PIAA finals record with nine catches before walking on and starting at Pitt.
Shane Scanlon transferred from Keystone Oaks so he could play as a senior with Carmen Connolly, who set single-season (116 for 1,545 yards) and career (221 for 3,019) state records for receptions and yards in leading the Rebels to the ’04 WPIAL title before playing at West Virginia.
Gino Gradkowski, the lone lineman, played center at West Virginia and Delaware before being drafted in the fourth round by the Baltimore Ravens this past April.
Blair, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound receiver-cornerback, wasn’t counting on setting records but hoped to match Michael DelSardo’s 62 catches for 986 yards and 13 touchdowns in ’10.
“He’s a very good football player,” Rebels coach Greg Perry said of Blair, “but in the ranks of the DelSardo clan, he has a lot of kids ahead of him in that tree.”
Blair celebrated when his cousins won championships at Heinz Field, cried when they lost in Hershey. He went from watching in the bleachers to serving as the team’s ball boy, where he learned like all of the others the art of long-snapping, and anticipated his turn.
“A lot of people wait four years to play,” he said. “I’ve been waiting my whole life.”
His season took a terrible twist at McGuffey in Week 2, when a player tugged on his jersey while tripping. Blair heard his right ankle pop. That was followed by silence.
“As soon as it happened, that was the first thing that struck my mind: It reminded me of the way Boobie Miles got hurt in ‘Friday Night Lights,’ ” he said. “It was just sickening to know that everything I worked so hard for and this could be it.”
The injury required surgery that involved eight screws and a plate in his fractured ankle, only to learn a week later that the screws started shifting and the bone was separating. Blair had to undergo a second surgery, one that involved 10 screws, three plates and five stitches.
“The irony of it is, I don’t remember any of them ever missing a game on the varsity level,” Perry said. “Here’s the last one coming through — he worked so hard in the offseason just to be in the family conversation, so he was one of them — and a freak accident happens.”
The cousins sent Blair motivational messages, reminding him that tough times don’t last but tough people do.
Still, it was heartbreaking for Blair to watch from the sideline.
Then, in a heartwarming act, seniors Luke Brumbaugh, Scott Orndoff and Nick Sywyj asked Perry if Blair could dress out last week and join them as a captain for the coin flip in the WPIAL first-round game.
It was another “Friday Night Lights” moment for Blair, his chance to walk onto the field holding hands with teammates like the book and movie cover. He felt a sense of prestige, being a captain like one of his cousins. Blair was finally cleared by doctors to play this week.
“Out of all of us, I’d say he had the greatest accomplishment,” Bruce Gradkowski said. “None of us had to come back from a serious injury. That takes mental toughness. That’s the thing that makes me so proud of him, to see him persevere. Any high school kid can have fun and play football, but not many can stay positive and return after two surgeries.”
Blair played cornerback and long-snapper in the 33-17 quarterfinal loss to Washington on Friday night at Canon-McMillan. It was bittersweet, knowing he is the last in the family lineage to play for Seton-La Salle.
“It’s going to be a weird feeling, not having one of them around anymore,” said Perry, who has coached all the cousins. “They’ve all been successful, and that hasn’t been by accident. You can’t get a closer-knit family.”
It’s a tradition where only God and family come before football, and excellence is expected. And Tim Blair loved being a Rebel, almost as much as being a DelSardo.
“I’ve always watched them and dreamed of being great,” Blair said. “They seemed to have so much fun, so much glory. I’ve always tried to be like them.”
And he was, only different.
Where they got the glory, he showed the guts.
Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7812.