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December 16, 2011

Getting the Last Laugh

By: Jimmy Robertson

As serious as he is on the field, Blake DeChristopher doesn’t take life too seriously off it

It’s late at night, and Curt Newsome, tired from another 15-hour grind of watching film, going to practice, watching more film and calling recruits, lies in his bed and awaits for sleep to engulf him.

Just as he starts to doze off, he hears it. His phone starts its familiar vibrating. Newsome at first thinks the worst and then, even in a near catatonic state, he recalls past experiences. He smiles. He decides to let the phone buzz. A second buzzing indicates a message has been left, and he’ll look forward to checking it in the morning.

He fully expects to hear a sweet message from one of his boys.

“They’ve gotten me a few times,” Newsome said, with a smile. “They get quite creative.”

His boys, of course, are his offensive linemen, the big, brawny ones who have played quite well this season and the ones who occasionally like to carry out a prank or two, with Newsome often paying the tab. One, in particular, instigates the nonsense because, after all, someone has to be a leader.

And Blake DeChristopher isn’t afraid of such a role.

“That’s the good thing around here,” DeChristopher said. “The coaches have a sense of humor.”

Obviously, so, too, does DeChristopher. He anchors Tech’s offensive line as the starting right tackle, but the treat is looking at him and then hearing about his interests.

His well-publicized beard looks like a janitor’s mop, and his hair resembles a brush pile. He loves karaoke, cites Taylor Swift as one of his favorite artists and has been heard singing some of her songs at local establishments – he’s fond of “Love Story,” in particular. He reads Shakespeare in his free time.

You assume he tells the truth, but you never know, given his reputation. He rarely takes anything seriously. In fact, in any day, he only gets serious during classes, weightlifting, watching film and at practice. On Saturdays or Thursday nights, his seriousness comes only during the game.

Despite the mess of a beard, unkempt hair and hoaxing nature, he does have a girlfriend. A longtime steady, actually. He and high school sweetheart Carter Jennings, who now attends Radford, have been dating since 2004 when DeChristopher asked her to the Homecoming dance by placing a Post-It note on her backpack.

“That’s not true,” DeChristopher said.

There’s a pause for a couple of seconds.

“Okay, maybe it’s true,” he said.

Oh, occasionally, he might take some other things seriously in this life.

But only occasionally.

The Blake DeChristopher whom Tech fans know and respect is the one they see on the field each and every Saturday (or the occasional Thursday night). He stands 6-foot-5, weighs in the ballpark of 310 pounds and turns defensive linemen and linebackers into pancakes.

But football nearly pancaked DeChristopher at a young age.

He went out for a PeeWee League team in his hometown of Midlothian, Va., around the third grade. During a tryout, one of the coaches had the boys working on hitting drills, and at first, they ran around the tackle. The coach then made the players try it again, telling them to make contact.

“I got hit and told my dad that I didn’t like football,” DeChristopher said. “I didn’t play again until the seventh grade.

“Nope, I didn’t like the hitting. I was a little smaller back then. I tried to use my speed if I had any back then. I don’t know if I had too much of that either.”

Fortunately, he jumped back into football during that seventh grade year and gradually came around to liking the hitting aspect of the sport. Of course, as he grew older, he grew bigger, which always makes the transition easier.

By the time he reached 10th grade at Clover Hill High, he weighed 30 or 40 pounds more than he weighed as a seventh grader, and he grew a couple of inches. Such size at that age left him cemented for life in the trenches.

“Yep, always a lineman or a defensive lineman,” DeChristopher said. “I never carried a ball. Very disappointing. I would have loved to show my skills carrying the ball, but I’m fine blocking people.”

DeChristopher became good at that. In fact, he became one of the best in the state and started receiving interest from major colleges. Sure, Tech and UVa wanted him. But Ohio State’s coaching staff tried to get him to visit, too.

In the end, he liked the vibe he got from the people in Blacksburg.

“I wanted to stay in state,” DeChristopher said. “I visited Virginia for a day, and when I came here, it just felt like home. Everyone was really close. You can tell it’s a close group with the players and the coaches. That was something I really like and could feel when I came here.

“Once I stepped off the campus, I took my official visit, and as I was driving in the car with my parents back to Richmond, I told my parents that I wanted to come to Virginia Tech. They were like, ‘Are you sure?’ and I said, ‘Yes, it just felt right. I enjoyed my couple of days here, I enjoyed the experience and this is where I want to play football.’”

Despite his laidback nature and his willingness to have fun, DeChristopher does sport a serious side. In fact, when he first got to Tech, he wasn’t all laughs in large part because of the adjustment to college football and also because of a family situation that weighed heavily on his mind.

Tech’s staff nearly played him as a true freshman after Ed Wang went down with a leg injury. DeChristopher saw significant reps with the first-team unit that August when he arrived in Blacksburg. He got to witness Newsome’s stern side, much of which was directed at him, and one night, he made a phone call to his parents.

“I remember sitting in my room and calling my parents and telling them, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’” DeChristopher said. “I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know the plays, and Coach Newsome was really getting on me. As he was getting on me, a couple of days later, I got really sick and lost 15 pounds. I was throwing up a lot. I have to be somewhere every minute of the day, I’m sick, the coaches are on my butt 24-7, so I think that’s the most down I’ve been since I’ve been here.

“But Coach Cav [Jim Cavanaugh] helped me out a lot. He told me things would get better and that the first year was the hardest. He really had my back. And Coach Newsome told me he thought I would be a good player and that he needed me to get better every practice. He just wasn’t telling me that all that nicely on the field.”

DeChristopher also spent a lot of time worrying about his older brother, Lane. Lane DeChristopher, then a member of the Virginia National Guard, was deployed to Iraq for a year while the younger DeChristopher was in high school, and a second deployment appeared to be on the horizon.

During the initial deployment, DeChristopher’s parents kept their youngest son shielded from any unnerving information. They wanted him to focus on football and his schoolwork, and enjoying his high school years.

“I was a little naïve back then,” DeChristopher said. “I thought he was going to be okay and didn’t think of the harm he was in or the stuff he was going through. I didn’t worry too much about it, but I knew it was a stressful time for my parents. It was good to get him back safe.”

Once he returned, Lane DeChristopher shared some of what he went through in Iraq. On one occasion, insurgents attacked his military base with rocket-propelled grenades, injuring some of his buddies in the unit. One even passed away. At the time, he was out on a mission, so he avoided that particular scene.

Fortunately, Lane never went back to Iraq and later got out of the national guard. Today, he lives in Virginia Beach, and spends a lot of his free time watching his younger brother play football.

“We’re lucky because a lot of guys go over there and they come back really depressed,” DeChristopher said. “But he’s handled it really well. We’re all proud of what he’s done and how he’s handled the situations he was put in.”

Shortly before last season, DeChristopher received a summons to head coach Frank Beamer’s office. The summons alarmed him, considering he had never been asked to the Big Whistle’s domain.

Beamer wasted little time with pleasantries. He showed DeChristopher the team picture that had been taken during the team’s preseason media festivities.

“He said, ‘Does this look right?’” DeChristopher said. “It was a picture of my beard. I thought it was going to be something serious. He told me I needed to trim it up, and I did.”

DeChristopher’s beard, which he started growing before last season and then decided not to shave it after the Hokies lost their first two games, has taken on legendary status. In fact, a Google search with the phrase “Blake DeChristopher Beard” turned up nearly 14,000 results.

The beard gives DeChristopher a recognizable feature. Normally, offensive linemen rarely get noticed on the field or off it, but the beard brings added attention from students, fellow opponents and even refs. Even his parents eventually got onboard.

“They know I have the rest of my life to be a professional and be clean-shaven, so who is this hurting while I’m in college?” he said. “I’m just enjoying it and having fun with it. That’s always been my mindset. I know it doesn’t look good, but I think it’s funny.”

His play on the field this season has been no joking matter, though. In fact, he’s been quite dominant, racking up more than 120 knockdowns and grading out better than 90 percent in 12 of 13 games.

Following Tech’s 38-0 victory over UVa to end the regular season, DeChristopher received the ACC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy, which goes to the best blocker as voted on by the league’s head coaches and defensive coordinators. He became the first Tech player to win the award, and he also earned first-team All-ACC recognition.

“Blake really understands the game,” Newsome said. “He’s talented, and he’s athletic. He plays with good technique, and this season, he’s played the most physical football of his life.”

DeChristopher may get a shot in the NFL, given his size, strength and footwork. But he has plans if things on that front do not pan out. He graduated last spring with a degree in sociology, and he wants to get into law enforcement at some point. Participating in a ride-along program with the Richmond Police Department only reinforced his desire.

“I really liked it,” DeChristopher said. “Just the adrenaline rush when you’re pulling people over.

“I always wanted to work for the FBI or maybe do undercover work. I can grow a great beard, so I think that could come in handy. And if not, I can shave the beard and grow a nice mustache and be a patrol officer.”

He realizes the beard faces an uncertain future. That comes with moving into the professional world.

As for his sense of humor, though, that will be a constant. Rest assured, he’ll always get the last laugh.


Favorite hobby: Playing “Call of Duty” with my friends.

Favorite block: The Miami game when Logan [Thomas] ran the quarterback power up the middle. Jaymes [Brooks] picked up the backer in his gap, and I came down and pancaked the three technique [defensive tackle]. He just had a huge hole. That was definitely one of the most memorable.

Toughest guy you’ve played against: Jason Worilds [now with the Pittsburgh Steelers], definitely. It was tough going up against him every day in practice, but it made me a better player. He could do it all. He had a motor, and he was fast and strong. He was talented. He’s a good guy, too.

Outside of your teammates, who?: Derrick Morgan from Georgia Tech. He’s pretty good.

Favorite offensive lineman: I like the older offensive linemen who have played here at Virginia Tech. Guys like Jim Pyne and Jake Grove. Guys who have those nasty streaks. Offensive linemen look up to guys like that. They play physical football, and that’s what being an offensive lineman is all about. That’s what we want to be.

Why the No. 62?: I wanted to be 68, but Jaymes Brooks took that. I was 68 in high school, and Brooks was 78. But 78 here is retired [Bruce Smith’s jersey]. So he got there before me and got to pick and picked 68. He wouldn’t let me have it, but it wasn’t that big of a deal.

Favorite player: Aaron Rodgers because he’s my fantasy team quarterback, and he’s been doing well.

It’s Friday night in the offseason. What are you doing?: Being a boyfriend.

Facebook or Twitter?: I have both and I get on both equally. I tweet every once in a while. I’m not that cool of a person. I don’t have too much to tweet.

Favorite novel: The Catcher in the Rye. I’m an avid reader. I also like Shakespeare. I took a class here, and I love Shakespeare’s stuff.