Prep Athlete of the Week: D.J. Bland
De La Salle star caps four-TD game with return of onside kick for score
CHICAGO -- An unexpected amount of emotion overwhelmed De La Salle senior D.J. Bland as the national anthem played before the Class 6A playoff game at Crystal Lake Central on Saturday.
Bland thought about his family who was there to support him. He thought about the alumni in the crowd. He thought about the pride he had playing for De La Salle. With all that in mind, he began crying.
"It just started to pour out," Bland said. "I've never had that feeling before. I don't know why. That day and at that moment, it came upon me. I couldn't hold it all in."
It would end up being a day that Bland will never forget.
First, he cried. Then he caught a 35-yard touchdown a pass. Then he caught a 33-yard touchdown pass. Then he returned a punt for a 53-yard touchdown. Then he intercepted a pass. Then he returned an onside kick for a 50-yard touchdown. Then De La Salle advanced to the quarterfinals with a 33-20 win. Finally, he was mobbed by children seeking autographs, alumni wishing to congratulate him and family looking to hug him.
On Sunday morning, Bland awoke and wasn't sure if it was real.
"It was like waking up from a dream," said Bland, the ESPNChicago.com Prep Athlete of the Week.
De La Salle coach Dan O'Keefe can assure him it was quite real.
"I've never seen anything like it in any game, especially a playoff one," O'Keefe said.
Bland had a sense he was going to have a special game after his first touchdown catch. Just before the play, he told quarterback Juwan Martin to look out for him. When the ball snapped, Bland cut left, then quickly back right and took off. The defensive back had no chance after that, and Martin connected with Bland in the end zone.
"I just set the tone," Bland said. "The crowd was behind me. I feed off that."
The Meteors ran the same play again for the next Martin-to-Bland touchdown.
With two touchdowns in the bag, next came his punt return. Crystal Lake Central had avoided punting to him all game, but slipped up in the third quarter.
"It was a rugby kick and it kept bouncing," Bland said. "I just picked it up, and I guess put some magic on them."
Bland started on the left side with the ball, began running backward to his right, avoided one tackler, stiff-armed another and flew by everyone else.
The punt return was followed by an interception that exemplified why Bowling Green, Eastern Illinois, Eastern Michigan and Miami of Ohio have all shown interest in him as a defensive back. The Crystal Lake Central wide receiver had initially sped past him, but Bland recovered, saw the quarterback throwing the ball, leaped and pulled the ball in. It was his eighth interception on the season.
"He grabbed it at the last second," O'Keefe said. "If he didn't, they would have been gone. He's smart. He has great instincts."
At that point, Bland didn't believe his day could get any better. It already was a career game, and then he did the unthinkable.
"I always joke around with my coaches during practice, 'Coach, if they onside kick it, I'm going to pick it up and run,'" Bland said. "Coach is like, 'If you do that, I'm going to kill you.'"
With Crystal Lake Central trailing 21-20 with 19 seconds remaining in the game, it lined up for an onside kick. Bland stood near the middle of the field. The ball was kicked and bounced right to Bland. He sprinted to his left, away from Crystal Lake Central's kickoff team. As he ran up the sideline for the touchdown, his mother, Tina Bland, ran alongside him in the stands.
"She ran the whole way with me," Bland said.
Afterward, Bland was overwhelmed with even more emotion.
"What more can you ask for as a high school senior at that moment?" Bland said. "That's why you play."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.