A Perfect Fit
Oct. 18, 2007
by Jeff Smith
Any student-athlete attending Northwestern must be able to meet the high academic requirements of the University and be able to compete at the high level a conference such as the Big Ten demands. Wildcat sophomore soccer standout Mark Blades fits both.
"There are not too many players that can fit exactly what we need," NU head coach Tim Lenahan said, "but he is one of them."
A native of Lakewood, Ohio, Blades comes from an athletic family with strong academic ties. His father Edward ran track for Harvard, his mother Jane played basketball for Case Western in Cleveland, his brother Gavin participates in soccer at Yale and his sister Jackie is a high school senior looking to follow in her brothers' footsteps on the soccer field at a prestigious academic institution. Not far behind is his 14-year-old brother Luke, who plays both soccer and baseball.
Lenahan notes that not only was Blades' soccer ability appealing, but so was his family's commitment to academics. He continues to be impressed by his soccer star's work ethic and intensity and admits that Blades brings a different level of preparation to practice each day that is unmatched by a lot of college players in the nation.
For Blades himself, the dedication simply comes directly from his parents, who instilled in him and his siblings the important of education.
"Both my parents came from a fairly poor background, but they used their academics to get out of that," Blades said. "They both worked really hard in school to improve their lives. I think that mentality, working on things you like to do and working to do better, pulls over to the athletic side. My brother and I were always competing against each other."
During his junior and senior years of high school, Blades helped lead St. Ignatius to a pair of state championships and a 45-1-0 record.
"I think his most special year was during his junior season when he got to play with his brother Gavin and win the state championship," Lenahan said. "He really looks up to his brother."
Blades almost lost his brother forever on the slopes of a Utah mountainside on Dec. 20, 2005. Both avid snowborders, Mark and Gavin were on a family vacation with the family's closest friends when life has they knew it changed in an instant. Tired from the action on the slopes, Mark took the day off from snowboarding, while Gavin and two family friends continued on. As Gavin sped down the hill, a miscalculation in the turn or a loss in balance drove him head-on into a tree. Flown immediately to Salt Lake City, Gavin lay in a medically induced coma for 10 days. Her underwent seven major surgeries, including removing a third of his skull to obtain tissue that would help repair his broken jaw, broken left arm and his right anterior cruciate ligament. In his road to recovery, Gavin had to learn to walk, talk and regain his strength to do many of the things young men his age would do, such as playing soccer. For Mark, it was time to head off to college.
"Going to school my freshman year was hard, because he was still at home and taking classes through Cleveland State," said the younger Blades. "I would just think about him laying in the bed after it happened."
Despite having to leave his brother and family, Blades found his home in Evanston where he made an immediate impact on the soccer team. He started all 22 games last season, registering nearly a shot per outing, and was named a member of the Big Ten All-Freshman Team. In helping anchor a defense that posted eight shutouts in 2006, Blades was also selected to the College Soccer News Freshman All-America Third-Team.
"Mark has played a number of positions for us, but he is able to because he is so versatile," Lenahan said. "With injuries last year, we moved him to right midfield even though he is left-footed. His natural position and the one I think he'll play professionally is left back. I believe he is the best one at that position in the Big Ten and one of the best in the country."
Heading into this season, Blades was anxious to get past the first two games of the season. Northwestern's third contest of the year was one the entire Blades family had circled on their calendar for a long time. Gavin had made a miraculous comeback after his near-fatal accident and had every intention on playing soccer again at Yale. Years before his younger brother was even recruited by Northwestern, Lenahan and the Wildcats had scheduled a game at Yale, for what would be the Bulldogs' first outing of the 2007 season. Prior to December of 2005, this game had no major storyline. Now it was a game meant for Hollywood.
But weeks before the game Gavin had learned that while his body and strength had returned to him, his brain was not fit for action. Doctors would not clear him to compete and his playing days at Yale were through, although he has stayed on the team as a student assistant coach this fall.
"It was exciting not only because I got to play against his team, but I got to see him in his natural surroundings on the soccer field," Mark said. "He is still the same guy, capable of the same things, and he's the guy I grew up with. My whole immediate family and some relatives that lived in the area came to the game and everyone was just happy to be there."
The Wildcats topped the Bulldogs that day, 3-1, to improve to 3-0 on the year. They extended their record to 7-0-1 and were off to the best start in school history. In a win against Loyola (Chicago) on Sept. 26 - a game in which Blades helped NU set a program record fifth-straight shutout - midfielder Carl Pett was injured. After experimenting with Pett's replacement in the Wildcats' first loss of the year - a 2-1 decision at Penn State - Lenahan brought the dependable Blades up from the back to attacking center, a position he played in high school and was Ohio's Player of the Year. In the next game against Wisconsin, Blades scored the game-winner over the Badgers.
"He's kind of like a pit bull," Lenahan said of Blades mentality. "He's only 5-6 but he battles and attacks. He is very good at winning balls in the air and is courageous in his attacking."
For Blades, who is leaning toward majoring in psychology with the hopes of using that in the sports environment, he is just playing a role on a team that is focused on competing for a Big Ten title.
"Tim talked to me about being able to improve the program when he was recruiting me and he told me he thought I could help do that," Blades said. "It's great to know that we are doing that now and we have set much higher expectations."
Blades has kept his consecutive starts streak alive this year, as he has now played in all 34 games while he has been on campus. This season he has registered two goals and an assist and has helped his No. 9 Wildcats to a 9-2-1 record thus far.
It seems as if Blades, who turned down Yale to become a Wildcat, has turned out to be exactly what Lenahan thought he was.
A perfect fit.