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Former OU football coach John Blake remembered for compassion, humor: 'He was a great human being'

John Blake, pictured in 1998 during an OU football news conference, died last month after suffering a heart attack. [DOUG HOKE/OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES]
John Blake, pictured in 1998 during an OU football news conference, died last month after suffering a heart attack. [DOUG HOKE/OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES]

The booming voice on the other end of the line left no doubt who was calling.

“What up, Freak?” the caller said as soon as Keith Jackson picked up his phone late in the summer of 1988.

That thunderous voice belonged to John Blake.

Jackson was an NFL rookie when that call came, doubting himself a bit despite his successes at OU.

“I promise you, they ain’t ready for you,” Blake told Jackson. “I promise you. I looked at the team, Freak. Nobody can run like you, nobody can jump like you.”

Before every game that season, Jackson’s phone rang with a call of encouragement from Blake.

Blake, the former OU coach and defensive lineman, was remembered Saturday during his funeral at Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas.

He was remembered for his sense of humor. He was remembered for his “Booisms” — sayings he’d regularly use, which included calling teammates or players he coached “Freak.”

Blake was also remembered for his knack for calling when they needed uplifting.

Blake died July 23 of a heart attack while walking in Dallas.

“It was eerie the way he could see when you were having issues and he’d say something to encourage you,” Jackson said. “He had that ability to know when something wasn’t right.”

For Spencer Tillman, that phone call came early in his time with the Sooners.

“Freak, let’s go fish,” Blake said in a call to Tillman after a tough freshman year.

Tillman didn’t have a fishing pole but that conversation, and that time with Blake, helped turn around what was a sour outlook.

“Compassion is the currency of humanity,” Tillman said.

Jason Pierre-Paul’s need for encouragement was more obvious.

In 2015, Pierre-Paul’s right hand was mangled by a fireworks accident.

Pierre-Paul’s agent introduced him to Blake, who walked into Pierre-Paul’s room and immediately went to work on Pierre-Paul’s spirit.

“That hand’s going to catch up to us,” Blake said. “Come on, we’re going to go to work.”

Blake’s encouragement continued long after Pierre-Paul returned to the NFL.

“He pushed me and pushed me and pushed me,” Pierre-Paul said. “It opened my eyes to a lot of things. Blake never changed on me. … Never asked me for a dime. He just wanted to see me do better.”

Among the other speakers at the funeral included former Sooners J.C. Watts and Caesar Rentie — Blake’s brother-in-law — as well as NFL standouts Jim Jeffcoat and Robert Quinn.

Blake was also remembered by Barry Switzer, who recruited him to Norman from Sand Springs and got Blake started into coaching.

In addition to Switzer’s personal remembrances, which included recruiting Blake and then living with Blake for two months after Switzer was named head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, was a story Switzer passed along through a friend.

The man’s son suffered a life-threatening accident while playing football in Topeka, Kansas. The father didn’t know Blake but was a high school coach in Oklahoma. Blake was coaching defensive line at Nebraska and heard of the injury.

Blake called the father “every other day” in the aftermath of the accident and leading up to a surgery, to check on the pair.

After the son was out of ICU, Blake suggested the family go to the Madonna Rehabilitation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. The center is one of the country’s top rehabilitation centers for traumatic brain injuries.

Blake never said it directly, but the family was quickly accepted into the center and the family believes Blake helped facilitate the help that made a big difference in the boy’s outcome.

“There was no personal gain for him doing what he did,” the father said in a text passed along to Switzer. “It’s just because he was a great human being.”

Ryan Aber

Ryan Aber has worked for The Oklahoman since 2006, covering high schools, the Oklahoma City RedHawks, the Oklahoma City Barons and OU football recruiting. An Oklahoma City native, Aber graduated from Northeastern State. Before joining The... Read more ›

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