Before Justin Blackmon ever dreamed of being a professional football player, he thought that his best hope of being a pro athlete was in the NBA.
"Basketball is probably one of my favorite sports," Blackmon said. "I thought I was going to play basketball somewhere before I ever thought I was going to play football, but things changed throughout my high school career."
Specifically, Blackmon realized around his sophomore year of high school that he wasn't going to get any taller and that he probably stood a better chance on the gridiron. His 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior attracted plenty of notice and ultimately brought him to Oklahoma State.
After piling up 3,564 receiving yards in three seasons in Stillwater, Blackmon is widely considered to be the top wideout in the 2012 NFL draft.
But before Blackmon could become a top wideout, he first had to learn how to focus solely on football. For a teenage boy who had excelled on numerous fronts, both on the gridiron and on the hardwood, as class president and as a drummer in the high school marching band, he had to learn how to concentrate all of his energies into one sport.
"It's just 100 percent football now and that was something redshirt year, I figured out," Blackmon said. "Normally, football season's over and you're going on to something else."
His '08 redshirt season in also gave him the chance to mature, and learn the ropes from WR Dez Bryant, a 2010 first-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys. With Bryant's help, and with the opportunity to square up against CB Perrish Cox, a fifth-round pick of the Denver Broncos in '10, every day on the scout team, Blackmon "tried to take in as much as possible."
Bryant taught Blackmon a lot, including the proper way to compete.
"I learned a lot from him," Blackmon said. "One of the many things that I learned was that every time you step out there between the lines, you're always competing."
Blackmon's entrance into the Cowboys' starting lineup coincided with that of fellow NFL prospect, QB Brandon Weeden. At that point, both were relatively unknown commodities. Weeden found Blackmon in the back of the endzone for a 49-yard touchdown pass in their first game together and so began a connection that changed their lives for the better.
The next offseason, Dana Holgorson came to Stillwater as the Cowboys' new offensive coordinator. He introduced himself with a valuable piece of advice for Weeden.
"We weren't drawing out a lot of plays for (Blackmon) but he was making catches on tape and then halfway through camp, Dana said, 'if it were me, I'd throw to 81 a lot,' and, fortunately, I listened," Weeden said, "and (Justin) just kind of evolved into the most special receiver in the country."
The evolution became clear to the college football world in 2010, when Blackmon won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver, after a campaign in which he led the nation with 148.5 receiving yards per game. He finished the season with 1,782 receiving yards and 20 TDs.
"It was the right place at the right time," Blackmon said. "Everything was kind of hitting, it helped that we had a great O-line and a great back that opened up a lot of the passing areas that we have."
While he was in the right place at the right time on the football field, he was at the wrong place at the wrong time off the gridiron. In the midst of his stellar sophomore season, Blackmon was pulled over on his way back from Dallas, where he had attended a Cowboys-Giants game on "Monday Night Football" with some friends. He had been going 92 mph in a 60-mph zone, according to police spokesman Dustin Bartram, and he was arrested for a misdemeanor DUI complaint. He was suspended by head coach Mike Gandy for that week's game as punishment.
In reflection, Blackmon said he learned a lot from the experience.
"I learned I've just got to make better decisions," Blackmon said. "I wish I could've learned it some other how. I definitely wouldn't want to go through it again, but I think, overall, I used it as a good lesson."
Meanwhile, he continued to excel on the field, consistently showing off his big-play capabilities. He had more than 100 receiving yards and at least one touchdown in all 12 games in which he played in '10 and added seven more 100-yard games in '11. He was held without a TD only twice his last two seasons at OSU.
"A lot of people look at our offense as a consistent pitch and dunk but if you look at the tape, he's catching big routes, he's catching comebacks, he's catching posts, he's catching verticals," Weeden explained. "It's not like we're throwing five-yard hitches across the board for 100 yards and that's the way we're built, we have a guy that can stretch the field vertically, and he can do that for us, and it made our offense a lot better because of it."
Concern has broken out among some NFL scouts over Blackmon's lack of speed. He has been clocked in a time of 4.55 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Blackmon would hesitate to call himself slow, however.
"I wouldn't say I'm slow," Blackmon said. "I would say I just stride out, long strides don't make it look like I'm moving too quick."
And teammates and opponents alike say that those long strides help him get behind a defense. Oklahoma CB Jamell Fleming, a fellow 2012 draft prospect, said containing Blackmon's speed was part of his team's strategy entering game day.
"Don't let him get the big plays, that's really how he gets a lot of his touchdowns, and if he does catch the ball, tackle," Fleming said. "It's more because he's a bigger guy so he's going to break tackles, and a lot of times he's deceiving with his speed so he's going to get behind you and you've got to be worried about it. He can run pretty good for a bigger guy."
After Oklahoma kept him under control (95 yards on 10 catches and no TDs), Blackmon came up particularly clutch in the team's 41-38 victory over Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl, as he finished with 186 receiving yards and three TD grabs (covering 643, 67 and 17 yards).
"He's strong with the ball in his hands, he can break tackles because of the strength he plays at and the speed he plays at during games," Weeden said. "He's hard to bring down. That's one of the things that people don't really talk about, they talk about his ability to catch the football, but with the ball in his hands, he's pretty elusive."
Having placed an emphatic stamp on his college career, Blackmon has the NFL squarely in his grasp.
"Ah, ended it well," Blackmon said. "Couldn't really ask for a better way to end it than we did in Arizona at the Fiesta Bowl, give the school its first BCS championship and it was a great win for this class to go out on."