• 59°

Ole Miss’ John Youngblood plays emotional final season for his late father

It all came together to produce a career moment that defied the odds.

In the second quarter of Ole Miss’ Sept. 17 game against Alabama, defensive end Marquis Haynes rocked Jalen Hurts on a sack, popping the ball free. John Youngblood scooped it up with nothing but 44 yards of green grass in front of him and took off.

Racing toward the end zone in cleats bearing his late father’s initials, Ole Miss’ senior defensive end closed in on what would not only be his lone collegiate touchdown to this point but one against his parents’ alma mater, a team he adored as a child.

After he got there, he pointed to the sky, then to his mother, Renee, who was cheering from her regular spot in the parents’ section at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

“There was only one thing on my mind and that was my father,” Youngblood said. “I thought of him and thought of my family being there at the game and them being able to witness it.”

Ole Miss coughed up a 21-point lead in a 48-43 loss to the Crimson Tide, but for Youngblood and those who are still here to support him, it was a moment that couldn’t be beaten.

“Everybody was mobbing me and hugging me and we were crying. It was just an unbelievable moment,” Renee said. “We felt really good that he was able to do that. Unfortunately being human, you have that little feeling, too … it was an interesting turn that it was against Alabama.”

Tragedy strikes

Renee’s phone call didn’t wake him. The call from his sister minutes later did.

And the fact his phone was buzzing at 2 a.m. made Youngblood fear the worst.

“I answered it, and she sounded pretty panicked,” Youngblood recalled. “She said that the paramedics came to my house and they took my father away and he’s unresponsive.”

Phil Youngblood suffered a heart attack in the wee hours of Memorial Day. Renee started CPR after finding her husband lying on the floor in their living room, but neither she nor the emergency responders were able to resuscitate him.

John was just 15 minutes into the three-hour drive back to his parents’ house near Birmingham when he got another call telling him his father, at age 61, was dead.

“I freaked out. I had no idea what to do,” John said. “That’s the last thing I thought I was going to get a call about as soon as I got back to school.”

An autopsy later revealed complete blockage of an artery leading to Phil’s heart, John said, which compounded the family’s shock and devastation.

“He may have been five to 10 pounds overweight, but he was not overweight,” Renee said. “He exercised every day. Ate healthy. Tried to take care of himself. Rested well. It was totally out of the blue. It was very shocking, and it’s been very hard to still accept because there was no illness to make us think that was even going to be a possibility.”

John and his dad were close. The two could talk about anything, especially football, a sport John credits his father for inspiring him to play growing up in a state that craves the high school and college versions.

And whether it was his sister’s dance recitals or John’s games growing up, Phil and Renee made sure at least one of them would be there for support. Phil even recorded the games his son played in last year with the two sitting down together to watch them when John returned home from Ole Miss’ Sugar Bowl win over Oklahoma State.

“I just really miss that,” John said. “Not really on-the-field type of stuff. Just talking to him about the game and just doing life with him.”

Late notice

It’s not the first time John has had to press on.

A tight end, linebacker and even a punter at Hewitt-Trussville High School in suburban Birmingham, John was a standout for head coach Hal Riddle. He finished his prep career with 131 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, six sacks and a pair of forced fumbles as a senior, helping lead the Huskies to an 8-3 record.

Renee and Phil both attended the University of Alabama, so John naturally grew up a fan of the Crimson Tide. But Alabama didn’t recruit John. Neither did Auburn.

“My husband and I went to the University of Alabama,” Renee said. “Our daughter graduated from Auburn. For them to not look at him, sure, it was hurtful.”

John credits his late father, Phil, left, for getting him interested in football at an early age. (Submitted photo/Facebook)

John credits his late father, Phil, left, for getting him interested in football at an early age. (Submitted photo/Facebook)

In fact, attention from most Power Five schools was minimal.

Renee said Arkansas State, then led by head coach Hugh Freeze, was the first FBS school to offer John a scholarship, but Freeze couldn’t promise him one when he took over at Ole Miss. John was set to sign with Central Florida in February 2012 until Ole Miss extended an offer the day before signing day.

“Wouldn’t have been bad to be right by the beach. Nice campus,” John said of UCF. “But I was happy to come up here.”

John redshirted his first year on campus and played mainly in a reserve role and on special teams the next two seasons. He continued his ascent up the depth chart with his most extended playing time last season, earning two starts and finishing with 19 tackles.

“He’s had to work,” Freeze said. “It didn’t come natural to him to be on the field all the time, and he did it through hard work, determination and handling the tough times in adversity well.”

John began this season firmly entrenched as Fadol Brown’s primary backup, but Brown’s slow recovery from last season’s foot surgery has kept him sidelined for most of the season. John stepped in against Florida State in the opener and has started every game since, already matching the number of tackles he had all of last season.

“I guess in the end God had a bigger plan for him and for us,” Renee said. “That’s what always wins out.”

Bittersweet reflection

John is trying to enjoy this moment as much as he can, but he was recently reminded just how far he’s come.

The first day back at practice following the Rebels’ loss to Arkansas, John and his position coach, Chris Kiffin, went over the line’s grade sheet, a brutally honest assessment of how each player performed in the previous game. But it wasn’t so much the quality as the quantity that made John realize just how surreal this moment is.

“He looked at me and he said, ‘Did you ever think you were going to be playing 74 snaps against Arkansas your senior year wearing No. 38?’” John said. “It just kind of really made me step back and kind of made me miss that my father’s not here watching this.”

John is wearing that number because he’s the latest recipient of the Chucky Mullins Courage Award, awarded every spring to a defensive player that best embodies what the late former Ole Miss defensive back did — leadership, perseverance and determination.

It fits John to a tee.

Nearly five years removed from being an afterthought for most SEC schools, the 6-foot-3, 255-pounder is not only going through his final season in the league at the top of the depth chart but also going through it with the label of a team captain.

“You don’t get that by not modeling toughness, discipline and accountability,” Freeze said. “And the way he’s handled adversity in his personal life.”

Youngblood has finally made a name for himself in Oxford. He just wishes the man responsible for giving him part of that name was still around to see it.

“It’s been a lot of ups and downs,” John said. “It’s really emotional and tough to kind of go through the season without him.”

Ole Miss will return home Saturday to host Auburn at 6:15 p.m. Despite the Rebels’ sub-.500 record, that’s plenty of motivation for John.

“I kind of play with a chip on my shoulder in those games,” John said.

Renee will make the drive over like she does for every home game and provide her usual support. Seeing John as a full-time starter in the SEC is still taking some getting used to, though she won’t say she’s as surprised as others might be as it would be an insult to her son’s resolve.

“We knew him,” Renee said. “He always worked to achieve what he wanted. The fact that others weren’t seeing it, we just had to believe in him to do the right thing for himself. That’s the one thing I’m very grateful to Coach Freeze, Coach (Dave) Wommack and Coach Kiffin in seeing that.”

But it’s impossible for John not to think about the piece of his support system that’s missing. He’ll finish the season doing what he can to help the Rebels win as many more games as possible so that he can keep this moment going past the Egg Bowl, but deep down, he’s playing for so much more.

“(My dad) would always talk about how easy it was to go back to work after we beat (Alabama) or Auburn just because he wouldn’t have to hear anything,” John said. “He said he would walk into work with his head held high. Yeah, it makes me think about that a little more.”