On that Friday night seven years ago, he averaged 10.8 yards every time he carried the football.
The Vandalia Butler coaches called on him 22 times in that season-opening game against Tecumseh, and by evening’s end, Blake LaForce had rushed for 237 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-14 victory.
Back then it seemed as if the powerful junior running back — who also had provided hard-nosed linebacker play that night — had reached the pinnacle of prep performance.
After all, what more could one guy do?
As it turns out — plenty.
Looking back now, you realize that mighty effort against Tecumseh was but a warm-up act to what he’s done every year since and will do again Friday night when the Aviators host Wilmington in their home opener at Butler Memorial Field.
Talk about taking your exploits to the next level:
• The year after that 237-yard effort, Blake got the entire stadium — fans, cheerleaders and both the Vandalia Butler and visiting Greenville teams — to stand side-by-side, hand-in-hand as they encircled the field for a postgame prayer chain for him.
“They said it was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop,” Mark LaForce, Blake’s dad, recalled Wednesday.
• Last season, said some people closest to the program, Blake again helped the Aviators topple Tecumseh. This time it wasn’t with a three-TD effort, but a goal-line stand as time expired.
“They stopped them on the 1-yard line on the last play of the game,” Mark said. “If they hadn’t, Tecumseh would have won. Afterward Greg Bush, our head coach, was in tears. He said, ‘I felt Blake there tonight. I really did.’ ”
• Friday night at the Aviators’ home opener against Wilmington, billed as the Play For A Cure game, Butler Memorial Stadium again will be packed. Blake LaForce signs will be held up by the crowd and affixed to the stadium fence.
Many will be wearing the newest rendition of Blake LaForce t-shirts, which have an orange ribbon embossed on the front and the message “Forever 41” encased in a heart on the back. But Mark said if it’s like years past, there will be other guys in the student section who will have shed their shirts to reveal the number 41 — Blake’s number, which has been retired by the high school, middle school and pee wee programs in Vandalia — painted on their bare chests.
• Saturday morning, right back at the stadium, folks will gather for the 41 Hope 5K Run/Walk. Proceeds will go to the Blake LaForce scholarship fund, which has provided some $31,000 in scholarship money to 16 Butler students. (To sign up for the race or find out more, go to www.41hope5K.com or call 937-689-0500).
“This is all really something to be proud of,” Mark said. “It’s a good feeling knowing he’s still making a difference. No. 41 and everything it stands for is huge at Vandalia Butler. It’s become a tradition that’s really ingrained in both the high school and the community now.”
Never asked why
Two months after that three-TD game in 2007, Blake LaForce was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) and immediately began chemotherapy treatments.
The news sent shock waves through the school and community. Besides a football star, the 5-foot-11, 205-pounder was a wrestling standout and one of the state’s top prep power lifters; he had dead-lifted 550 pounds, squatted 550 and benched 350.
He was popular, National Honor Society smart, a devout Christian and something of a teen Adonis, mixing the Indonesian- and Dutch-influenced good looks of his mother, Linda, with the football musculature of his dad, who had been a lineman on Wittenberg’s 1973 national championship team.
Best of all, he had a caring heart and that’s why people liked him in the glory days and rallied around him even more when he got the ALL diagnosis.
As he battled his cancer, Blake missed his senior football season and that’s what prompted the Aviators’ kickline to organize their prayer chain that night after the Greenville game. Mark and Linda were at their son’s bedside in the hospital and received call after call from the game from people who were overcome by the love and emotion that poured out.
Blake would eventually have a successful bone marrow transplant, but then contracted a debilitating central nervous system parasitic infection.
Mark said for most of the final 11 months of his son’s 20-month battle, Blake could comprehend everything but could not speak. He communicated by blinking.
Through it all Mark kept a web journal detailing the ordeal of his son and their family. Eventually 120,000 people from around the world were following his daily posts and later those thoughts became a book he wrote entitled “Because of Blake.”
Finally, on July 3, 2009, Blake LaForce, 18, died at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. His funeral, a celebration of life, drew over 1,000 people to the Christian Life Center on Little York Road.
It was evident that day and in the years since that Blake helped galvanize a school and a community and especially his own family.
“Never once did he ask ‘Why?’ — all he asked was, ‘What’s next,’ and then it was, ‘OK, bring it on,’ ” Mark said.
“The thing that still boggles my mind was how, at age 17, he had the presence of mind to say, ‘OK, I know why I’ve got leukemia. It’s so I can make a difference in people’s lives.’
“It’s still like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ My boy taught me how to be a real man. Before that I was just going through life da-dee-da. Go to college, play football, get married, get a job, have a family, watch football, go to church on Sunday. The American way, blah, blah, blah.
“But what was my purpose in life? My true purpose? I didn’t really know. But he was the guy. The man of the family. And he helped me realize what more there was.
“Blake always paid forward — he actually made a difference in people’s lives — so that’s when I realized we needed to leverage his legacy and try to keep on making a difference.”
Impact of No. 41
The idea of the Play For A Cure game was started by the Butler cheerleaders in 2008, Mark said, and each year they’ve come up with a different t-shirt promoting the game. The majority of the proceeds from the night go to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
The 5K race proceeds all go to the scholarship fund, which is part of the VISIONS Endowment Fund under the umbrella of the Dayton Foundation. Applicants are judged not only on their grade-point averages, extra-curricular activities and community involvements, but on the way they show certain traits embraced by Blake.
The scholarship fund also collects proceeds from an annual golf scramble at Windy Knoll, the concessions from football scrimmages and the wrestling team’s efforts with a Turkey Trot running event at Thanksgiving and by getting pledges for the number of pins the team amasses each year.
Even Kristin Smith, the 2013 Miss Ohio who graduated from Vandalia Butler and was Blake’s first girlfriend, spoke out during her competition about the positive influence he had on her life.
“I had wondered, after the years went by and all the kids associated with Blake had graduated and gone on with their lives, just how much he would still be remembered,” Mark said.
“And I especially wondered if the younger kids coming into school — kids who didn’t know him — would understand or care. But they have older brothers and sisters and there are the teachers and the other people in the community that all knew Blake and knew what he was about.
“The whole No. 41 idea has really jelled a whole school and made an impact in the community. It’s not just about remembering Blake, it’s about helping kids today. It represents so many things that are positive and that’s pretty uplifting for everybody.”
As Blake LaForce has shown over the years, it’s one thing to carry a football. It’s quite a bit more to be able to carry a school and a town.