ATHENS — “What number do you wear?”
“Do you play any other sports?”
“Do you know Justin Fields?”
“Do you think you’re a good kicker?
Those are just a few of the questions that came Rodrigo Blankenship’s way when he visited Abby Brink’s second grade class at Barrow Elementary School on Wednesday morning. In addition to the impromptu Q&A, Blankenship also read the children a story — Dreaming of the Redcoat Band by Richard Gnann — and did so with just the right amount of enthusiasm and voice inflection to keep the 7-year-olds’ attention.
Blankenship thought that’s all he was there for Wednesday, just to read to little kids and sign a few autographs like he has done many times before. Only this particular moment was a ruse.
Allstate Insurance had orchestrated Blankenship’s appearance in order to surprise the UGA place-kicker with the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team community service award. Blankenship is one of 11 FBS players in the nation to be included on the team, which goes to student-athletes who go out of their way to serve their community while also being good students and, of course, exceptional football players.
You know, players who answer the call to read to little kids on a Wednesday morning between classes and football practice.
Blankenship already knew he’d been tabbed for the Allstate award, but he didn’t know the presentation and trophy were coming on Wednesday.
“I wasn’t expecting anything like this,” said Blankenship, eating a dog-bone-shaped Rice Krispy treat underneath handmade sign in the hallway that read “Welcome Rodrigo Blankenship.” “This was a really special moment.”
For sure, Blankenship checks all the boxes for the Allstate folks. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound junior from Marietta is an All-America candidate, an academic All-American for the Southeastern district and the No. 2-ranked Bulldogs’ leading scorer with 40 points so far this season. Heading into Saturday’s game against Tennessee, this former walkon leads the nation with 30 touchbacks on 32 kickoffs, is 5 of 7 on field goals and has yet to miss a PAT in his career (111 of 111).
Since arriving at UGA as an invited walkon and redshirting in 2015, Blankenship not only became Georgia’s starter and earned a full scholarship, he is now one of the biggest stars on the nation’s No. 2-ranked team. His ovation at Sanford Stadium every Saturday is right up there at the level of quarterback Jake Fromm.
Even 7-year-olds know who he is. Leland Barrow of UGA sports communications office asked the children if they knew what Blankenship’s nickname was. Several hands shot up before one little boy just shouted out, “Hot Rod!”
Wednesday’s choice of reading was quite appropriate for Hot Rod. It’s about a little boy named Jody who grows up dreaming of marching across the field at Sanford Stadium and playing his trumpet with the Redcoat Band. Jody’s father helps that dream come true by teaching the values of hard work, practice and dedication.
That’s exactly the scenario Blankenship encountered as his father, Ken Blankenship, taught him first how to play soccer, then how to be a place-kicker. Then Rodrigo had to persevere through competition and early setbacks.
“I definitely can feel a connection when I read it,” Blankenship said of the book. “Whether you want to be a football player or be in the band or be a cheerleader or just be a student at the University of Georgia, if that’s a dream you have, you can go out and achieve it.”
And now just being a scholarship member of the Bulldogs is no longer good enough for Blankenship. He was still a bit bummed Wednesday to have seen his consecutive touchback streak end at 23 this past Saturday and to have missed two field goals, one a 49-yarder pushed wide right and another blocked.
“I was thinking to myself, if you had told me two years ago we were about to get on a plane and go to Missouri and I would make three field goals and have seven touchbacks, I would’ve done a triple-back flip,” Blankenship said. “But this season, that’s not quite good enough. I can appreciate where I’ve come from, but I’m at a point where I’m still trying to improve and do all I can to be the best I can be for this team. They still need a little bit more out of me than I’ve given so far.”
Big dreamer, that Blankenship kid is. But that’s why the awards will continue to come.