Rare neuromuscular disease forced Austin Blake to relearn how to walk before he could run again on a Campbell football field
One moment, Austin Blake is a 21-year-old Division I football player at the peak of his athletic prowess whose only worry in the world in March of 2020 was how he was going to spend his spring break. The next, he’s being rushed to a Georgia hospital, unable to feel his extremities.
Admitted to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta — a facility nationally lauded for its treatment and rehabilitation of those with neuromuscular health issues — Blake was diagnosed with a rare disorder, Guillain Barre Syndrome, where the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s peripheral nervous system. The disease affects about one out of every 100,000 people and can take anywhere from six months to a year for recovery. Roughly one in 20 who are diagnosed die from complications.
A highly touted offensive lineman and weight-lifting champion coming out of high school in his hometown of Dacula, Georgia, Blake was preparing to enter his third season on the offensive line for the Fighting Camels’ football team, starting 11 games as a sophomore.
“When I was diagnosed, I had three distinct goals,” he says. “First, I wanted to be able to walk again on my own power. Second, I wanted to get back to campus and return to being a student. And most importantly, I wanted to overcome the odds and be back on the field.”
As the months wore on, rotating between various hospitals and intensive care units, Blake was separated from the real world. Due to the heavy onset of COVID-19 and his rare condition, visitors were limited to drive-by visits and daily interactions on his phone over Facetime.
An experienced leader on the field, Blake went into coach mode during his rehab, encouraging and motivating the morale of other kids in the Shepherd Center. During a typical lunch hour, Blake would grab the nearby intercom system and unleash his sense of humor — including his favorite, “What did the snail say when he was riding on the turtle’s back? … Weeeeee.”
After Blake was released from the hospital that summer, he was forced to relearn basic motor functions. Instead of preparing for the upcoming football season, he was relearning how to hold a pencil and move his ankle and working to regain his sense of taste.
One week before the start of the fall semester, Blake suffered an unexpected relapse, losing his vision and diagnosed with a complication known as chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, a chronic effect of GBS.
His goals seemed farther away. Still, Blake would not be derailed. That August, he joined his father Todd, mother Shannon and sister Andie on a trip south to Statesboro, Georgia to watch his Camels begin their pandemic-shortened four-game season, all against FBS programs like Georgia Southern.
The trip was therapeutic.
“To see everyone’s faces and to see Austin interacting with his teammates meant the world to him,” says his mother. “It didn’t matter what his health situation was, that was a game he was not going to miss.”
As his recovery dragged into that fall, Blake reached a crossroads, searching for guidance through his training, his rehab and his faith.
“When you have a son who has been an athlete his whole life — and he’s so focused on being a team player — and you see a piece of that taken away … it’s really hard,” his father, Todd, says.
“I’m at the lowest point of my life wondering if it’s time for me to go,” Blake recalls. “And I’m like, ‘I must be somewhat special. Maybe God has something greater planned for me.”
As the calendar flipped to January, Blake accomplished his second major feat —returning to Campbell University. His parents traveled to Buies Creek to help him move in, taking one momentous family walk around campus they never thought possible.
Separated from his family for the first time in months, Blake’s football family dug in deep and fully embraced their leader. Teammates helped Blake with daily reminders to take his medicine, kept up with his workout regimen and even transported him to and from class.
“We probably bugged him 47 times a day,” remembers Jackie Knight, head athletic trainer for the football program. “Initially he started doing workouts with me, the bike and basic movements, helping him develop some form of normalcy.”
“What impressed me was his mindset,” says teammate Quincy Jenkins. “I was shocked he was back on campus that soon, and I’m proud of what he accomplished just to even rejoin the team.”
Blake intensified his strength training and remained a vigilant observer and mentor on the sidelines during spring practice. He studied every player, followed the guidelines of his offensive line coaches and utilized his relationship with the players to administer thoughtful feedback.
“Austin is a guy who understands that no matter what comes his way, there is so much more to life,” head football coach Mike Minter says. “He’s the prototype that exemplifies everything we talk about in this program.”
Blake excelled with his rehab, thrived as a leader in the locker room and positioned himself for life beyond football. He earned Dean’s List honors that next semester, all while changing his field of study into health care management. Eleven months after his initial diagnosis, he checked the final box off his list: returning to the practice field.
Initially, he suited up for non-contact drills, and within weeks, he fully acclimated himself to the speed and physicality of the game (he had lost 75 pounds since his initial diagnoses).
As he regained strength, Blake embraced every second on the field.
“I was grateful,” he says. “Just to be on the field. It took a lot of time, tears, faith and just a whole bunch of things wrapped together.”
On Oct. 30, 2021 — 19 months after his life was turned upside down — Austin Blake climbed the literal and figurative mountain top. He checked into the game against Charleston Southern. He would eventually play in seven total games over the next two years.
“We knew only Austin could write the ending to his story, and it’s been even better than we could imagine,” says his father.
Blake was invited to Las Vegas the summer before his final season to be presented the 2022 Wilma Rudolph Student-Athlete Achievement Award by the National Association of Academic and Student-Athlete Development Professional. That fall, he stepped on the field one last time and delivered a final pancake block against Robert Morris in a Campbell victory. “I cried so much after that last game,” he recalls. “Not because of like, ‘Oh wow it’s over;’ I cried because of all the memories. That’s why I wanted to come back.”
That December, Blake walked across the graduation stage and embarked on the next step in his journey: grad school and coaching. He now serves as a graduate assistant coach working with the offensive line on the football team while pursuing his Master of Public Health degree. He wants to be the coach for those who were so instrumental in his life. Whether he’s dissecting an opposing defense, helping his players prepare for the mental hurdles or spending time with patients in local hospitals, Blake wants to help.
“It’s crazy to think what an inspiration he will be for others,” says Minter. “Austin will be a guiding light for so many people.”