Ball State alum Michael Blair hoped to represent team Jamaica in bobsled at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Blair re-emerged to the athletic scene 11 years after retiring from playing professional football. Michael Blair, Photo Provided
Ball State alumnus spends time as member of Jamaican national bobsled team
In July 2016, a nervous, out of shape Michael Blair cautiously signed a waiver at the foot of a mountain in Wissler, Canada.
“Those waivers basically say, ‘Hey, if you die, we’re not responsible for that,’” Blair said.
He anxiously rides in a van to the head of the mountain. Upon exiting the vehicle, the rest of the Jamaican national men’s bobsled team waits for him preparing to teach the retired professional football player the sport.
It was cold. So cold, Blair couldn’t focus on anything else — not even how high in the air he was.
“I’m like, 'Blair get over it. You played in the cold, get over it,'” he told himself. “Every time I got to the starting block, I had to overcome fear,” Blair said. “It actually becomes a challenge how many times can I dominate fear and be comfortable.”
He squats down in the 400-pound sled for the first time — head toward his knees as he grabs on to the chassis.
“I pull my head down,” Blair said. “I’m taking deep breaths and I keep thinking, ‘Oh my God, I have no flexibility right now.’”
His pilot, Jazmin Fenlator-Victorian of the Jamaican national women’s bobsled team, jumps in as Blair pleads to her to get them down safe. He says the Lord’s Prayer twice as they begin their descent.
“When it was over, I was so excited,” Blair said. “You get that laughter where you try to express yourself, but you can’t. But you’re laughing because it’s the excitement that’s triggering it.”
Eleven years after retiring from playing professional football, the Ball State alumus re-emerged to the athletic scene in hopes of representing Team Jamaica in bobsled at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
This time, the 6-foot-2 former running back was dressed in a onesie and his new field was a narrow, contorted, dangerously slick sheet of ice.
While the harsh realities of training as an Olympic hopeful showed its colors, Blair loved every second of his time as a Jamaican bobsledder.
A new dream
At 32 years old, Blair’s journey as a professional football player came to a halt. The Ball State alumnus played four seasons in the National Football League and spent the next six years with stints in Europe, the Xtreme Football League and the Arena Football League. He was a member of the 1997 Green Bay Packers team that lost to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII.
While Blair accomplished one dream of playing professional football, he had another one: to honor his father’s lineage in helping bring the sport of American football to Jamaica.
Blair’s father, Patrick, and uncles Corcel, Miguel and Maurice were born in Jamaica and spent time as members of the Jamaican national soccer team.
“So for 20 years after college I kept saying to myself, ‘You gotta go back, you gotta go back,’” Blair said.
In July 2016, the dual American and Jamaican citizen finally got his opportunity. His football camp had 40 participants: 15 adults and 35 kids. During the trip, Blair attended a FIFA event where he met Harry Nelson, the strength coach for Team Jamaica.
Knowing Blair’s athletic history, Nelson inquired to him about coming out of retirement to try out for the bobsled team.
“The first thing that didn’t pop into my head wasn’t 'Cool Runnings,'” Blair said. “The first thing that popped in my head was Herschel Walker and Willie Gault because when I was younger, I saw those guys doing it.”
While most people think of the Disney movie “Cool Runnings,” which told the story of the first ever Jamaican National bobsled team competing in the 1998 Calgary Winter Olympics, Blair’s mind went elsewhere.
Former NFL greats Herschel Walker — former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL legend — and Willie Gault — one of the fastest men in NFL history — came to Blair’s mind.
A second-wind sport
When February comes and the world’s greatest athletes flock to PyeongChang, chances are they’ve been on ice skates, snowboards or skis since they could walk.
However, bobsledders are notoriously known for having successful careers in other sports before hopping in the sled — like Walker and Gault.
Blair’s teammate, Surf Fenlator-Victorian, who was waiting for him at the top of the mountain in Wissler, Canada, did just that.
“It’s an older person sport so most people transition later,” Fenlator-Victorian said.
Fenlator-Victorian, who decided to take up the sport of bobsled after a successful career as an international track and field athlete, owes his piqued interest in the sport to his wife, Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian.
“Watching her compete, her and Lolo Jones, seeing the beauty of the sport, how difficult it seemed — I wasn’t happy at the moment so I decided I would take a chance and go for it,” Fenlator-Victorian said.
Jazmine — who is now a part of the Jamaican National Women’s bobsled team — is currently in good shape to qualify for PyeongChang. She went to the Sochi Olympics in 2014 with Team USA. Lolo Jones is a former Team USA track and field athlete-turned bobsledder. Fenlator-Victorian has since transitioned his focus to training for the Skeleton.
Both being second-wind athletes, Blair and Fenlator-Victorian have a lot in common.
“Most of the time when people come from being an elite athlete in a different sport, they don’t have that humbleness to actually realize they have to relearn things,” Fenlator-Victorian said.
Blair was different.
Fenlator-Victorian described him as “humble” and “honest.”
“He had a hunger and a drive to learn about the sport,” Fenlator-Victorian said.
More than that, Fenlator-Victorian raved about the type of man Blair was. The two men, along with two other Jamaican bobsledders, all trained in PyeongChang together.
No coaches, no spectators, no pressure. It was just the four of them and the 16 turns on the PyeongChang Olympic Sliding Center track.
It’s where their friendship really blossomed not only on, but off the track.
“He looked at me and was like, ‘As a person, I just want to know you,’” Fenlator-Victorian said. “I looked at him, kind of blankly, because in my mind [I thought], 'Well, you do know me. We see each other every day.'” Blair responded with, “I see you everyday but I don’t know you.”
From then on out the two weren’t only teammates, but friends. Blair confided with Fenlator-Victorian about his life, career goals, his poetry and multiple book ideas.
“I’m just blown away by how talented he is, not just in sport,” Fenlator-Victorian said. “It made me realize he’s so much more than just a good guy that made it to the NFL.”
Blair had a storied football career. At Ball State from 1992-96, he aided the Cardinals to two Mid-American Conference Championships and two Las Vegas Bowl game appearances.
But the sport of bobsled, and competing on an international stage rather than a national one, displayed the sometimes-harsh realities of being an Olympic hopeful.
“You don’t get paid to be an Olympic hopeful,” Blair said.
Blair, who is the founder of Ninety10 Sports — a speed and mental development training program for athletes — could not work during the year her was training.
Unless you’re the Shaun Whites or the Lindsey Vonns of the world, chances are you’re not making a living as an Olympic hopeful.
“Those athletes have been seen all their lives,” Blair said. “Have been seen from a young age and have been invested in over time and this is what you got. When you got guys like me who are on their second coming with no ragger tooth hanging and we’re still trying to get out there and find somebody. And it’s difficult.”
Training for just under a year, Blair hoped the sponsors and funds would come in. Some did, but with the cost of gear needed to be a complete bobsledder, Blair couldn’t continue.
Fenlator-Victorian knows the financial struggles bobsledders endure all too well.
“You have a nation really sitting there and having all the pressure of getting medals, but not being able to be an athlete [full time] is a true problem within our sport,” Fenaltor-Victorian said.
Fenlator-Victorian estimates a good, quality bobsled can cost anywhere north of $100,000 to $200,000.
That doesn’t include the gear each athlete must wear while competing.
“The financial future is very rocky for bobsled,” he said.
The next goal
While Blair’s journey ended prematurely, it instilled a new goal he aims to achieve in his life.
Blair wants to expand his Ninety10 Sports brand into a service for those Olympic hopefuls who struggle to pay their way while training.
“I want them to be able to come to my facility or have access to what I have, and be able to train,” he said. “Anything to help them relieve the stresses and have them only focus on being the best.”
Blair achieved his goal of honoring his lineage by making it to an international stage. While he may have failed making it to PyeongChang, he’s OK with that.
“Every chance I get, I try to fail miserably," Blair said. "Because when I fail miserably, I know I've given it everything that I got. I don’t have to worry about regrets. I don’t feel bad because I did it.
"I did it. And there’s a lot of people who never even try.”
Contact Elizabeth Wyman with comments at email@example.com.