Since stepping on the campus of Gannon University four years ago, senior running back Melvin Blanks has grown in the face of adversity.
Nagging ankle injuries, COVID-19 and three below .500 seasons have stood in Blanks’ way, but the North Hills product continues to rise in the record books while leading a Gannon program to its best start in recent memory.
In the face of adversity, one sentiment that echoes through the locker room that helps Blanks and his teammates grow is that “today is the worst we will ever be.”
As Gannon chases a PSAC West title, the mindset to learn every day from past mistakes has led the Golden Knights program to a 4-1 start.
Blanks has been a key leader in the strong start as he has compiled 531 yards on the ground and seven touchdowns. Both marks place him second amongst PSAC running backs. Those rushing yards have also moved him up in the Gannon record books as he now sits seventh in all-time rushing yards in program history.
The rise in the rankings has been a long journey through the years, but before his time collecting accolades at Gannon, or even before his time breaking records at North Hills, it is important to understand the route Blanks took to where he is now.
At seven years old, Blanks began his football career playing on the North Side of Pittsburgh for the North Shore Stallion. While he grew as a football player there, it was not always the game on the gridiron that was at the forefront of his youth athletics.
“I played baseball for Greenfield and my first love was definitely baseball,” Blanks said.
Although baseball was Blanks’ first calling, when enrolled at North Hills, that’s where he focused on football and knew it was something he wanted to pursue.
“I knew what my passion was, so I knew I wanted to go to school and play football,” Blanks said.
Through the years of youth football and baseball to high school football, like any athlete, Blanks needed a support system to allow him to develop his career as an athlete. He cites his brother and grandfather as being important parts of his growth, but none bigger than his father.
“Every step of the way was my dad,” Blanks said. “Whatever tournament, whatever game, whatever it was, it was me and him the whole time. My mom worked a lot, so she came when she could, but my dad encouraged me to go with my heart and do whatever I trusted.”
In front of his family and the North Hills faithful, Blanks took the field every Friday as his game soon began to blossom.
“People ask me, ‘do I ever feel pressure or feel worried about a crowd and I’m like no, I’ve been playing in front of crowds since I was in ninth grade,” Blanks said. “That was one of the dopest parts about North Hills. Every Friday night it was packed. The standard and culture there was very high.”
Part of that standard was set by a former player, who turned out to be a Penn State legend and an NFL first-round pick, LaVar Arrington. Arrington held the single season rushing record for North Hills until Blanks added his name to school history.
In his senior year, Blanks rushed for 1,480 yards which stands as the rushing record at North Hills.
“I didn’t even know I was close to the record until I found out after the game,” Blanks said. “To know I passed someone that has held such a high pedestal not only at North Hills but all over the world was dope.”
While the rushing accolades during his senior season, rose his status as a recruit, Blanks was already hearing from schools prior to that year. However, it was at the cornerback position that he was receiving interest. Pennsylvania schools like Bucknell, Robert Morris, Duquesne and Indiana (Pa.) all expressed interest in Blanks.
Once he broke out as a running back, Blanks turned his attention toward Gannon and committed to the school as he looked up to one particular player that influenced his decision.
The all-time leading rusher in Gannon program history, Marcus Jones, was an instrumental part in getting Blanks to campus.
“On my visit, I talked to him, and he told me to come here, and I would have the opportunity to play as a true freshman and learn from him,” Blanks said.
During his freshman year, while sitting behind Jones on the depth chart, Blanks gained some experience on the field returning kicks. He averaged 24.4 yards per return.
“I knew I wanted to be on the field and with Marcus’ senior year I knew I wanted to make an impact in an area that I could.”
Despite seeing the field in nine games, Blanks was limited the rest of his freshman season with a high-ankle sprain, something that would impact him over the next few years.
Over the next two seasons, Blanks would continue to grind away although he only appeared in 11 games due to ankle issues and the impact of COVID-19.
In 2021, Blanks finally played in every game for the Golden Knights. The 6-foot-1 running back accumulated 1,187 yards on the ground, which was 19th in Division II football. He also earned All-PSAC West honors.
“I always felt like I could do those things and I just had to stay healthy,” Blanks said. “The o-line played great the whole season and those guys came up huge in a lot of games and they were a big testament for the season I had.”
Coming into this season, Blanks wanted to build on his previous seasons while working on certain areas of his games.
“I wanted to improve on everything, especially things I left out there on the field,” Blanks said. “Really being explosive in the second level and being hard to get down were some things I wanted to work on.”
This season, Gannon has taken the next step as a program to start the year as they look to add to the 4-1 record.
“We have always believed in ourselves when not everyone believed in us,” Blanks said.
Blanks and the Gannon Golden Knights now face a tough stretch with matchups against Edinboro, Slippery Rock, Mercyhurst and IUP to conclude October.