Brad Blackburn has the perfect reply when asked if he has ever considered following in his father’s athletic footsteps.
“I really don’t need people punching me in the face,” the Tumwater High School senior said with a smile.
Blackburn, whose legal name is Brad Blackburn III, is the son of Brad Blackburn, Jr. If you’re a follower of mixed martial arts, you may better recognize his father by his ring moniker, “Bad” Brad Blackburn, as he was a professional MMA fighter for 11 years, competing five times in the UFC between 2008 and 2010.
“When I was growing up, he would always come home with a broken nose or he’d have his arm in a cast,” Blackburn recalled. “He’s a contact sport guy. I’ll stick with being a runner.”
It’s a smart decision because Blackburn isn’t just a runner. He’s an exceptional one, and one of the best in the state at the 400, a distance, albeit not quite like getting choked out inside a cage, that can be physically and mentally grueling, nonetheless.
Growing up, despite his father’s chosen profession, Blackburn was never pushed toward combative sports. Instead, his dad’s lone request was that he’d try everything at least once.
“He just wanted me out there trying stuff,” Blackburn said. “He always told me that if I didn’t like a sport after one season, I could always move on to something different.”
So, that’s what he did.
“Freshman year, I tried out for football and I wrestled,” Blackburn said, “but I wasn’t really into either of them.”
Nope. Blackburn had to wait until the spring sports season to find his calling. It came in the form of the Thunderbirds’ track and field program.
“I immediately knew this was the sport for me,” Blackburn said. “I did track in middle school, but (high school) is an entirely different game. Once I got here, I knew it was something I was going to stick with.”
And he exceled.
When Blackburn first arrived, he only saw himself as a 100- and 200-meter sprinter. The 400, one of track’s more daunting races, was something he initially shied away from.
“The coaches just kept telling me to try the 400 because they thought it was something I could be good at,” Blackburn said. “I didn’t really believe them, but I gave it a try anyways.”
Turns out the coaches knew what they were talking about.
“Most of the really great 400 sprinters have those long legs. That’s all you see when they race around the track,” Tumwater coach Tracy Johnson said. “Brad has not been blessed with that type of build. However, he makes up for every bit of it with hard work, dedication, and heart.”
Those desired characteristics helped Blackburn finish third at the Class 2A state championships last year, a surprise even to him.
“Coming into my junior year, I didn’t know if I was even going to make it to state,” Blackburn said. “I didn’t make it out of districts as a freshman or a sophomore, but as my junior season went on, I just kept working at it and I felt I was improving. I was now beating people who had beat me the year before. So, it was great to see all that work pay off at state.”
Covering the distance in a speedy 49.87 seconds, Blackburn was the only non-senior to finish among the top five in the 400 at last year’s meet. The race was won by Aberdeen’s Bryan Sidor, who immediately located Blackburn moments after crossing the wire.
Exhausted from the race, but still managing to summon enough strength to embrace Blackburn with a hug, Sidor thanked his rival turned friend, informing him that if he had not pushed him the entire season he would have never won state.
“It was pretty encouraging,” Blackburn said. “He told me to just keep working towards (winning state) this year. He had finished second at state the year before and came back and won it as a senior. So, it was motivating. I know I wouldn’t have gone as far as I did without him either.”
This year, however, Blackburn has become the measuring stick for other runners as he is the highest returning state placer in the event.
But you most likely won’t ever hear him mention that.
“Brad is one of the kindest, humblest human beings I have ever met,” Johnson said. “He is the quiet leader on our team. He doesn’t say a lot, but his work ethic on the track and in the classroom are incredible. He leads by example. The other kids see him doing his workouts at 110 percent and never complaining. He has battled through shin splints and tight hamstrings every year, but always gives his best on meet days.”