TODAY'S SPORTS

The Blair Hit Project: Skyline’s Zach Blair hits Italian Pro Football League



Zach Blair always dreamed of playing professional football.

Getting paid to play the game he’s loved since his youth football league days has always been a motivating factor for the former Skyline High School linebacker.

After a stellar career at Division 2 UVA-Wise, Blair is now suiting up for the Dolphins. No, not the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, but the Ancona Dolphins of the Italian Football League.

Right now, that matters little to Blair, who has always been undersized for a linebacker.

"My goal was always to get paid to play — not because I love the money, but because there is something honorable in making a living doing what you love," Blair said. "As far as this being a stepping stone, I'm not sure yet. I just plan on busting my butt as much as I can while I'm here – trying to win Italian Super Bowl and go from there."

Standing 6’2 and weighing in at about 210 pounds, Blair was a force for the Hawks during his high school days, often delivering bone-jarring tackles to opposing ball carriers and quarterbacks.

Blair continued to do the same at UVA-Wise, located in the far southwestern corner of the state.

Early in his Italian league career, Blair is continuing the trend with plenty of replay-worthy hits.

“Seeing a few of his big hit highlights brought me out of my chair,” said Blair’s former Skyline High School head coach Heath Gilbert. “It doesn’t matter the level, Zach has shown to be a playmaker.”

Blair excelled all four years while attending UVA-Wise.

For his career, Blair recorded 343 tackles — 80.5 for loss, which is an NCAA record — a school record six blocked kicks, four fumble recoveries, seven forced fumbles, and four interceptions.

Blair earned three first-team all-conference awards, a first-team all-region honor, an honorable mention All-American award as a junior and a second-team All-American honor as a senior.

Blair says his biggest motivation has always been to prove people wrong when it came to saying he was too small to play at any next level coming out of high school.

“Whether that be coaches, parents, or people around who told me I was too small, or that I peaked in college,” Blair said. “I just love this game too much to be told I can’t accomplish something within it.”

After finishing up his senior season for UVA-Wise, Blair wasn’t sure what the future held, and figured he’d graduate this spring and see what opportunities awaited.

Then came a surprise phone call from Ancona head coach Robert Rotelli.

"The opportunity just happened to present itself a lot quicker,” Blair said. “The coach called and asked me what my plans were.”

After sending his highlight film package to Italy, Blair was offered a contract two weeks later.

The only downside was that Blair would have to forfeit graduating on time, so he took four online courses this semester.

On the positive side was the fact that Blair’s girlfriend, a James Madison University student, Veronica Crochet, is an Italian citizen and speaks fluent Italian.

“Her grandparents are still here so she was definitely a big help in making the choice to come over here,” Blair said. “She visited during her spring break and she’ll finish up her degree in May and then hopefully come join me.”

It’s been a big adjustment culturally for Blair the past few months in Italy, but he is loving the experience.

“The biggest issue I have is the language barrier, but living over here is great, the scenery, the history, and food are unmatched,” Blair said. “Most of the people have a city mentality, so the ‘excuse me’s’ and door holding I do for people is unexpected by most. Coming from Virginia, I still have that southern hospitality in me.”

The competition level is similar to college football, Blair says. Each team in the Italian league is allowed two American players and one dual-passport player.

“The level of competition varies from week to week, and each week we will see an American guy from D-1, or the cream of the crop from D-2 or D-3,” Blair said. “But my team is awesome. The guys and the overall experience is amazing.”

Typically an inside linebacker, Blair says his position changes, depending on the style of play of the opponent.

“Sometimes I play outside linebacker, and other weeks I’ll be moved to the inside if it’s a running team,” Blair said.

Blair figures coming to Italy will give him a chance to put on more weight and maybe catch the attention of a scout from the NFL or Canadian Football League.

Gilbert knows all too well from his days at Skyline that Blair shouldn’t be underestimated.
“His self-belief and work ethic has always fueled his fire to be great,” Gilbert said. “He is another example of our home-grown kids making it on the next level.”

Blair said the most important message to young players back home is to keep your dreams alive through positive attitude and hard work.

“My biggest message would be just don’t quit,” Blair said. “I know that is a cliche, but from my time at Skyline and Wise, I saw a lot of kids with great talent lose their passion.

“There were times I was benched, times I got pulled, and multiple clashes with coaches, but no one took away my love for the game. Regardless if someone has a negative opinion of your play, that doesn’t make it their job to change it. It’s your job to make them see what you can do.”

The Italian Football League will play their Super Bowl in early July. To find out more about the league visit www.IFL.it.




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