DJ plays the hits in Orlando
AFC Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller of the Denver Broncos poses for a picture with DJ Bland, who lives in Putnam County.
By Dave Brown / Staff
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Putnam County Middle School student DJ Bland has been playing with the top U12 football players in the nation at two all-star stops over the past couple of months: A New Year’s Eve contest at the Diamond All-American Games in Myrtle Beach, S.C. and the Youth Pro Bowl in Orlando, Fla. on Jan 28.
After DJ’s stellar play – including a highlight reel touchdown catch – at Myrtle Beach earned him an invite to the weeklong Youth Pro Bowl, he stepped up big-time in the high-octane fueled atmosphere in Orlando.
Not only were the nation’s best youth players on hand in Orlando, the top NFL players were also gathered at the ESPN Disney World complex for the Pro Bowl.
If one play could serve as a microcosm of DJ’s ascension, it would be the superlative athleticism and effort displayed on special teams: DJ not only kicked off and booted a squib kick downfield, he also bolted downfield, out-hustled 21 other all-stars and recovered the ball.
“When I first got to Myrtle Beach … I wasn’t scared, but I was nervous around all the all-stars,” said DJ.
“But after a while I figured out I could hang with them. When I got to Orlando around all the good players down there, I wasn’t so nervous and played with more confidence.”
Former NFL players and coaches conducted the Youth Pro Bowl drills. At first, players went through the preliminary paces of rudimentary skill set activities to be assessed for strengths and weakness.
Once the drills progressed into controlled scrimmage sessions, DJ initially got a look-see at both receiver and cornerback. However, he quickly showed a nose for the football on defense and was moved to starting linebacker on the NFC youth team.
“Maybe it was because DJ wasn’t as nervous as he was in Myrtle Beach, but in the practices before the game in Orlando, he played a very physical brand of football. Very physical,” said Darrell Bland, who made the trip with his son.
“After he started hitting people and using his speed to get to the football, they switched him over to linebacker. It looked like he was right at home playing there.
“At the end of the game, they did let him run the ball one time.”
Let the record show that in the waning moments of the NFC youth team’s 20-16 win, DJ gained eight yards on his only carry of the afternoon.
Darrell Bland might be the first to admit he may have been a totally biased observer of the goings-on in Orlando; however, the one unalterable fact attests to DJ’s turf moxie, foot-speed and knack for the getting to the ball carrier: The PCMS sixth-grader earned an on-the-spot invitation to the NFL Youth Pro Bowl seventh-grade game next year.
DJ not only caught the attention of the former NFL coaches and players, he also was noticed by none other than Denver linebacker Von Miller, the MVP of Super Bowl 50 who was in Orlando to play on the AFC Pro Bowl team.
Miller first interacted with DJ during an on-field photo session with NFL cheerleaders, and then saw him later at the ESPN store at Disney World.
“We tried to get into the part of store where (Von Miller) was at, but the security people would not let us through,” said Darrell.
“But he saw us trying to get in, so Von Miller waived the security people off and called us over to talk with him.”
In addition, DJ was interviewed by TwinSports TV. Even though his interview didn’t make the final cut, highlights of the U12 Youth Pro Bowl with DJ wearing his NFC colors and his white Putnam helmet are available on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_V9STJPSdm for viewing.
“The whole thing was a great experience for me,” said DJ. “Plus, I got to have lots of fun in Orlando and make some friends.”
In addition to being invited back to Orlando next year, DJ is also slated for the Diamond Spring All American Game in Virginia Beach, where the top youth players from 46 states will descend upon the Virginia shoreline. Other all-star game invitations, including one in Pennsylvania, may be coming in soon.
DJ, who helped lead Putnam Blue to the championship game of the Lake Area Football League, led the LAFL with 11 touchdowns.
The Blands wanted to offer special thanks to the Putnam Sports Club.
“We appreciated all the help from the Putnam Sports Club,” said Darrell Bland. “The community support has been outstanding.
“There are lots of good football players in our area, and hopefully DJ will open up avenues for other local players to play in these all-star games.”