The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were driving. At 2-2, the Detroit Lions needed a spark.
Watching the lowly Buccaneers march down the field to start the game wasn’t how the Lions wanted to start.
But as Tampa Bay got close to the end zone, Bennie Blades picked off a Trent Dilfer pass and returned it 98 yards for a touchdown. After the extra point, it was the Lions who led 7-0 and completely turned the tide of the game.
It was one of the biggest moments if Blades’ career, which was underappreciated. Blades was one of the best safeties of his generation.
It was shocking to me to look back at the career of Blades and realize he played in just one Pro Bowl, in 1991. Yet he was a three-time All-NFL All-Pro, earning the distinction in 1988, 1991 and 1992.
But that game on September 29, 1996, was the only time Blades reached the end zone on an interception. It was the big play of the game, which Detroit went on to win 27-0, keeping Tampa Bay winless, but it could not change a disappointing season.
The Lions would win the following week against Atlanta but then close the season with nine losses in their final 10 games, finishing a disappointing 5-11.
That season marked the end of an era. It was the final year coaching for Wayne Fontes, and it was the final season in Detroit for Blades.
He would go on to play one more season with the Seattle Seahawks, but his nine-year career at the Silverdome was over.
Blades finished his career with 134 starts in 136 games, some at strong safety and some at free safety. He totaled 14 interceptions, forced nine fumbles and recovered 11 fumbles. Blades only found the end zone that one time, but earned two points for the Lions with a safety in 1995.
What was really impressive about Blades was his tackling. As a rookie in 1988, Blades had a career-high 102 tackles at age 22. He also had two interceptions, three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries that season. Somehow he was not selected to the Pro Bowl that year.
Blades followed that up with 100 tackles, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery in 1980.
In his 10 years in the NFL, Blades totaled 772 tackles, a very strong number for a safety. His only other touchdown came in 1992 on a blocked punt return against the Green Bay Packers.
He reached the end zone twice in college for Miami and had 19 interceptions in three seasons with the Hurricanes. His collegiate career was so impressive for a defensive back that he was drafted No. 3 overall by the Lions in 1988.
There are very few defensive backs who get that kind of treatment in the draft, but Blades was something special to watch at Miami, and he was something special to watch in Detroit, too. In a 2008 fan poll, Blades was selected to the Lions’ 75th anniversary all-time team at safety along with other Detroit greats Jack Christiansen, Yale Lary, and Don Doll.
It is a shame that so many fans outside of Detroit didn’t get to experience watching Blades at his best. But we know how underappreciated he was nationally and Lions fans definitely appreciated one of the best safeties in the game.