Friday, February 15, 2013

Former D-B classmates join forces for leukemia fundraiser



A shared love of basketball bonded Brad Blackwell and Coty Sensabaugh, who became fast friends when they were students at Lincoln Elementary School in Kingsport.

They remained close through middle and high school, with many an afternoon spent shooting hoops together on the court behind Blackwell’s house.

Blackwell and Sensabaugh drifted apart after graduating from Dobyns-Bennett in 2007, with Blackwell moving to Knoxville to earn an advertising degree from the University of Tennessee and launch his career as a country music singer. Sensabaugh went on to play football at Clemson University before being selected by the Tennessee Titans in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft. He just wrapped up his rookie season with the team.

The two reconnected through Twitter a few months ago and finally caught up face-to-face over dinner in November, when Blackwell was in Nashville on business. That’s when Blackwell suggested that they team up on a fundraising concert that would let both men share their good fortunes and give back to a cause near and dear to both their hearts.

Proceeds from Blackwell’s “Combustible” EP release show Feb. 22 at Knoxville’s Bijou Theatre, which Sensabaugh is helping promote, will benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Sensabaugh’s older brother, Jamaar, died of leukemia in 2000 within a week of being diagnosed with the disease. He was just 16 years old. Coty, who was 11 at the time, credits Jamaar’s life — and sudden death — for molding and shaping him into the man he’s become.

“It had a major impact on me,” Sensabaugh said of his brother’s death. “I feel it made me grow up overnight. That was the driving force in a lot of the obstacles I faced throughout my life. It was an unfortunate situation, but it helped turn me into the person that I am today.”

Blackwell’s fiancee also has two uncles currently battling leukemia, so supporting an organization dedicated to funding blood cancer research and providing education and patient services was a perfect fit.

“I love seeing people chasing their dreams,” Sensabaugh said, “and I told (Brad), anything I can do to help, even besides this concert, I’m going to do it to help him. It’s just two friends getting together and supporting a good cause.”

Opening for Blackwell at the Bijou show will be Troy Suggs. Show time is 8 p.m. Tickets are $20.

Blackwell sold out the Bijou last June at a release concert for his second studio EP, “Fresh.” On hand to introduce him was former University of Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulm e r.

“From the second I moved to Knoxville, I said I want to do the Bijou Theatre,” said Blackwell, who won Best Singer in the Knoxville News Sentinel’s 2010 East Tennessee’s Best Reader’s Poll. “Every step along the way you just try and grow with every show. ‘Blue Sky’ was my first CD. We released that in 2010 at the Brown Cup of Coffee in Lenoir City, and there was like 20 people there. Then we did the ‘Brad Blackwell’ EP at a place called The Orangery in Knoxville, and there’s no reason you should be doing a show there, but we talked it up a bit and had like 200 people there, then did a show at another place in downtown Knoxville and had 350 there. We released ‘Fresh’ and had 500 there.”

“Combustible” features three songs Blackwell co-wrote with Wade Kirby, who penned George Strait’s No. 1 single, “I Saw God Today,” which garnered Grammy, ACM and CMA nominations.

Blackwell believes the project has helped focus his musical style.

“(The songs) are a little more country, and that was kind of a strategic move,” he said. “I’m from East Tennessee, it’s all Nashville players, I’m in Nashville all the time, I wrote it with Nashville guys, it’s like, why even try to fight it? Kind of the second we said we’re country, it’s almost like it enhanced that focus even more. If you can’t define yourself, it’s hard for people to go out and define you, so it’s a more focused step in the right direction and hopefully makes making that next step easier because you know who you are. That’s kind of what we feel like we’ve done with this.”

Now that his friend is an up-andcoming country singer, Sensabaugh said he’s going to have to brush up on his catalogue of country tunes.

“I know a few country songs, but now that one of my good friends is a country singer, I’m going to learn a few more so when I hear somebody singing country, I can argue my point with them about why my friend is better,” Sensabaugh said, laughing.

As for Sensabaugh, he’s settling into his new life of NFL stardom and looking forward to building on the Titans’ momentum in the latter part of the 2012 season.

“The toughest thing for this season was our record. I don’t feel our record really showed how good we were, but sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce your way, so all we can do is go back to working and build on what we did this year,” said Sensabaugh, a cornerback. “We started off kind of slow, but as the season went on, we got better and better. Our record may not have shown it, but we got better, so I’m excited at the direction the Titans are going and I’m happy to be a part of it.

“The biggest thing you have to adjust to is the business side of it. The football aspect of it doesn’t really change. The biggest change from the football aspect is you may be playing against somebody that you grew up watching as a kid. ... The first preseason game when we were out in Seattle, I was out there warming up and I seen Terrell Owens out there warming up. He was with the Seahawks, then, and I was like, man, I remember growing up watching him, I should go say something to him, then I was like, no. I stopped myself and I was like, I don’t think I can do that because I may be guarding him and I don’t want him to have one up on me, so I just kind of kept that to myself. Then when the regular season started, we started off with the Patriots and I seen Tom Brady out there warming up. I’ve grown up watching him, and he’s one of the best quarterbacks to play the game. After the first few games, though, it became the norm. It wasn’t as shocking.”

Sensabaugh is also focused on hosting his first free football camp — to be held June 15 at J. Fred Johnson Stadium in Kingsport for boys and girls ages 6-17 — and starting a nonprofit foundation in memory of his brother, Jamaar.

“That’s what it’s all about for me, giving back and just helping people any way I can,” Sensabaugh said. “The football thing, I don’t even look at it as a career. I just look at it as a short opportunity because I can’t do it forever, so while I’m here and I have the platform, I just want to help people as much as possible because that’s what people will remember about me when I’m dead and gone — what you did to help people. They won’t remember how many tackles you made.”

For tickets to the Feb. 22 concert, log onto  . To find out more about Blackwell, visit his website at  .