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Meet the stranger who steered former Buc Keith McCants toward hope, healing

For more than a decade, Robert Blackmon has remained by the troubled ex-Buccaneer’s side.
Former Bucs first-round draft choice Keith McCants, right, poses for a portrait at Coffee Pot Park with St. Petersburg city councilman Robert Blackmon. For more than a decade, Blackmon has helped McCants battle his addictions, procure surgeries for injuries stemming from his NFL career, and share his cautionary tale with others.
Former Bucs first-round draft choice Keith McCants, right, poses for a portrait at Coffee Pot Park with St. Petersburg city councilman Robert Blackmon. For more than a decade, Blackmon has helped McCants battle his addictions, procure surgeries for injuries stemming from his NFL career, and share his cautionary tale with others. [ MENGSHIN LIN | Times ]
Published Jun. 16
Updated Jun. 16

ST. PETERSBURG — The beams have been installed in Robert Blackmon’s latest reclamation project. And man, is Keith McCants ever beaming these days.

A wide smile has supplanted the wincing. McCants, the fallen former Buccaneers first-round draft choice, recently got a new left hip, accompanied by a new lease on life. On this day, he’s wearing the tread on the wheels of his walker as he briskly navigates a modest parking lot toward the front door of a restaurant in northeast St. Petersburg.

“I feel great right now,” McCants says.

Blackmon, 32, follows a few paces behind, his gaze brimming with wonder and gratification. A St. Petersburg City Council member with a burgeoning local real estate portfolio, he has spent his adult life helping renovate hundreds of properties in his home city. About a decade ago, he had a notion the restoration efforts he applies to houses might work on a human.

Only this project had been terribly disheveled, disgraced and abandoned, with seemingly little hope of rescue.

But as he devours a lunch of steak and shrimp slathered in Parmesan sauce, McCants, 53, speaks of scuba diving again, of returning to the gym regularly, of sharing his cautionary tale with youngsters.

“The evolution of Keith, no matter how slow it’s been compared to what you originally expect, is the greatest gift in the world, and I mean that,” says Blackmon, who has resigned his council post effective Jan. 6, 2022, to run for St. Petersburg mayor.

A legacy of compassion

The youngest of two children raised in St. Petersburg, Blackmon’s tender spot for the marginalized reared itself before puberty. Carolee Blackmon recalls purchasing some quail eggs and an incubator for Robert and older sister Heather, thinking it would be an “intellectual, educational thing” for her kids. While most of the eggs were broken, two seemed intact.

“Except one had a little spot on it,” recalled Carolee Blackmon, an attorney and property manager whose husband Jim also is in the real estate profession. “And I said, ‘Well, I think that egg’s defective.’ Oh no, Robert wanted that egg. ... And my daughter took the other egg, and they did both hatch.”

Years later, he was outside a local movie theater with a St. Petersburg High classmate when a group of kids began harassing the smaller peer. When Robert stood up to the group, a scuffle ensued and — according to Carolee — her son sustained bruises and abrasions that required an emergency room visit.

“He’s the champion of the underdog,” Carolee said. “Anyone or any animal he thinks needs help, he’ll go out of his way.”

And nothing screamed for help like the forlorn face staring at him from the page of his hometown newspaper. Blackmon, then 21, was home from Florida State University on Christmas break when he came across McCants’ mugshot in the St. Petersburg Times. Accompanying the photo was a story on McCants’ latest arrest, on a charge of cocaine possession while leaving a strip club.

“He just looked really, really sad,” Blackmon recalled.

Blackmon, still an infant when McCants was drafted by the Bucs with the No. 4 overall pick in the 1990 NFL draft, had no knowledge of McCants’ disappointing six-season NFL career (with three different teams) or the personal downward spiral that followed it.

Defensive end Keith McCants, the Bucs' first-round draft choice in 1990, signals to the crowd following a victory in 1991.
Defensive end Keith McCants, the Bucs' first-round draft choice in 1990, signals to the crowd following a victory in 1991. [ 1991 TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO | Times files ]

The story only indicated McCants had “a history of legal troubles.” It didn’t detail the factors complicit in that history: the extravagance, the woefully misguided business decisions or football injuries that led to a dependence on painkillers and eventually street drugs, including cocaine.

So Blackmon researched McCants online and was startled by what he encountered. He learned the arrest he had just read about was McCants’ 11th since 2002. He discovered McCants required knee surgery two days after the draft which, in addition to being shifted from linebacker to defensive end in Tampa Bay, stymied his pro career.

He read of how McCants’ financial troubles mounted once his pro career ended following the 1995 season, how the house he built for his mom was seized by the state of Alabama in 2000 for unpaid taxes. He discovered McCants’ indulgence in drugs wasn’t borne totally of a desire to get high, but to moderate his chronic pain.

So Blackmon sent him a Facebook message offering to help in any way a 21-year-old college student could, even if it meant just listening.

“Keith called almost immediately,” Blackmon said. “He sounded pretty sad. He was saying, ‘I don’t think I have that long to live.’”

As the conversation progressed, McCants indicated he wanted to share his story to youngsters as a cautionary tale, and Blackmon said he’d help in any way he could. The two began speaking roughly every other day, even when Blackmon returned to Tallahassee. Eventually though, McCants stopped answering his phone.

Blackmon went online and discovered McCants had been arrested in Pinellas County — again.

“So I get back home for the summer and looked up how to visit somebody in jail,” he said. “I plugged in a little info for visitation and just showed up. I said, ‘Hey, it’s the kid who has been talking to you for the last couple of months. What can we do?’”

By many accounts, this is the type of benevolence that circulates through the Blackmon family bloodstream. His paternal grandmother, “Grandma Mattie” Blackmon (who died in 2015 at age 102), spent decades delivering flowers to local nursing home residents and shut-ins.

Carolee Blackmon, who practices family law, has been known to keep her rates low, accepting cases based on the individuals and not their means. Troy Schukar, who does maintenance work on properties managed by Blackmon’s family, said the Blackmons took him on despite a background that included a DUI arrest in Illinois and an ongoing second divorce.

Robert even put up $500 to help Schukar purchase a 1992 Chevrolet work truck. “They didn’t know me from Adam, and I was in a bad way to go, said Schukar, 53. “And they took me in like nobody else has ever done. It’s phenomenal.”

Kelly J. Gilbert, who also hails from a local real estate family and has known Blackmon for years, calls him “a man of great integrity and heart and compassion.”

“If I go to a party and I walk into a room and say his name, it’s almost funny how many people will speak up about a time that Robert has stepped up for them when they’re in need,” said Gilbert, a real estate specialist for the City of St. Petersburg.

But the somber figure he encountered at the jail left him struggling for words.

Blackmon recalls McCants, a twice-divorced father of four, being “very depressed” during their visit. At that point, McCants’ court dates were mounting, as was his weight (ultimately topping out at 450 pounds).

“He was talking the same language I was talking, get my story out there,” McCants said. “He said he could help me, so I latched on to him.”

With Blackmon’s help, McCants began discussing his struggles — including the self-inflicted ones — on prominent local and national platforms. He appeared in Broke, an ESPN “30 for 30” examination of athletes whose wealth vanished within years of retirement.

During an interview with local sports-talk radio host Steve Duemig (who passed away in 2019), McCants said he lost more than $17 million dollars. In a video produced by Vice Sports, he acknowledged he attempted suicide more than once, and at one point consumed 183 pills a week to alleviate the pain resulting from nearly three-dozen surgeries (primarily on his right knee, right elbow, neck and left shoulder).

Typically, Blackmon accompanied him to these appearances, and even drove him to Alabama for various court dates. While McCants’ confession of his missteps seemed cathartic, they didn’t lead to an overnight transformation. To the contrary, seemingly each encouraging step was followed by a backpedal.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show McCants was arrested at least 10 times in the state between December 2010 and June 2018, on charges ranging from possession of cocaine to driving with a revoked or suspended license to failure to appear in court.

Eventually, Blackmon’s friends began questioning his motives, and even his sanity.

“Robert was telling me about Keith,” said former Bucs defensive lineman Stylez G. White, a St. Petersburg resident who befriended Blackmon through their mutual love of cigars. “And I was like, ‘Why do you continue doing it?’ And Robert’s like, ‘I just can’t give up on him.’”

Former Bucs defensive end Keith McCants, left, walks with St. Petersburg City Councilman Robert Blackmon along the river walk at Coffee Pot Park on June 2.
Former Bucs defensive end Keith McCants, left, walks with St. Petersburg City Councilman Robert Blackmon along the river walk at Coffee Pot Park on June 2. [ MENGSHIN LIN | Times ]

A new hip, and a new hope

Stability has arrived incrementally for McCants, who hasn’t been arrested in three years. Today, he lives with a roommate in a St. Petersburg duplex, living on monthly NFL disability payments. He still owes some back child support, but his relationship with his grown children has improved, Blackmon said.

Both are convinced the new hip, paid for mainly via private insurance (Blackmon covered the co-pay of roughly $4,500), represents a quantum stride in McCants’ quest for redemption and inner peace. While his right shoulder ultimately will require surgery (he can’t lift his right arm past his shoulder), the agony caused by his degenerative hip had grown unbearable.

“What do you have to look forward to if every day you’re in pain, you wake up in pain, you can’t perform basic functions of life?” Blackmon said. “And you can see now that he’s motivated again, which is awesome. He’s kind of inspired, because he didn’t have a shot at ever getting better without the hip (replacement).”

McCants says he takes pain medication only twice a day, along with a handful of weekly physical-therapy sessions. After a recent waterside photo shoot, he lit up a Newport cigarette, acknowledging he still goes through a little more than a pack a week. Still, his weight has dropped below 300 pounds, and the mild slur in his speech (a byproduct of the hip pain) has vanished.

Once a certified scuba diver and marine police officer in Alabama (following his NFL career), he dreams of diving in the Bahamas again, and of transitioning his cautionary tale into a redemptive one.

“More people are addicted to drugs or have some type of addiction in life, that they never get past,” McCants said. “And only by the grace of God I came through mine. Where I was to where I’m at now, it’s phenomenal.”

Addictions don’t dissipate with one surgical procedure, and only time will determine if McCants ever finds complete redemption.

But if nothing else, he found a staunch wingman.

“I don’t think Robert is doing some good, I think he’s doing a lot of good, to be perfectly honest,” White said.

“I don’t know what it is. Robert’s a businessman, I don’t know if he’s got stock in Keith or whatever. I mean, seriously, it’s just like the kindness of his heart.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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