Obstacles, excuses … Craig Blackburn has no time for any of it.
The Luling native and Hahnville High School alumnus is happily wed to the love of his life, Heather Hancock. The sports fanatic loves his job with the New Orleans Pelicans, this marking his third season with the team. He’s been a noted inspiration to others and makes appearances as a motivational speaker, and he’s engaged in some activity just about every night of the week.
And yes, Blackburn was born with Down syndrome. He’s just never, ever let it stop him.
“Craig has an awesome life,” said his mother, Pat Ehrle. “Tonight he’s doing basketball, tomorrow it’ll be swimming, then it’ll be a social group the next day, then swimming or another Special Olympics event … he and Heather are not only in love, they’re best friends.
“And he loves his job. He tells you every day … when they’re playing out of town and Craig’s not working, he doesn’t like it. He wants to work every single day.”
Blackburn worked for Winn Dixie for 18 years before approaching Ehrle and her husband, Ken, about wanting to make a change. One of the initiatives of the National Down Syndrome Society – Craig is a member of its Self-Advocate Advisory Board — is DSWorks, something Blackburn had been an advocate for. The program encourages those with special needs to seek employment they truly desire, and he decided to practice what he’d preached to others.
“Some work with the World War II museum, some with the Superdome, the grocery store, it could be at Magnolia … Craig’s a huge sports fan, so he wanted to work for the Saints or the Pelicans,” Ehrle said.
He applied for a position as an equipment team member with the Pelicans and was asked in for an interview — one big positive was that while attending Eual J. Landry and Hahnville High, he worked as an equipment manager with the athletic programs at each school.
Blackburn got the job, and couldn’t be happier.
“It’s so great,” Blackburn said. “Being with the New Orleans Pelicans … my favorite part is being around the players and getting to interact with them.”
He’s already a pro at it – for one, he doesn’t play favorites, noting there’s no one player he’d in fact call his “favorite.” He appreciates his time with all of them.
Said Ehrle, “The Pelicans are an awesome and amazing organization. They totally respect him and consider him part of the team. It’s just wonderful.”
He’ll soon be making a trip to Oklahoma to see Hancock, who he met in July of 2002 at a National Down Syndrome Society Conference in St. Louis, Mo. The two were introduced by a friend of Hancock’s, and hit it off.
For the rest of the conference, they were inseparable, attending a basketball game for a first date and promising to keep in touch. They each kept that promise, forming a long-distance relationship and traveling back and forth. For the first of those trips, Blackburn traveled to Oklahoma City with his family to escort Hancock to prom.
They maintained a long distance relationship for years and wanted to get married – Blackburn proposed to her in 2007 – but several obstacles made it seemingly an unrealistic goal, as both would have seen their benefits, including Social Security and States Waivers, reduced significantly. The prospect of the two becoming man and wife seemed remote in that respect, and it didn’t sit well with either family.
They found a solution: in the summer of 2016, Blackburn and Hancock exchanged their vows at a commitment ceremony on the beach in St. Thomas. Sixteen family members and friends joined Hancock and Blackburn on a Caribbean cruise from Cape Canaveral to the Dominican Republic, St. Thomas, Puerto Rico and Grand Turk. The wedding party and guests departed from the ship in St. Thomas, where Hancock and Blackburn exchanged vows on the beach with a reception at a beach restaurant.
Originally, Blackburn and his family planned to move to Oklahoma, where Hancock lives with her family; plans changed mutually, though, with the two agreeing to continue their long distance arrangement.
Blackburn and Hancock see one another several times a year, though, and speak every day, be it on the phone or through social media. Blackburn recently made his way to Oklahoma to spend Thanksgiving—and Hancock’s Nov. 27 birthday – with his wife. Hancock has already planned her trip down south to spend time with Blackburn for Valentine’s Day.
“People with special needs have different relationships,” Ehrle said. “His life is engaged and embedded here in Louisiana, and hers in Oklahoma … not a day goes by where they don’t talk.”
Said Blackburn, “We see each other really often. We work around our schedules … I always love when we see one another.”
It’s all in Blackburn’s character, seemingly from his infancy. In addition to being born with Down syndrome, he also had a heart defect at birth that required open heart surgery. “You can’t” isn’t a phrase he’s ever accepted, consciously or not.
“One of the most important messages he always touches on when he speaks to groups is that success comes in trying,” Ehrle said. “Whether you reach it or don’t, at least try. And as a mom, I never wanted to set up barriers for him. If he came to us and wanted to try something, we wanted to let him try and support him.”
In Blackburn’s earliest days, Ehrle saw a future for him reminiscent of one well-known television character: Corky, of the early 1990s series “Life Goes On.” Corky was the first major television character with Down syndrome. Among his many memorable milestones in the series, Corky goes on to marry his high school sweetheart Amanda, who also had Down syndrome, by the end of the show’s run.
Blackburn’s made good on so many opportunities in his life, Ehrle said, in many ways mirroring the positive example depicted on the series.
“I used to see that show and I’d say to my family, ‘someday, Craig’s gonna be Corky,’” Ehrle said. “And I’m so happy to say, Craig is Corky.”