Derek Blacknall was smiling and laughing the last time Ruffin McNeill saw him, and McNeill will likely cherish that memory a good deal more as time passes.
McNeill, East Carolina’s football coach, was romping through his daily power-walking routine that day, and Blacknall – a standout ECU defensive back from 2008-11 – was waving at him and honking his horn from his car, having returned to Greenville to see an ECU game.
On Monday night, Blacknall, 24, was murdered at the Greensboro home he shared with his older brother Darren, who was arrested and charged with first degree murder. According to reports, the elder Blacknall stabbed his brother following a dispute.
“When (players) come here, I’m their dad, and for Derek it was the same way,” McNeill said. “It was tough news finding out what happened. He was not just a joy to be around as a player but as a person. He always had a great smile on his face.”
Darren Blacknall is being held in the Guilford County jail without bond. State records indicate he currently is on probation for convictions earlier this year of assault on a female, larceny and wanton injury to personal property.
Derek Blacknall was scheduled to appear in court in January in connection with a November 2012 robbery in Pitt County.
As an ECU player, Derek Blacknall became a mainstay starter as a cornerback. He played in 50 games and started 25 while making 128 career tackles.
“I think one of the biggest moves was moving Derek from safety to corner,” McNeill said. “He began to play at a level where he could just relax and play.”
The former Greensboro Dudley High School standout won Conference USA championships with the Pirates in 2008 and ’09, but became a complete player after switching positions when McNeill arrived.
“‘Black’ was an all-around great person to be around, and he brought great laughs and competitive swagger to our locker room,” said former Blacknall teammate and ECU cornerback Travis Simmons. “I’ll always remember him for his competitive spirit and the energy he had on and off the field.”
Although not by design, McNeill spoke to media members about Blacknall in the team’s defensive meeting room, which contains a large ECU collage with a Blacknall photograph as its centerpiece.
McNeill said Blacknall played football with relentlessness.
“It’s a business where you get caught up in wins and losses and this and that, but when it comes down to it, it’s about the kids,” McNeill said, noting that it was a little more than a year ago when he saw Blacknall while on his walk. “We’ll pray for Derek’s family and we know we just gained another Pirate upstairs.
“We’ll miss him but we know he’s watching over us now.”