Saeed Blacknall, an impressionable 12-year-old kid with an artful mind and nontraditional instinct, sat up in his cushiony movie theater seat.
He couldn’t believe his eyes. For the first time he was watching “The Dark Knight,” and the movie’s first scene snatched his attention.
He watched as six clown-masked robbers took down a mob-owned bank. Throughout the scene, the henchmen kept double-crossing and killing each other in hopes of a larger sum of money.
That is, until one robber remained standing.
The bank manager, bullet wounds keeping him sprawled out on the bank floor, called out to the final robber, who was loading a yellow school bus with the money.
“What do you believe in?” the manager yelled, “What do you believe in!”
Then came the line that changed Blacknall’s life.
“I believe that whatever doesn’t kill you, simply makes you stranger,” the robber said, taking off his clown mask and revealing himself to be The Joker.
Blacknall lost it.
“That’s when I was like, ‘Oh man,’ ” the big-play Penn State wide receiver said. “This guy is sick.”
From that point forward, Blacknall was infatuated with the most devious of villains in film history. The wideout, already messing around with doodles and drawings, found a character to match his curiosities.
Whether it’s photo or video editing, as he does now, Blacknall has a penchant for the creative — and The Joker is, more often than not, his main subject.
“Some people don’t have an alter-ego,” Blacknall said. “Kids grow up liking Superman and Batman, but when as soon as I saw him in that movie, that was the best thing I’ve ever seen.”
Blacknall didn’t start his artistic experimentation with The Joker. His first foray into drawing was more innocent.
When he was 10 years old, Blacknall drew a picture of Snoopy, the cartoon beagle, and gave it to his mom for Mother’s Day. He knew he had talent, and so did his mother, so she bought him coloring books. But he didn’t really use the books. He didn’t like having to color in an animal, a house or a plane.
“They were telling you how you should do things,” Blacknall remembered, “rather than you just drawing things how you think they should be drawn.”
Pretty philosophical for a fourth-grader.
Blacknall continued doodling in his spare time, and a couple years later found new inspiration: Heath Ledger’s Joker. Ledger, who died of an accidental drug overdose months before “The Dark Knight’s” July 2008 release, was lauded for a performance that struck a chord with so many.
That included Blacknall. Ledger’s intensity and commitment to the role intrigued the then-young teenager, and moved him toward quite the fascination. Blacknall got Joker posters for his room and changed his phone background to the character.
For me, in football, you want to be tough and somebody that’s feared. There’s that savagery. The Joker, he was a savage, and he didn’t really care.
Saeed Blacknall, Penn State wide receiver
His fixation with The Joker grew as the years went by, as did Blacknall’s artistic hobbies.
It wasn’t just drawing doodles anymore, either. In his time at Manalapan High School (N.J.), the wideout, being courted by colleges across the country, obtained pictures of him during high school football games and edited the photo to have different backgrounds and colors to it. He would create pictures based on what schools were recruiting him and send his handiwork to the coaches of those teams.
Sooner or later, he did the same for his teammates.
“I didn’t want to be like Picasso or anything,” Blacknall joked.
But he was happy to have something that would keep his mind off recruiting and football. When Blacknall ultimately chose Penn State, after flipping from in-state Big Ten foe Rutgers, he sent Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin a token of his commitment: a photoshopped picture of a yelling Franklin with a lion in the background.
The caption? “Ready to roar.”
Those Photoshop creations continued into Blacknall’s time at Penn State, where he started to fine-tune his skill. With perspective painting and video editing classes under his belt, Blacknall had a whole new appreciation for his artistic inventions.
He went back to The Joker, and started cropping pictures of him playing football and the movie character together. Whenever he has some downtime — a couple hours here, a few hours there — Blacknall uses apps on his iPhone to express himself.
He usually doesn’t post the pictures on his social media pages; they’re for him to enjoy.
Plus, some people just don’t understand the obsession. “They think it’s weird,” Blacknall said with a laugh.
“Why do you like that clown?” Blacknall recalls his mom saying.
“What is wrong with you?” Blacknall said his roommate, tight end Mike Gesicki, will ask him jokingly.
Blacknall’s fascination with the character is no surprise to his best friend from home.
“That’s his idol,” said Tommy Francis. “The Joker just has so many different personalties and you never really know what he’s going to bring to the table.”
Francis, a DJ, said Blacknall is also “musically inclined,” further adding to the multiple talents his friend possesses.
The talent most get to see, however, is Blacknall’s ability on a football field. And while he’s impressive making pictures and mixing music, the junior is rather good at catching footballs, too.
Blacknall is a down-the-field threat. In his last 11 games, the 6-foot-3 target has 13 catches for 368 yards (28.3 yards per catch) and two touchdowns.
He’s had a rough run of it recently, missing five games to injury, but has manufactured critical plays this season. Blacknall made a 35-yard circus catch in Penn State’s upset over Ohio State, and last weekend helped spark the Nittany Lion offense early. On Penn State’s first drive, Blacknall nabbed a back-of-the-end-zone, 19-yard touchdown reception to give the Nittany Lions a 7-0 lead over Iowa.
To celebrate, Blacknall channeled the character he draws so much inspiration from. He hugged fellow wideout DaeSean Hamilton, and turned to the crowd. Using his left and right index fingers, he started at his chin guard and worked up his jaw line, illustrating with his hands a devilish smile similar to The Joker’s.
“People who know me, they noticed it,” Blacknall said with a grin. “They were like, ‘Oh no he didn’t.’ ”
It wasn’t something the receiver planned, either. In the most spontaneous of moments, The Joker naturally came out in Blacknall.
And again, it wasn’t a surprise to Francis. He knows Blacknall on and off the field as well as anyone, and said once his friend puts that white helmet on, you never know what’s going to happen.
“That’s the mysteriousness of Saeed,” Francis said. “You have no idea when he’s going to snap off in a game.”
Francis did admit that he, too, believes the posters of Ledger’s Joker are a little strange. “But if that’s going to help him keep catching passes, keep going buddy,” Francis said, chuckling.
As for Blacknall, he embraces The Joker and the artistic expression that comes with it any way he can. What started as doodling a picture of Snoopy for Mother’s Day has morphed in a differentiating edginess that Blacknall can’t get enough of.
The pictures he creates and videos he makes help take him away from football — but the persona of The Joker always seems to creep in when he’s on the field.
“For me, in football, you want to be tough and somebody that’s feared,” Blacknall said. “There’s that savagery. The Joker, he was a savage, and he didn’t really care.
“He had this scar on his face smiling. It looks like he’s always smiling, but he’s always pissed off. ... It’s always like, ‘Ha, joke’s on you.’ ”
Penn State vs. Indiana Game Day Breakdown
Who: No. 10 Penn State (7-2, 5-1) vs. Indiana (5-4, 3-3)
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium
Series: Penn State leads 18-1
KEYS TO WIN
For Penn State: Maintain fast start. The Nittany Lions have scored on three of their past four game-opening drives, and did so in their last road contest at Purdue. But Penn State's offense stalled, leading to a 17-17 halftime tie. A first half similar to last weekend against Iowa would be welcomed by the Nittany Lions.
For Indiana: Keep it close. The Hoosiers are just barely outscoring opponents 146-137 over their past five home games. If they continue that keep-em-close trend early, the Hoosiers will have a chance in the fourth quarter.
Nittany Lion to watch: Miles Sanders. The attention in Penn State's backfield has been on Saquon Barkley, and rightfully so. However, the true freshman tailback has made an impact elsewhere. Sanders has come oh-so-close to breaking one loose for a touchdown on kickoff return this season, and the Hoosiers could fall victim to the speedster this week.
Hoosier to watch: Zander Diamont. JUCO transfer Richard Lagow has been the starter at quarterback for Indiana this season, but the dual-threat Diamont will likely be used Saturday. Diamont ran for a 59-yard touchdown against Rutgers last weekend.