As a boy in St. Paul, Minn., Josh Blue often was overlooked when teams were being picked for street football.
Not by his friends who knew what he could do, especially as a receiver, but by the kids who’d never seen him before.
“It’s kind of funny,” says Blue, now 33. “I’d be the only disabled kid in the neighborhood playing football, and we’re playing full contact, and I’d always manage to get open. If you’ve seen me run, the key is you have no idea where the hell I’m going. It’s just very deceptive. You’re like, ‘Is he going left, or right or what the hell is that?’ Next thing you know I’m wide open in the end zone and high stepping it.”
Blue laughs as he tells the story, doing what he often does as a professional comedian, poking fun at his disability, cerebral palsy, while also making a point: The little kid with the awkward movements was no punch line. He could play.
“My friends would say, ‘We want Josh on our team,’ ” he says. “And (others) would be like, ‘Why do you want that disabled person on your team?’ And then five touchdowns later they’d be like, ‘Oh, maybe we should start covering that guy a little harder.’ ”
These days, Blue isn’t scoring touchdowns, but he remains an athlete as a longtime member of the U.S. Paralympic soccer team. A veteran of the American squad that competed in the 2004 Athens Paralympics, he’s hopeful of earning a spot on the team that has already qualified for London this summer.
With a career in stand-up that’s been on a steep rise since winning NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” in 2006, Blue says it’s getting harder and harder to juggle his travel and late-night acts with his passion for soccer and his wife and two young children. He figures this is his last shot before turning in his USA jersey.
“I can’t think of two more opposite career choices,” he said recently from his home in Denver. “One you stay up late and party and the other you get up early and jog.”
Blue discovered at an early age he could make people laugh. Once he got into college, he says people were telling him “you’re funny all the time,” so he started doing stand-up.
Since “Last Comic Standing,” he’s getting more gigs, doing more tours and now has his first special on Showtime, an hour-long show that began airing this month.
Sometimes his dual lives intersect, as they did in San Diego recently, when he did a show one night downtown while in the midst of a U.S. Paralympic soccer camp at the nearby Olympic Training Center.
Blue says he has about 15 to 20 minutes of material about soccer he can include in his current shows. His experiences as a disabled athlete often pop up in his routines.
“What position do I play in soccer? I play striker. He’s a goal scorer. In theory. I’ve seen it done.”
“I’m a member of the U.S. Paralympic soccer team. For those of you who clapped, I guess you realize I represent your country. And for those of you who did not clap, I guess you realized that I represent your country.”
“In one of the last games of the Olympics, I got injured and my coach had the nerve to put me on the disabled list.”
“My jokes are pretty over the top sometimes,” says Blue. “One of my jokes I’ve been telling is, ‘I love traveling with my team because there’s nothing more entertaining than watching 12 guys with cerebral palsy get off an airplane, because everybody in the terminal thinks there’s some kind of zombie invasion going on.’ Then I start doing the zombie walk.”
Blue, as he does onstage, often laughs after delivering a line. He obviously enjoys what he’s doing, and his high-energy personality comes across in his act as he moves across the stage, his bushy mane often held back with a hairband, his long chin whiskers bobbing up and down as he speaks.
“People ask me if I get nervous coming up here on stage,” he said in his opening monologue on “Last Comic Standing.” “I say heck no. I’ve got this many people staring at me all day.”
He says he makes his disability a focus of his routines to open the eyes of others, the way Richard Pryor talked about being black or Ellen DeGeneres about being gay. He isn’t politically correct. He doesn’t hold back. He has a platform, and he’s going to use it.
“They both brought their differences out into the open and made them more acceptable,” he once said.
As a Paralympian, he says he can speak for others with cerebral palsy and other disabilities and educate the public “about how other people live their lives.”
“It’s a cool opportunity for me to get it out there and let people see disabled people thriving, you know?”
No matter where he goes on tour, Blue takes a soccer ball.
In his hotel room and backstage before his act, he’ll kick it around and do drills and tricks to keep himself loose. At some of the comedy clubs, he’ll organize pickup games with the staff.
He came to the game as a boy when his father worked in Cameroon, where soccer is a passion. His three older siblings also played.
“Soccer is the international language,” says Blue. “If you bring a soccer ball with you to any other country, you can make friends instantly. It’s fun to watch how other people play in other cultures. I’m a real street-ball player. I like to do silly tricks and show off.”
As the oldest player of about 25 trying to make the 12-man roster for the London Paralympics, Blue believes he has a decent shot to make the team. He has experience and brings some tangibles and intangibles.
“My role on the team is sort of to boost everybody’s energy. I come in and I play hard,” he says. “I like to play with my elbows. People come by me and they don’t forget they came by me, you know?”
He’s long joked on stage that he has “The Palsy Punch,” a blow delivered by his right fist from an arm sometimes out of his control. “They don’t know where it’s coming from,” he jokes, “but neither do I!”
Does the “Punch” come in handy on the pitch?
“Yeah, but don’t tell the refs, all right?” he says, laughing. “Yeah, there’s some extra flailing here and there.”
As much as he pokes fun of himself, his teammates know him as an important contributor.
Josh McKinney, the U.S. Paralympic soccer team captain who’s played and roomed with Blue for a decade, says that before Blue's comedy career blossomed and he had more time to devote to soccer, Blue “started a lot of games and scored a lot of goals.”
“He gets a little crazy,” says McKinney, who scored two goals last summer in the game that clinched a spot for the U.S. in London. “He’s really quick to the ball, a fast sprinter. You can get him in space and he’ll take it. ... He’s the type of person who’ll shoot, no matter where he is. He knows the game, knows where to be and puts himself in position. He’s scored plenty of goals for us.”
In a 2007 Parapan Games victory over Venezuela in Brazil, Blue scored twice. He can click off a list of international goals he has scored.
“Coach told me I’ve got something you can’t teach people,” says Blue. “It’s just the knack to score goals. It’s in my blood, and I do what I have to do.”
He’d love to not only make the team for London, but to score.
“I definitely want my goal in the Olympics,” he says. “I’m hungry for that for sure.”
He laughs when he recalls getting shut out in his previous Paralympic Games in Athens, when the U.S. didn’t win a game and scored just one total goal.
“Let’s just say that we didn’t have to worry about testing for any performance-enhancing drugs,” he’s said onstage of that experience. “We got our asses kicked.”
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McKinney says Blue takes soccer seriously in practices and games, but “really relaxes everyone” in tense situations with his humor.
“Spend five minutes with him, and he’ll make you laugh the whole time,” says McKinney, who believes “Bluey” is even funnier in person than on stage.
The Paralympic team is made up of players with cerebral palsy or those who have been impaired by stroke or brain injury. Their game is played 7-on-7 on a slightly smaller field. It’s a tight-knit community of players, both in the U.S. and in other nations, so Blue is well known even to opponents -- at least those who speak English.
Players have approached him before and after games to tell him they appreciate his comedy and love his message.
“It’s funny when the other team wants an autograph from me,” he says.
As he makes a push for his last Paralympics, Blue is working out 1½ to 2 hours a day with a coach in Denver and is playing as much soccer as possible. He’s also trying to stay fit on the road, running on the treadmill and “kicking a soccer ball at the hotel wall.”
“My step ain’t quite what it used to be, but I feel like I play smarter,” he says. “You trade off, you know? You get old, and you figure out how to make the right pass the first time, so you don’t have to do it again.”
Blue has never backed away from a joke or a challenge, and he’s not about to hold back in his last athletic quest.
Inside, he’s still the same kid in those street football games, going all out.
“My brother’s 10 years older than me,” Blue recalls. “And about when I was 12, I tackled both of his friends in one game by myself, and they were like 6-foot-2, 200-pound dudes. I flattened them, and I remember my brother was like, ‘OK, I don’t need to worry about you anymore, kid.’ ”
Even in telling the story, he can’t resist a final line, and final laugh.
“I’d just go and tangle myself up in their legs, you know?”