George Blanda

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George Blanda played professional football for 26 seasons, more than any player in history.

The oldest player ever to compete in the NFL, Blanda played in four decades, a longevity mark he shares with former placekicker John Carney.  He played for four teams [including one game with the Colts in 1950] between 1949 and 1975, appearing in 340 games.  Blanda played ten seasons with the Chicago Bears, seven with the Houston Oilers and his last nine with the Oakland Raiders.  He retired one month shy of his 49th birthday.  “If you put him in a group of the most-competitive, biggest clutch players, I think he’d have to be the guy who would win it all,” said his Raiders coach, John Madden.

In 1961, Blanda was named AFL Player of the Year after throwing for 3,330 yards and 36 touchdowns, a record that stood until 1986, when it was broken by Miami’s Dan Marino.  He tossed a record seven touchdown passes against the New York Titans [now Jets] in 1961.  It could have been more, as the game was a rout, and Blanda left early in the third quarter.

Born September 17, 1927, in the western Pennsylvania town of Youngwood, George Frederick Blanda was one of 11 children born to a coal miner and his homemaker wife.  He attended Kentucky, where he played quarterback and kicker for the legendary Bear Bryant.  The Bears selected Blanda in the 12th round of the 1949 draft.  In an era of two-way players, Chicago signed him for $ 600 as a linebacker/third-string quarterback to Johnny Lujack and future hall-of-famer Sid Luckman.  Blanda became the Bears’ starting quarterback in 1953, when he led the NFL in completions.  He suffered an eye injury the next season and lost his job to Ed Brown.  Blanda retired at 31 when the Bears planned to make him a full-time placekicker.

After a year off, Blanda joined the Houston Oilers of the upstart American Football League in 1960.  He became a superstar, leading the league in passing in 1961 and 1963 and in completions from 1963 to 1965.  One of the new league’s many prolific passers, Blanda threw for 19,149 yards and 165 touchdowns in seven seasons in Houston.  The Oilers won the first two AFL titles but by 1967 felt Blanda was too old and cut the 37-year-old.

In 1967, Al Davis picked Blanda up to back up quarterback Daryle Lamonica and to kick.  Too old to be a player, he was just the right age to become a legend.  With a chiseled jaw framed by salt-and-pepper sideburns, Blanda was pro football’s King Tut exhibit.  In 1970, the 43-year-old had one of the most magical runs of his career, producing last-minute heroics in five straight games.

On October 25 against Pittsburgh, Blanda replaced the injured Lamonica and threw three touchdowns and kicked a field goal to lead Oakland to a 31-14 victory.  The next week in Kansas City, he kicked a 48-yard field goal with three seconds left to tie the Chiefs at 17.  The following Sunday, Blanda came off the bench to throw a touchdown pass to tie Cleveland at 20, then kicked the game-winning 52-yard field goal as time expired.  The magic continued the next week when Blanda threw a touchdown pass late in the game to defeat Denver, 24-19.  The streak culminated with a 16-yard field goal with seconds remaining to beat San Diego, 20-17.

“Whenever we were in trouble, John just went to the bullpen, waved his hand, and George came in and started throwing those miraculous touchdown passes and kicking those miraculous field goals,” said Davis.  The Raiders won the AFC West title and Blanda was honored as 1970 AFC Player of the Year, AP Athlete of the Year, and received the Bert Bell Award as 1970 NFL player of the year.  “It got to the point where when he’d come in the whole team would go, ‘Here comes George.  We’re going to do it now,” Madden said.  “Then pretty soon all the fans started believing, and they’d all go nuts.  And then the topper is when the opponents knew it.  It was like, ‘Oh, no, here he comes.’”

When asked how he kept in such good shape despite his advancing football age, Blanda told Sports Illustrated that he “smoked, drank bourbon and ate lots of red meat.”  His wife, Betty, who had been an art major in college, once drew George a homemade Christmas card.  It was a cartoon of Blanda standing with Santa, who told him, “You’re the only little boy I gave a uniform to that’s still using it.”

Blanda never again quarterbacked the Raiders after that magical 1970 season, but he did handle placekicking duties until his retirement five years later.  The man who played for Bear Bryant, George Halas and John Madden retired as the NFL’s all-time scoring leader, with 2,002 career points.  Blanda held or tied 21 title game records and held 16 regular season marks.  He holds the AFL single-game passing record of 464 yards, set against the Buffalo Bills in 1961.  In 26 seasons, Mr. Blanda threw for 26,920 yards and booted 335 field goals.  His 943 extra points is still the NFL record.

George Blanda was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981 and is a member of the AFL’s All-Time Team.  He died in September 2010 at 83.

Yesterday would have been the great George Blanda’s 90th birthday.