The regular season of the NFL has begun. The news yesterday was all about Peyton Manning's amazing performance against last year's Super Bowl Champs, racking up 7 touchdowns in one game. It was an undeniably impressive performance, especially for a quarterback who, just two years ago, had a lot of question marks surrounding his future due to health issues. I have a lot of admiration for Peyton Manning. He's one of the game's best quarterbacks, and he is 37 years old. There is something about an aging, but still great athlete.
I have always admired Muhammed Ali...I admired him for his talent in the ring, and his brashness. He was good, and he knew it. And so did we all. There will never be another man like him. He was 32 years old when he whupped George Foreman's ass in the "Rumble From The Jungle" title match in Zaire.
My most sentimental hero, however, is George Blanda. John Wayne may have starred in "True Grit"...but George Blanda lived it his entire life. Oh...and by the way...those 7 TD's that Manning threw against the Ravens Thursday night? George Blanda did that once in 1961 when he was quarterback of the Houston Oilers.
One of the last straight kickers in pro football, he began his career as a quarterback. In 1970, he returned to his roots, albeit due to circumstances outside of his control. The Oakland Raiders had a great quarterback by the name of Daryl Lamonica who got injured in October of that year during a game with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Amazingly, their only second string quarterback was a man by the name of George Blanda...their place kicker. He was born in 1927, the same years as my Dad. He entered the game, and every Raider fan took a deep breath...My God! This guy is 43 years old! If LC Greenwood gets a good hit on this guy, all the Kings Horses and All the King's Men will never put Blanda together again.
Blanda came out on the field, blew the dust off of his uniform, and called a huddle. He had, arguably, the best offensive line in all of football protecting him, but it was still intense to watch. Blanda threw two touchdown passes in that game, and the Raiders won.
He had been cut in the preseason three years earlier by the Houston Oilers...seemingly washed up and well past his prime...and rejoined the Raiders' roster only later. An afterthought. A cheap, "just in case", acquisition by Al Davis.
For the next 5 weeks, he gave Raiders' fans a ride of their lifetime. They didn't make it to the Superbowl...but they made it to the AFC Championship game, where they lost to the Baltimore Colts. But Blanda almost got them there, at the age of 43.
My father was beside himself...fans were on edge...everytime he took a snap you both cried out with glee and closed your eyes, fearing the worst. But the old man got it done.
I've never identified more closely with a team, or a player, as I did that year. The Raiders defied fate...and most certainly George Blanda did.
You just gotta love the man. I am going to just meander through this diary, so I hope you will bear with me. His life, and his accomplishments, don't deserve a Readers Digest version of events. If you, like me, are a long lived Raiders Fan, you will enjoy this blast from the past. If you aren't, please withhold judgement and give this a read. It is an inspirationaly story. And if you are old...take heart. Blanda continued to compete in the NFL until the age of 48, playing with and against players who could easily have been his sons.
It's not the dog in the fight...it's the fight in the dog.
1970 was a special season. A momentous season. A famous season.. And George Blanda was the star of that season. And for legions of 40+ year old men he was Superman.
I grew up in a Presbyterian home. But we quit going to Church sometime in my 6th year. After that, the religion I most remember growing up was the religion of Silver and Black. Bill King, the announcer who called the play by play for all the games, was like the preacher. We had left our Presbyterianism behind, after leaving Ohio, and assumed a completely secular identity in California...The East Bay, to be exact. Sundays, at least during football season, were all about a huge breakfast and the Raiders. It was just always a part of my growing up. I missed out on cub scouts and boy scouts, but I met Big Ben Davidson in person, in my home, and shook his hand. It was huge. And he was huge.
I remember a lot of names from Raider teams of bygone eras...Hewrit Dixson, Warren Wells, Jim Otto, Dan Connor, Charleton Oates, Billy Cannon, Rod Sherman, Dave Grayson...They are names I have remembered, like old tribal stories handed down orally from those who came before me. I especially remember George Blanda.
This is the George Blanda I remember...The Grand Old Man.
Look at him. He's almost twice as old as the other competitors on the field. The sideburns are tinged with grey. So is the hair on his head. The face is taciturn...he's likely had a few broken noses. He's a tough, old bird.
Blanda started his career with the Chicago Bears. It was not a happy marriage. George Halas didn't place much stock in George Blanda. He was hired on as a place kicker only, even though Blanda always thought of himself as a quarterback first, and a place kicker second. Blanda never, ever, had a good relationship with Hallas.
And Halas never thought much of Blanda, either. He hired him as a place kicker. And he was one cheap ass son of a bitch. As Blanda recalled, Halas never even sprang for buying him a kicking shoe. George Halas was a son of a bitch. I'm sorry if that offends some Bears fans. Here's an anecdote from the NYT obituary for Blanda that pretty much summarizes the character of George Halas:
“Once, the Bears were getting crushed in the second half and the crowd started to chant, ‘We want Blanda. We want Blanda.’ Halas looked down the bench and barked, ‘Blanda.’ George jumped to his feet and ran over to his coach, buckling his helmet. Halas jerked his thumb toward the stands and said, ‘Get up there. They’re calling for you.’ ”Can you spell "asshole", using just 5 letters? H..A..L..A..S.
He actually retired from football in 1959, coming back when the AFL was established. He resumed his career as quarterback for the Houston Oilers. He threw a lot of touchdowns for the Oilers, and not a few interceptions. He was not the perfect quarterback, but he led the Oilers to 2 Championships. After 7 years, the Oilers cut him. Al Davis picked up George Blanda on waivers from the Houston Oilers for the tidy sum of $100 dollars. Has there ever been a better acquisition in all of pro football?
In 1970, Daryle Lamonica was at the end of his career. It had been a good one, but it was drawing to a near. He kept getting hurt, and at an away game in Pittsburgh he did so again. Coach John Madden put Blanda into the game, which they were losing at that point. At the time Blanda, at 43, was nine years older than Coach Madden. Imagine that. Blanda threw 3 touchdowns and kicked 3 extra points in the 4th quarter of the game, and the Raiders won.
The following week they played the Kansas City Chiefs, and Lamonica was back at quarterback. Trailing by 3 in the last 2 minutes of the game, Lamonica was unable to sustain a drive and they were just 2 yards past the midfield line when they stalled. There were only 8 seconds left on the clock and Blanda came onto the field to attempt a very doubtful 48 yard field goal. His kick was up, and you had to hear Bill King as he called it...so here you go:
After the tie with Kansas City, Blanda came into the game in the 4th qtr and threw a touchdown to tie the game with the Cleveland Browns. There was only 1:34 left on the clock. They got the ball back and he could only get them to their own 47 yard line before the clock was almost out. He lined up for an incredible 53 yard field goal attempt, and as the clock expired the kick was good. That's when Bill King proclaimed him "King of the World."
Blanda won the game the following week with a 4th qtr pass in the final 2 minutes. The following week, against the Chargers, he kicked a field goal with just seconds left on the clock to pull out another victory.
When Blanda entered that Pittsburgh game, the Raiders' record was 4-4-1, and the season looked like a lost cause. 5 games later, they finished up 8-4-2. Lamonica was back in form for the first round of playoff games, and the Raiders defeated the Miami Dolphins to move on to the championship game against the Baltimore Colts. Blanda had been pulling rabbits out of his football helmet for 5 games, but he ran out of rabbits during that title game.
Lamonica once again left the game due to an injury, and Blanda took over. He passed for 217 yards, completing 17 of 32 passes. But he also threw two interceptions in the 4th quarter, and in the end the Colts prevailed.
Blanda last took a snap as quarterback in the 1972 season, at the age of 45. He remains the oldest NFL player to do so. He retired 3 years later, in 1975, at the age of 48, after a 26 year career that spanned 4 decades. Bret Favre earned the nickname "Gunslinger" due to his passing style, but George Blanda was the original gunslinger. Raider fans referred to him, more affectionately, as Father Time.
Those days were glorious times to be a Raider fan. The team set the gold standard for what it meant to be "a fourth quarter team." And nobody exemplified the motto of owner Al Davis, "Just Win Baby", more so than George Blanda. He passed away 3 years ago at the age of 83, but for years and years after his retirement he was an honored guest in Al Davis' box seat. He was like royalty.
He was admitted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1981, the first year he became eligible.