Saturday, November 6, 2010

George Blanda

Alright, I haven't been inspired to write anything lately but if I don't I'm going to forget how so let me dig deep into my past and try to come up with something and see where it goes.

Past Interference was most definitely remiss in not paying homage to the late great George Blanda last month. The shape of that man's NFL career is so strange, impressive and unique that absolutely nothing like it could ever happen again. A failed starting QB stint with the Chicago Bears. Washed out of the NFL at 32. Rejuvenated as the first star QB of the new American Football League. Leading the Houston Oilers to two championships. And the coda: a final 9 seasons of action as the over-40 kicker for the Oakland Raiders. I missed almost all of that. When I was a kid Blanda to me was just that really old guy who kicked for Raiders. Of course 48 seems a lot younger to me now then it did then.

As you may know Blanda's shining moment as a player came in 1970 where he passed and kicked the Raiders to a win or tie in five consecutive contests. This would be pretty impressive for any player but Blanda being 43-years-old and all at the time made what he did instantly legendary.  I didn't know about any of this when it happened though. Too young. I've been watching NFL games for as long as I can remember but a game is always in the present. So as a kid the NFL's past was a complete mystery to me. Blanda, Jim Brown, Johnny U, Lombardi, Bronko Nagurski. All of it. Or at least it remained a mystery until I started reading whatever I could get my hands on. Any book or magazine with a piece of NFL history would do. And one of my favorites was a (literally) little publication called Football Digest.

Man did I love that magazine. The pieces I still remember the most ran under the column title, "The Game I'll Never Forget". One was by a guy named Bert Rechichar who recounted an interesting game he played on September 27, 1953. Rechichar, a defensive back for the Baltimore Colts, picked off a pass in that game and returned it for a TD, helping his team win the day 13-9. But what made that game truly memorable for Rechichar were the other points he scored in the game. He kicked a field goal at the end of the first half, and that field goal was 56 yards long. A pretty impressive kick today but a mind-blowing one in 1953 as that boot set an NFL record that lasted for 17 more years.

Another Game I'll Never Forget column that I've never forgotten concerned a game that has probably never been forgotten by anybody who was there. It was the 1970 Lions-Bears game where Chuck Hughes died. The only on-field death of an NFL player. Fanhouse had a good piece about it recently.  Unfortunately, I was too young at the time I read the Football Digest column to be able to grasp the essential tragedy of what had happened on that sad day.

But I was old enough to appreciate the Football Digest article that excitingly laid out exactly what happened in each of George Blanda's five clutch performances in 1970 (I wish I had a link to that article but I don't; here's the NFL Hall of Fame's summary).   Amazing hardly begins to describe how brilliantly Blanda played through those games. Oakland's quarterback, Darryl Lamonica, suffered several injuries during that stretch giving Blanda the opportunity to both pinch hit at the QB position and make critical kicks, something he did again and again and again (and again and again). Through nothing but the power of the written word Football Digest brought Blanda's heroics to life for me years after the dust had settled on the playing fields. I never saw those games but thanks to that Digest article I knew Blanda had done something unforgettable. I did get that.

But I've only now come to understand what George Blanda's 1970 season must have meant for America as it happened. Very few athletes have ever done something so transcendent at such a relatively advanced age. Nolan Ryan. Jack Nicklaus. And George Blanda in 1970. With millions of men in their 30's and 40's watching and cheering him on. Men many years removed from their own athletic prime, watching a guy, a contemporary, the oldest guy on the field, the oldest player in the game, still playing at the highest level and finding a way to win. Beating players over two decades younger. There's something about that must have resonated with football fans like nothing else could have. I think it's why despite the complete circus his career has now become so many are still rooting for Brett Favre. Thanks to Blanda the 1970 Raiders made a playoff run, ultimately falling 10 points short of the Super Bowl. But today the 1970 Oakland Raiders are barely remembered. It's George Blanda we remember. He accomplished something far rarer than winning a Super Bowl. He became an icon.