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A player who wouldn't leave
By Bob Carter
Special to ESPN.com
Some athletes, like fine wines, require a little aging before savoring the sweet smell of success. George Blanda's vintage became legendary in a pro football career that extended longer than anyone's did.
Coached by legends, Blanda eventually became a star in his 30s. Then he turned his back on time, competing until he was 48 in a sport dominated by younger, stronger, faster players.
Bear Bryant, his coach at the University of Kentucky in the late 1940s, told his first pro coach, George Halas of the Chicago Bears, that Blanda would never make it in the National Football League as a placekicker. Bryant, it became apparent, occasionally erred.
Blanda was pro football's all-time leading scorer with 2,002 points (335 field goals, 943 extra points, and nine touchdowns) until 2000 when kicker Gary Anderson passed him. His record of playing in 340 games lasted until 2004 when another kicker, Morten Andersen, broke it. Blanda still holds the marks for most seasons played (26) and being the game's oldest player. He also threw the most interceptions (277). He missed just 16 extra points in the regular season and was perfect (49-for-49) in the postseason.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Blanda led his league in pass attempts four times (1953 with the Bears, 1963-65 with the Houston Oilers in the American Football League), tied for second with Sammy Baugh and Johnny Unitas behind Dan Marino. Blanda (1963-65) and Marino are the only pros to lead their league in completions three consecutive seasons.
As an Oiler, he threw seven touchdown passes against the New York Titans on Nov. 19, 1961, a record he shares with four other quarterbacks.
Thirteen times he threw four or more touchdown passes in a game, and once he unleashed 68 passes, for Houston against Buffalo on Nov. 1, 1964, a record that lasted until New England's Drew Bledsoe threw 70 in a 1994 overtime game.
Blanda showed a knack for late-game heroics, particularly as a kicker. He raised his game in the postseason, hitting 56.4 percent of his field-goal attempts (52.6 percent during the regular season).
"I never think about that," he said matter of factly. "I concentrate on looking at the spot where the ball will be put and watching the spotter's hands."
Blanda, born on Sept. 17, 1927 in Youngwood, Pa., was a quarterback and kicker at Kentucky. Bryant, who later won fame and set countless records at Alabama, arrived in his sophomore year, following a 1-9 season. The Wildcats lost three games in each of the next three years.
Recalling the time he met Bryant, Blanda said: "I thought this must be what God looks like."
Blanda was the starting quarterback his last two seasons at Kentucky (1947-48), compiling rather ordinary numbers: 120 completions in 242 passes (.496 percentage), 1,451 yards, 12 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
When he finished his Kentucky career, he thought his football days were over. But the Bears drafted Blanda in the 12th round, and after some negotiating, Halas signed him to a $6,000 contract with a $600 bonus.
Little did Blanda know that he'd battle with Halas over his contract for years to come. After four years and no raises, Blanda almost bolted to Hamilton of the Canadian Football League in December 1952, but Halas kept him by raising his salary to $11,600.
Blanda responded by leading the NFL in attempts (362) and completions (169) in 1953. However, he threw 14 TD passes and 24 interceptions as Chicago (3-8-1) lost seven games by seven points or fewer.
He threw for 15 touchdowns in eight games the next season before he suffered a separated shoulder against the Cleveland Browns and missed the last four games. It was the only significant injury for Blanda in his first 21 pro seasons. The Bears won those four games with Zeke Bratkowski at quarterback and finished 8-4.
From 1955 to '58, Blanda was primarily a kicker and a backup to quarterback Ed Brown. In 1959, weary of his difficult dealings with Bears' management, Blanda retired, only to emerge a year later with Houston of the new AFL.
Summarizing his 10 years with Chicago, he said, "I didn't have much fun."
Blanda, a 6-handicap golfer who enjoyed playing pool and poker and betting on horses, had more fun in the AFL. With the Oilers, he had three seasons of more than 3,000 yards passing, and he directed Houston to league championships in the AFL's first two years (1960-61).
Blanda passed for 301 yards and three touchdowns in the 1960 championship game, a 24-16 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers.
He led the AFL in passing in 1961, posting a personal-high 91.3 rating, and was the United Press International and Sporting News AFL Player of the Year. He threw for 3,330 yards and his 36 touchdown passes were not surpassed in the pros until 23 years later, when Marino threw 48 in 1984.
Blanda was Houston's leading passer and scorer in all seven of his Oiler seasons. In 1962, he set a negative pro record when he was intercepted 42 times.
In 1967, at 39, he was traded to Oakland, where he kicked 201 consecutive extra points over five seasons (1967-71) and played on the 1968 AFL championship team that lost 33-14 to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl II.
His most celebrated Raider season was 1970. As a replacement for starting quarterback Daryle Lamonica, who kept getting hurt, the 43-year-old led Oakland to four wins and a tie in a remarkable five-game stretch in midseason.
Coach John Madden called for Blanda late in the first quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the veteran threw three touchdown passes and kicked a field goal in a 31-14 victory. The next Sunday, his 48-yard field goal on the game's next-to-last play brought Oakland a 17-17 tie with the Kansas City Chiefs.
He also had a tying touchdown pass and deciding field goal against Cleveland in a 23-20 win and produced an 80-yard drive in the final four minutes at Denver that ended with a 20-yard scoring lob to Fred Biletnikoff that gave the Raiders a 24-19 victory. The next week his field goal with four seconds left lifted Oakland to a 20-17 victory over the San Diego Chargers.
Dave Grayson, the Raiders' All-Pro safety, marveled at Blanda's ability. "Some quarterbacks you can anticipate," he said. "They throw the ball about the same way every time. But not George. You can't read him. One time he'll drill it, the next time he'll loft it a little, then he'll float it."
Though he threw only 55 passes all season, Blanda's reserve role won him the UPI and Sporting News Player of the Year awards in the AFC.
Blanda scored a franchise-high 863 points with the Raiders and became the first player to score more than 500 points for three teams. Most of all, he kept performing.
He followed a set routine on each game day and stood by it, drinking a cup of coffee when arriving in the locker room, sitting by himself in the stands for a few minutes, and meeting with the same friends before putting on his uniform.
"There's no use changing the routine, if it's working, is there?" he said.
He played nine seasons with Oakland, retiring one month shy of his 49th birthday in August 1976. In his 26-year career, he threw for 26,920 yards, completing 1,911-of-4,007 attempts, with 236 touchdown passes.
He was voted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981, his first year of eligibility, and later was named to the AFL-NFL 25-year All-Star team.
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