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Legend Blanda spanned Bear Bryant to Papa Bear to Madden

by | The Sports Xchange/

On Aug. 26, 1976, another hot afternoon at the Oakland Raiders' training camp in Santa Rosa, Calif., two sportswriters were surprised when George Blanda burst out of his motel room with suitcases in hand. The writers, who just happened to walking by, helped the living legend load his car, and in return he gave them a blockbuster story.

"They put me on waivers and they want me to stick around to see what happens," said Blanda, who was just shy of his 49th birthday at the time. "But to hell with that. I'm outta here."

George Blanda had a full career even before he joined the Raiders. (AP)  
George Blanda had a full career even before he joined the Raiders. (AP)  
And with that, the longest and one of the greatest careers in the history of pro football was over.

Blanda, who died Monday at the age of 83, played 26 seasons with the Chicago Bears, Baltimore Colts, Houston Oilers and the Raiders as a quarterback, linebacker and kicker.

After playing at Kentucky under Paul "Bear" Bryant, he embarked on his Hall of Fame professional career while playing for George Halas with the Bears in 1949.

Blanda scored 2,002 points, an National Football League record at the time, and passed for 26,920 yards and 236 touchdowns while playing in parts of four decades.

But what those who played with and against him remember most is his attitude, and he had it on and off the field.

"George Blanda was possibly the fiercest competitor I have ever known," said center Jim Otto, who had his own Hall of Fame career with the Raiders. "He was competing in everything he did in life.

"If he saw two ants on the ground that looked like they were racing, he would get you to bet which one would win. In practice, when I was snapping the ball to the holder, he would bet he could make it from wherever he was. He didn't just want to practice, he wanted to make it challenging.

"He was loved by so many people for his intensity and I'm sure some people got the wrong side of that if they were the competition."

Blanda, an avid and talented golfer, would invite Raider rookies out to the golf course and then take their money.

"He hustled us," said Mike Siani, the Raiders' No. 1 draft choice in 1972. Blanda had a testy relationship with Halas, the legendary Papa Bear, who was just as crusty, and his playing days seemed to be over when he retired from the Bears after the 1958 season.

But after he sat out one season, the American Football League came along just in time in 1960, and Blanda became one of its first stars with the Oilers, leading them to the new league's first championship.

He helped make the AFL competitive with the established NFL. "That first year, the Houston Oilers or Los Angeles Chargers could have beaten the NFL champion (Philadelphia) in a Super Bowl," Blanda said years later.

"I think the AFL was capable of beating the NFL in a Super Bowl game as far back as 1960 or '61. I just regret we didn't get the chance to prove it."

When Blanda was released by the Oilers on March 18, 1967, managing general partner Al Davis of the Raiders might have been the only one who thought there was life left in his arm and leg.

Blanda signed with the Raiders and helped them reach Super Bowl II, where Oakland lost to the Green Bay Packers, 33-14.

"If I had a mentor, it was George," said quarterback Kenny Stabler, who led the Raiders to their first of three Super Bowl victories. "We were friends and the bond that pulled us together was that we both played for Coach Bryant in college.

"George made the first move, coming over to talk to me. I was in awe of him. He did all the talking and I did all the listening. The thing I remember most that he told me was to be ready when you got your opportunity.

"Not only did he tell me, but he showed me, because when he got his chances, he went out and did it, especially in 1970."

In 1970, Blanda's legend was already assured, but he added perhaps the greatest chapter. He was a backup to quarterback Daryle Lamonica at the time, but for five weeks he was, as Raiders announcer Bill King said, "King of the World."

The 43-year-old's late-game heroics bailed out the Raiders in five consecutive games.

First, he came on when Lamonica was injured and threw three touchdown passes to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.

One week later, he kicked a 48-yard field goal with three seconds left to tie the Kansas City Chiefs 17-17.

Against the Cleveland Browns, he threw a game-tying touchdown pass with 1:34 left and then kicked a game-winning 53-yard field goal with three seconds remaining.

In the next game, he relieved Lamonica and threw a touchdown pass to Fred Biletnikoff with 2:28 left to beat the Denver Broncos.

On the fifth week, his 16-yard field goal in the closing second beat the San Diego Chargers, 20-17.

"George Blanda is the greatest clutch player the game of pro football has ever known," Davis said when introducing Blanda for induction to the Hall of Fame in 1981.

Once, when Blanda was in at quarterback in another cliff-hanger and driving the Raiders inside the opponents' 20-yard line, he came to the sideline to consult with Coach John Madden during a timeout.

"Let me throw three (post-patterns) to Warren Wells and I guarantee you a touchdown," Blanda said.

Said Madden: "If you guarantee it, then go ahead."

On first down, Blanda's pass was incomplete, but he delivered on his guarantee when Wells caught the second one for the game-winning touchdown. Tom LaMarre is a senior writer for The Sports Xchange and was one of the reporters who helped Blanda load his car on that final day. The other was Frank Cooney, who helped get quotes for this story and is now Publisher of The Sports Xchange.


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