For a Touchdown, Or a Field Goal, Call George Blanda
Fifty years ago, George Blanda, playing for the Oakland Raiders, began a remarkable 5-game run that professional football players today could only imagine.
For a Touchdown, Or a Field Goal, Call George Blanda
Fifty years ago, George Blanda, playing for the Oakland Raiders, began a remarkable 5-game run that professional football players today could only imagine. Mustering his passing abilities and kicking prowess, the 43-year old Pennsylvania native delivered a series of stunning clutch performances that helped lead the Raiders to the Conference championship. Though his team ended up losing the AFC title to the Baltimore Colts, Blanda walked away in 1970 with gloating media attention and the AP ‘Athlete of the Year’ award, the first time the prestigious accolade was bestowed on an NFL player.
It was the first season of the AFL-NFL merger and Blanda was more than just a seasoned player. The gridiron veteran was in his 21st year of professional football and the oldest player in the league. Aging like fine bourbon in a rough-hewn casket, the former Kentucky Wildcatter was still in top form and his competitive spirit undiminished. He had graduated from college back in 1948 and joined the Chicago Bears where he exhibited the dual threats of a capable quarterback and an accomplished place kicker. Though, his uneasy relationship with Bears coach George Halas, who wanted to employ him just as a kicker, eventually led Blanda to quit Chicago.
Landing with the Houston Oilers in the newly-formed AFL (American Football League), Blanda’s natural aptitude for delivering results silenced his detractors in the media who referred to him as an “NFL reject”. The man who set records as a quarterback and kicker under the stewardship of Kentucky’s Paul Bryant went on to lead the Oilers to the first two league titles in AFL history. In his first year, he passed for 24 touchdowns and kicked 15 field goals. In his second year, he posted an AFL/NFL record of 36 touchdowns and 16 field goals, one of which was no less than 55 yards. Y.A Tittle was the first to match Blanda’s 36 TD’s in 1963, but the New York Giants quarterback never kicked a single goal.
Throughout his tenure in Houston, the double-tooled Blanda started in almost every Oilers game and when he was released in 1966, he had already spent 16 years in professional football. As such, when the Oakland Raiders picked him up, he was thought to join as a relief thrower and place kicker at the twilight of his career. But the ageless Blanda still had plenty of fuel left in his athletic tank. In his inaugural season with the West Coast team, he connected for just 3 touchdowns, but booted 20 field goals for a total of 116 season points, the highest in his career. The Raiders went on to wear the AFL crown, defeating Blanda’s old team, the Houston Oilers, with a score of 40-7.
By 1970, the expanded league was showcasing 26 franchises from the combined AFL and NFL organizations, all vying for a single Super Bowl trophy. Blanda’s star performance with the AFL had earned him 3 championships, 4 All-Star appearances, multiple passing awards, and an MVP designation. He was now entering a 4th decade of playing pro-football and his advanced years in the sport were not expected to translate to clutch theatrics on the field. Nevertheless, the mature sportsman would leave one of his most lasting imprints during that 1970 season when he shepherded the Raiders to 4 consecutive wins and a tie with late touchdown passes, or field goals.
On October 25th, Blanda was called into action when quarterback Darryl Lamonica was injured during a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He threw for 3 touchdowns, kicked 4 extra points and 1 field goal, to overtake his opponents 31-14. A week later, in a header against the Kansas City Chiefs, he blasted a 48-yard field goal in the final 8 seconds of the match to salvage the game with a 17-17 tie. The following week against the Cleveland Browns, the reliable old-timer stepped on the battlefield with a little more than 4 minutes left on the clock. He launched a touchdown to equalize the score and then booted a 52-yard winning field goal to claim a 23-20 victory with just seconds remaining. Raiders radio announcer Bill King proclaimed Blanda “king of the world”.
The next team to fall were the Denver Broncos. At Mile High Stadium, Blanda once again came off the bench to replace a reinjured Lamonica to defeat the Broncos 24-19 with a touchdown pass in the final 3 minutes of the duel. He wrapped up his 5-game streak at home against the San Diego Chargers with a 16-yard field goal in the closing seconds of the game to win it 20-17. The Raiders ended up finishing the season with a record of 8-4-2 to place first in the AFC West, but an unremarkable third in the AFC. However, it was a 43-year old’s stupendous achievement that would help carry the team into the playoffs.
Blanda’s age-defying feats landed him on the November 23, 1970 cover of Sports Illustrated with the caption, “The Oldest Pro Strikes Again”. The same year, the Associated Press named him “Athlete of the Year”, the first such recognition given to a professional football player in the 40 years since the AP initiated the award. Blanda kept playing with the Raiders for another 5 seasons, retiring after giving 26 years of his life to the sport he loved. Fittingly, the master of the gridiron played his final match on January 4, 1976 against the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC title. At age 48, he managed a 41-yard field goal and an extra point, but lost the contest 16-10. Five years later, he was inducted into the Pro-Football Hall of Fame.
George Blanda died on September 27, 2010. Al Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders, said of him, “No player has made more of a contribution to the growth of professional football than George Blanda”. John Madden, Raiders head coach from 1969-1978, also recalled of Blanda, “He was the most competitive guy that I ever knew”. But most of all, we remember Blanda as a gifted athlete who not only transcended age, but who succeeded in delivering victory when everything seemed to be on the line.
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