George Blanda defined NFL 'veteran'
George Blanda's great gift to sports was that he made it cool to be old. The man was ahead of his time by one whole Brett Favre. He took the concept of "veteran" up a notch. He was No Fear before No Fear was something you could actually market.
Decades before Favre wrestled with his mortality in front of a slobbering sports nation, Blanda played football at 48 years old to what some would probably call sporadic fanfare. He just kept on going out there. Common sense said to quit. Throbbing muscles and deep bruises told him to think about what else he'd like to do with his life. Blanda thought about it, then pulled on his helmet.
What can be said? Life's about finding something to enjoy.
When they talk about Blanda this week, in the wake of his passing at 83, longtime football fans might quickly summon the memory of the 1970 NFL season. It's a great memory. That year, Oakland Raiders coach John Madden called Blanda's number off the bench in five straight games, and five times the 43-year-old Blanda came through with miracle plays, drives or kicks.
Four wins and a tie landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He was the kicker who played quarterback, and the old man pounding the kids. It was heady stuff.
But Blanda's greater contribution to the sport is that he didn't make such a public spectacle out of wearing a uniform. He loved the game, so he played it. There wasn't a lot of soul searching involved. He retired once, but mostly because Bears owner George Halas didn't want him to do anything but kick and didn't want to pay him much. He played for the AFL when the AFL was a baby. He got bought by Raiders owner Al Davis in 1967 for a hundred bucks, the price of a waiver transaction. Solid investment.
For the next decade, Davis kept finding a spot for Blanda on the roster because Blanda knew how to help teams win. Blanda was able to help the team win until he was 48. That was the entire rubric.
Blanda was almost perfect for the Raiders in the day, but not because he was tearing up the town or getting himself thrown out of games. It was because he made no sense statistically. He wasn't supposed to be out there.
Years later, upon being presented by Davis on the day of his induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Blanda chuckled at the notion.
"Two renegades: Me and Al Davis," Blanda said. "It was great."
Blanda was that, a renegade. Despite leading Halas' Chicago Bears to the NFL title game in 1956, he "retired" in '59 when the two couldn't agree on terms. He said he always thought of himself as an AFL player after signing with Bud Adams and the Houston Oilers in 1960. Blanda directed the Oilers to the first two AFL championships, which was wonderful, but let's be clear: Blanda said he signed with the Oilers because he knew Adams wrote big checks that cashed.
Blanda was no shrinking violet. Nobody comes charging in to win NFL games in his mid-40s without a healthy ego. Still, if you went looking for a contemporary comparison with him, you might have to leave the sport. Blanda had more in common with Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer than with someone like the spotlight-hugging Favre.
Like Moyer, Blanda was still adding to his game in his 40s, still figuring out new ways to contribute. When Madden called for him to relieve a struggling Daryle Lamonica at quarterback in the first quarter of a 1970 game against Pittsburgh, Blanda promptly picked apart the Steelers' defense by beating blitz after blitz with his quick-release passes. It was veteran savvy, not shotgun strength.
"He defiantly threw us off," Pittsburgh middle linebacker Chuck Allen said.
That he did. Blanda directed a 31-14 Oakland victory that day, the front end of the five-game stretch that will define his career. Twice in that span, Blanda won games with his arm, and he kicked field goals to either tie or win three times.
And that, for almost any NFL fan, was that. But Blanda played another five years after that magical moment, about four and a half years after the cheering stopped. It was scores of hits and body blows later when Blanda finally retired. Who does that?
Part of the beauty of what happened between Blanda and the Raiders is that neither Blanda nor Davis knew what to expect. Davis signed the player in 1967 because he was cheap, and Davis knew and respected him from the AFL. Blanda was already 39 years old when he first pulled on an Oakland uniform. It's safe to say neither party saw another decade coming.
Now, nearly 40 years after the fact, it isn't entirely shocking to see someone try to extend a career. The kicker Morten Andersen was still on a roster three years ago at age 47. Warren Moon, who like Blanda ran a circuitous route to his NFL stardom, threw passes for Kansas City at 44, joining people like Steve DeBerg and Vinny Testaverde who played into their fourth decades.
George Blanda? Let history note the truth: Davis signed him in his dotage as a kicker, not a quarterback, but it didn't always work out that way. Sometimes, the Raiders had to let the old guy run around and throw a touchdown pass. Very cool, after all these years.
Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His most recent book, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.