Age never defined Blanda on or off the field

George Blanda did a little of everything for a lot of years in the AFL and NFL. Now, we check in with him in our next Where Are They Now?

Originally Published: June 26, 2007
By William Bendetson | ESPN.com

Throughout the offseason, we'll catch up with former NFL players and coaches to find out what they have been up to since leaving the game.

New York Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens might be the modern-day symbol of sports longevity, but Clemens will have to pitch another four years, become a good hitter and learn to play the outfield to rival George Blanda, who played in the NFL until he was 48.

"George was one of the all-time classics," said linebacker Phil Villapiano, a teammate of Blanda's with the Oakland Raiders. "He would play under any circumstance even if he was hurt. I like to compare him to Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas. Buck Buchanan of the Kansas City Chiefs knocked him on his head and he still got up."

Mr. Longevity

Images from the 26-year pro football career of George Blanda, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981.
George Blanda photo gallery

Blanda, who played quarterback, linebacker, safety and kicker, is remembered most for his heroics in the 1970 season when at age 43, he threw three touchdown passes and kicked a field goal in the Raiders' comeback victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In that same season, Blanda also kicked a 52-yard field goal to defeat the Cleveland Browns, threw a winning touchdown pass against the Denver Broncos and booted a last-minute field goal to defeat the San Diego Chargers. The Raiders ended up losing to the Baltimore Colts in the 1970 AFC title game, but Blanda became the oldest player ever in a title game.

"George was a thoroughbred," former teammate George Atkinson said. "Can you imagine even playing at 43, never mind doing what he did in the 1970 season? What made him so good that year was his preparation. He knew opponents so well that he knew which guy needed the ball based on a certain defense. He was also great at making adjustments at the line of scrimmage."

Now 79, Blanda, who is married and has two children, spends seven months of the year in Illinois and the other five in Palm Springs, Calif. About two months ago, Blanda needed to have both his knees replaced and while he no longer maintains the workout regimen he once did, he spends his time on the golf course, at the race track, playing cards and watching pro football.

George Blanda
Wireimage.comHall of Famer George Blanda, shown as a Houston Oiler (left), was "one of the all-time classics," according to Raiders teammate Phil Villapiano.
Blanda, who played 340 games over his 26 seasons (1949-75) in pro football, was a man before his time. Despite having an offseason job for 22 years of his pro career as the sales manager of a trucking company, he found time for aerobics, handball, racquetball and jogging on a daily basis. He also did countless push-ups and sit-ups.

"I would work all day and then go the gym in the evening," said Blanda, a 1981 inductee into the Pro Football Hall Of Fame. "I owed it to myself to take care of myself."

Throughout his career, Blanda never wanted to be just a kicker, retiring briefly in 1959 rather than solely kick for the Chicago Bears. To this day, Blanda becomes upset when he's labeled just a kicker.

"I hate when people lump me in with kickers that lasted a long time. I have respect for guys like Morten Andersen, but I was a football player, not just a kicker," said Blanda, whose 2,002 career points ranks third all-time in NFL individual scoring behind kickers Andersen (2,445 points) and Gary Anderson (2,434).

When Blanda was with the Chicago Bears from 1950-1958, he played linebacker and free safety. Blanda was a backup to starting quarterback Sid Luckman.

"I needed to learn how to play defense, otherwise I would sit on the bench," Blanda said.

Blanda played quarterback for the Houston Oilers from 1960-1966 and was named AFL player of the year in 1961. Many thought Blanda's career was finished in 1967 at the age of 39, but the Raiders realized he still could kick and serve as a backup quarterback.

Such flexibility is often difficult to imagine in today's era of specialization, when some of the 53 roster spots are designated for long-snappers, kickers and punters. Rosters were smaller during Blanda's NFL career, especially in the 1950s.

George Blanda
AP PhotoBlanda, whose pro career spanned 26 seasons, threw 236 TD passes.
"The game has changed that way," Blanda said.

Blanda played for coaching giants George Halas and John Madden. He credits Halas with being a terrific motivator and a great life teacher and Madden for having the Raiders so well prepared on a weekly basis. Many of Blanda's Raiders teammates considered him a coach as well.

"When I would come over to the sideline, George would critique my performance," Villapiano said. "He would tell me about the different patterns the offense was running, and he noticed a lot of things that I couldn't see on the field. He knew more about the linebacker position than I did."

Of course, his coaching style could be a little, um, rough.

"George was never gentle," Villapiano said. "There were three people on the Raiders whom you were scared of because you knew if you made a mistake they were really going to get on you -- Madden, Jim Otto and George Blanda."

That voice obviously softened over the years. After leaving the trucking business, Blanda served as a motivational speaker for 15 years and he used lessons learned from the field and from the legendary coaches he played for in his talks.

"Halas used to tell his players that football is what you make of it," Blanda said. "It should not be what defines you, but football should be a stepping stone for what you achieve in the rest of your life."

Blanda maintains a close relationship with Madden and Raiders owner Al Davis. Davis still teases Blanda about the 1970 season and how Blanda fell one game short of the Super Bowl. Still, that was a special team. Blanda notes that the Raiders' players and their families would get together twice a week, once after the game and once during the week to have team cookouts. There was just an incredible bond from owner to coach to player, he said.

"We were like a family," said Villapiano, who is a frequent golfing partner with Blanda. "He always beats me. He doesn't really have a handicap. He just scores low enough to beat you. He plays just above the level of his competition."

And that love of competition is why many thought Blanda would play until he was 50. But he was released in August 1976, one month shy of his 49th birthday. The funny thing is the Raiders could have used Blanda that season because one of their backup quarterbacks got hurt, but league rules mandated that the Raiders could not re-sign Blanda.

"We won the Super Bowl in 1976, and that would have been a perfect ending to his career," Villapiano said. "George, though, did not complain."

That's just the way Blanda is, always looking for the positive. Instead of seeing a Super Bowl opportunity missed, he sees the bright side of playing as long as he did.

"After 26 years, I get a pretty good pension," Blanda said jokingly.

William Bendetson is an intern for ESPN.com

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