In a sport where the average career lasts less than four years, George Blanda's lasted 26 seasons. Blanda retired after the 1975 season, at 48 the oldest man to play in a National Football League game, and at the time the only one to have played in four separate decades. His career record for points scored (2,002) stood for 25 years, but his reputation as the ultimate clutch player was cemented in one five-week period in 1970.
Blanda, already 43, replaced an injured Daryle Lamonica at quarterback and threw three touchdown passes to rally the Oakland Raiders to a31-14 win over Pittsburgh. The next Sunday he kicked a game-tying field goal with three seconds left, and a week later replaced an injured Lamonica in the final quarter, tying the game with a touchdown pass with just over a minute to go, then won it with a 52-yard kick, the second-longest of his career, again with three seconds on the clock. The next week he took over with four minutes to play and threw a game-winning pass, and in the following game a short field goal for another win. He failed to rally the team the next week, but his legend was established. He won the Bert Bell award for player of the year, even though he threw only 55 passes the entire season.
Known as "the ageless wonder", Blanda's longevity was remarkable because his career appeared to have ended twice. He was born in 1927, the son of a Czech-born coal-miner, in Youngswood, a town in the western Pennsylvania area known as "the cradle of quarterbacks". Blanda played for the legendary coach Bear Bryant at the University of Kentucky, but wasn't chosen until the 12th round of the 1949 NFL draft, by the Chicago Bears.
Chicago, were already stocked at quarterback and Blanda and George Halas, the coach, took an instant dislike to each other. Halas was autocratic, since he also owned the team, and stingy, "too cheap to even buy me a kicking shoe". Blanda became his whipping-boy. In 1950 Halas traded him to Baltimore, but bought his contract back the next week to be the team's kicker, playing occasionally at linebacker. He started at quarterback for only parts of two seasons, but once, when Chicago was getting thrashed, the fans began chanting for him. Halas called him off the bench, but as Blanda prepared to go into the game, Halas pointed to the stands, saying "go up there, they want you".
The frustration led Blanda to retire after the 1958 season, but in 1960 the American Football League was formed to challenge the NFL's monopoly. Blanda signed with the Houston Oilers and led them to the league's first championship, throwing an 88-yard touchdown pass to Billy Cannon, and won again in 1961, when he was the league's most valuable player, throwing a record seven touchdown passes in a game against the New York Titans.
Blanda was the epitome of the players whose talent went unrecognised by the conservative NFL but was allowed to flourish in the free-flowing AFL. He was fearless in the face of pass rushing, but had more confidence in his arm than it deserved; when he retired he held the career record for passes intercepted.
In 1966 the Oilers, feeling Blanda was too old, dropped him, leaving him to be signed by Oakland. They were another team run by an autocratic owner (and former coach), but Al Davis loved "renegades". Blanda led the AFL in scoring in 1967, and kicked Oakland to Super Bowl II the following year. Davis released Blanda before that amazing 1970 season, only to re-sign him immediately. His final game was the Super Bowl semi-final in January 1976, which the Raiders lost to Pittsburgh. Oakland would win their first Super Bowl, without him, the following season. In 1981 Blanda was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where Davis introduced him, calling him the greatest clutch player he had ever seen.
George Blanda, American footballer: born Youngswood, Pennsylvania 17 September 1927; married 1949 Betty Harris (two children); died La Quinta, California 27 September 2010.