'Doc' Blanchard: American footballer and USAF pilot who saved an Essex village

Friday 01 May 2009 00:00
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In 1959 Doc Blanchard was inducted to America's college football Hall of Fame, and broke a speed record flying an F-100 Super Sabre jet at 610mph between England and Tripoli. But his greatest achievement came when another F-100 caught fire as he returned to RAF Wethersfield. Ordered to follow protocol and eject, Blanchard, with the Essex village beneath him, refused. He executed an emergency landing, then fled the burning plane. "It was the fastest I ever ran," he said.

Running was his speciality. Between 1944 and 1946, Blanchard and Glenn Davis became national heroes as gridiron's "touchdown twins" at the US Military Academy at West Point. Blanchard, the full-back, pounded the centre of the opposition's line while Davis, the half-back, attacked its flanks, and they were known as "Mr Inside" and "Mr Outside". In three seasons, Army won two national championships, their 1944 match against Navy raising $60m in war bonds sold along with its tickets. After Army won, completing an unbeaten season, General Douglas MacArthur wired, "we have stopped the war to celebrate your magnificent success".

Felix Andrew Blanchard Jr came to football naturally. He was originally nicknamed "Little Doc", to distinguish him from his father, a doctor who had played at two universities, and who placed a football in his baby's crib. Young Doc entered the University of North Carolina, but when war broke out, his grades were too low for a Navy programme which would have let him finish college. He joined the Army and and was admitted to West Point in July 1944. Two months later, he was making his impact on the gridiron. After losing 59-0 to Army, Notre Dame's coach said, "I've just seen Superman, and he's wearing No 35". Six feet tall and 15 stone, Blanchard ran a 10 second-flat 100 yards, and was the eastern college shot putt champion. In 1945, Army again went undefeated. Blanchard became the first junior to win the Heisman Trophy, as the nation's top college player, and the first footballer to capture the Sullivan award, given to the country's top amateur athlete.

After graduation, Blanchard and Davis negotiated a deal to extend their four-year service commitment in return for four months' furlough each year to play professionally, but an outcry in Congress saw that deal cancelled. They used their graduation leave to go to Hollywood and play themselves in a forgettable movie, The Spirit Of West Point.

Blanchard made his career in the Air Force, retiring a colonel in 1971. He flew nearly 100 combat missions in Korea and Vietnam, returning to football only to coach Army's freshmen for a few years in the 1950s. In early April, Army announced it would retire Blanchard's No 35 jersey.

Michael Carlson

Felix Anthony ('Doc') Blanchard Jr, pilot, American footballer: born 11 December 1924 Bishopsville, South Carolina; married (one son, one daughter); died Bulverde, Texas 19 April 2009.

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