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GEORGE FREDERICK BLANDA

 
 

           George Frederick Blanda died on September 27, 2010.  Although some record books may show that Blanda was "a 26-year NFL player", or some, more accurately, might say that he "played ten years in the AFL and sixteen in the NFL", Blanda was the epitome of an AMERICAN FOOTBALL LEAGUE player.

            Rejected by George Halas after ten years in the TYCDL (the 'Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust  League'), Blanda sat out the 1959 season.  Then, the American Football League was born, and  he starred in it for two teams, the Houston Oilers and the Oakland Raiders.

             Like so may other great quarterbacks, George Blanda was born in a coal-mining, iron-working town in southwestern Pennsylvania: Youngwood, PA, to be precise, though when he was born on September 17, 1927, the Post Office hadn't thought of standardized state abbreviations, and it was Youngwood, Pa. or
Youngwood, Penna.
 

 

   

 

Downtown Youngwood

 

Coal Mining Company Certificate

 
 
 

The photos below are fom Wells Twombly's biography BLANDA ~ Alive and Kicking
 

In this Blanda family photo, George is seated on the stool at right.

George (No. 25) with Youngwood High School teammates

     

           Blanda played for the University of Kentucky Wildcats from 1945-48 under coaches Bernie Shively (1945) and Paul "Bear" Bryant (1946-48). He was a quarterback, placekicker and punter.  He was the team's starting QB as a junior and senior.   During his junior season in 1947, Blanda guided UK to an 8-3 record, including a 24-14 win over Villanova in the Great Lakes Bowl, the first bowl game in school history As a starting quarterback at Kentucky (1947 - 1948), he compiled 120 completions on 242 attempts (49.6 percentage), for 1,451 yards and 12 touchdowns. 

           Blanda was a 1998 inductee to the University of Kentucky Alumni Hall of Fame. His Wildcats jersey number 16 is retired, and in 2005 he was inducted to the charter class of the UK Athletics Hall of Fame.  He
was a 12th-round draft pick by the Chicago Bears in the 1949 draft.

 

 

On Blanda's 1960 AFL Fleer 'Rookie' card, he's shown in Bears' gear.

           From the first exhibition game of the 1949 season, when an injured Johnny Lujack started after Blanda had out-practiced and outplayed him in training camp, Blanda distrusted George Halas.  Then, when he made the team, Halas demanded his $600 signing bonus back!  In spite of promises by Halas, Blanda did not start a regular season game until 1952.  He was a regular starter in 1953, but was injured in 1954 and thereafter was used primarily as a placekicker.  Halas "was too cheap to even buy me a kicking shoe."   Blanda often said that by "about 1954" the game had moved beyond Halas. 

          Halas' conservatism, on the field and off, was reflected in the entire NFL and was a main reason that a new major league of Professional Football was formed ~ the American Football League, where Blanda found a home, not only as a kicker but as a starting quarterback for the Houston Oilers.

           In the AFL's first season, Blanda led his team to the Eastern Division title with a 10-4 record
with the likes of Billy Cannon, Jim Norton, Charlie Tolar, Bob Talamini , and Charlie Hennigan; whose names would have been legend if they had played in the other league.  They went aganst the 10-4 Los Angeles Chargers in the first AFL title game on New Year's Day, 1961.  The Oilers defeated the Chargers 24-16, with Blanda accounting for all the scoring with 3 touchdown passes, 3 PATs, and an 18 yard field goal.
 

1961 Fleer

1962 Fleer

1963 Fleer

1964 Topps

1966 Topps

1965 Topps

           In 1961 the Oilers "fell" to 10-3-1.  During that season, Blanda passed for 464 yards in a game against the Buffalo Bills, a game in which Charlie Hennigan gained 232 yards on just nine receptions.   Later that year, Blanda passed for 416 yards against the New York Titans.   That year, their championship game opponents were again the Chargers, who had moved to San Diego and improved their record to 12-2.  The Oilers prevailed once more, 10-3, but even though it was a low scoring game, Blanda again accounted for all of Houston's points with a touchdown pass, a PAT and a 46 yard field goal.

           The 1962 AFL season saw the Oilers improve to 11-3-1 and take their third straight Eastern Division title, a feat matched only by the 1964-1966 Bills.  Playing in their third AFL Championship game, in what remains the longest league championship game in Professional Football history, the Oilers faced the 11-3 Dallas Texans.  The Texans were up 17-10 at the half, but Blanda rallied the Oilers to a 17-17 tie, including a touchdown pass, a PAT and a 31 yard field goal.   Regulation time ended.  At the start of the first overtime, the Texans' Abner Haynes said "We'll kick to the clock", and the rest is history.  Blanda threw 46 passes, completing 23, but with five interceptions, one coming at the end of the first overtime.  After the start of the second overtime, the Texans drove close enough to kick a field goal and ended Blanda's dream of a third straight AFL title, winning 20-17.

          The reaction of the establishment to Blanda's success was typical.  George Halas said: "The American Football League can't be anything but a Mickey Mouse League.  How can it be anything else?  Isn't George Blanda a first-string quarterback over there?"

          
And Pete Rozelle's lapdog, Tex Maule, wrote: "No player on the Houston Oilers could break into the starting line-up of any of the top four teams in either division of the NFL, and only one or two could break into the starting lineups of ANY team in the NFL.  The only reason George Blanda, who threw only 50 touchdown passes in ten years in the NFL, can hope to succeed in the American Football League, is because he can expect to find his receivers less adequately covered."   As usual, Maule was wrong.  Blanda threw only 48 td passes for the Bears.  But then again, he threw only 988 passes in all for them, an attempt-to-td ratio better than that of Bart Starr. 

           Houston didn't make the playoffs during the remainder of Blanda's time there, but he continued to complete passes and score points.  I recall a 1964 game at War Memorial Stadium where Blanda set a pro record with 68 passes against the Bills, completing 37 with three picks.  In a  memorable game at the same venue in 1966, Blanda was hampered by serious tendonitis in his throwing arm.  The Oilers were held to 24 yards rushing in a virtual monsoon that made mush of the field.  Blanda somehow threw 54 passes for 303 yards and two touchdowns, and kicked two PATs and a 47 yard field goal, only to lose 20-17. 

            He was a staunch American Football League supporter.  Even as recently as 2009, on the Showtime TV series Full Color Football ~ The History of the American Football League, Blanda took a swipe at "pro football" Hall of Fame selectors, pointing out that one reason Hall of Famer Willie Brown was cut by the early Oilers was that he couldn't cover Houston's Charlie Hennigan in scrimmages.  Blanda noted that in the last game of the 1964 season, against Denver, Hennigan needed eight catches to equal Bronco Lionel Taylor's pro record of 100 catches, set in the 1961 season.  Blanda pointed out that Brown was playing for Broncos in that game, and that Hennigan caught NINE passes against him to break the record.  The point?  Brown is in the Hall of Fame: why isn't Hennigan?  Below is a shot of Hennigan making his 101st catch against Brown
, from the book Touchdown! by George Sullivan.

 

          Blanda's arm problems led to his release from the Oilers in early 1967.  The Oilers' fortunes had fallen, and many Houston fans, forgetting Blanda's heroics at the birth of the AFL, booed him on every play.  The team wanted him to remain as a kicker only, or a  quarterbacks coach.  He had a no-cut contract and asked for his unconditional release.  Instead, the Oilers put him on waivers, and soon the Raiders' Al Davis, still smarting and back with Oakland after being betrayed by AFL owners in the merger deal, claimed him off the waiver list.   Like general managers everywhere, Davis tried to get the most out of Blanda for the least pay, but they finally came to terms.

          "Our association may have got off to a poor start, but I made the right move reporting to the Raiders.  For the first time I was playing for a club that wasn't going to screw you just because they didn't like you personally.  And unlike the Oilers you knew there wasn't going to be a new general manager or a new coach every five minutes.  They act like men in the Oakland front office and they treat players like men." 

            Oakland traded for Daryle Lamonica that same season, and Lamonica became the starter as the "Mad Bomber".  Blanda took on the kicking chores, and ably spelled Lamonica when necessary.  He may have cringed at being a backup, but he was the backup to the league's leading quarterback and MVP that year.  When the Raiders played the Oilers that year in Houston, Blanda was booed mercilessly, especially after he missed his first field goal attempt.  The boos prompted Lamonica to ask: "My God, what did you ever do to these people?"  The booing slackened and finally stopped by the end of the game.  Blanda's toe had provided 13 points on a PAT and four field goals to give the Raiders a 19-7 win.

            Blanda led the league with 116 points in 1967, and as fate would have it, the Raiders played the Houston Oilers for the AFL Championship that season.  In that game, Blanda kicked four PATs and four field goals as the Raiders routed the Oilers 40-7.   

            Oakland lost in the second AFL-NFL Super Bowl, but Blanda was not done after eighteen years in the pros.  He became one of only twenty AFL players to be in  the league for its entire ten year existence.   He then went somewhat unwillingly back into the "merged" NFL, and entranced crowds and TV audiences for six more seasons.
 

1968 Topps

1969 Topps
1971 Topps
 
 
November 13, 1968 Buffalo Courier-Express
Click HERE to read the article
 

          Blanda "still had it in him" in 1968 when Lamonica had a back spasm the day before the Raiders' November 10th game against the Broncos.   Blanda started, and threw four touchdown passes, and kicked two field goals and five PATs.

In 1970
, Blanda, at age 43, had a fabulous five-game streak. Against the Steelers, he threw for three touchdowns in relief of an injured Lamonica.  A week later, his 48-yard field goal with three seconds remaining salvaged a 1717 tie with the Chiefs. The next week, Blanda once again came off the bench to throw for a touchdown pass to tie the Browns with 1:34 remaining, then kicked a 53-yard field goal with 0:03 left for the 2320 win. In the next game, Blanda replaced Lamonica in the fourth quarter and connected with Fred Biletnikoff on a touchdown pass with 2:28 left in the game to defeat the Broncos, 2419. The streak concluded one week later when Blanda's 16-yard field goal in the closing seconds defeated the Chargers, 2017.

          In the conference title game against the Colts, Blanda again relieved an injured Lamonica, completing 17 of 32 passes for 217 yards and 2 touchdowns while also kicking a 48-yard field goal and two extra points, keeping the Raiders in the game until the final quarter, when he was intercepted twice.  Aged 43, he became the oldest quarterback ever to play in a championship game, and was one of the last remaining straight-ahead kickers in Professional Football.

         When Blanda was presented with the Player of the Year award for his heroics, Chiefs' owner Lamar Hunt said, "Why, this George Blanda is as good as his father, who used to play for Houston."

         Blanda passed for 20,029 yards in the AFL, second only to Jack Kemp, and he threw for 176 touchdowns, just behind Lenny Dawson, although he started far fewer games at quarterback than either. 

         Blanda was the antithesis of a "reject".  After being used sparingly for ten years in the NFL, which could not recognize his potential, this "NFL Reject" then thrilled football fans in the American Football League for another ten years.    When forced by the merger to once again play in the other league, he was good enough to star there as well, as were many other AFL players previously mocked as "not good enough to play in the NFL", or "not good enough to be drafted by a real league"

        Blanda disproved that canard, ending as the man who played the longest, 26 years, in American Professional Football history, appearing in 339 games and amassing 1,911 completions for 26,920 yards and 236 touchdowns, with 9 tds rushing and a total of 1,930 points on field goals and PATs. "Reject", my behind! 

         When Blanda joined the Oilers, only six AFL players were older than he was.  None of them played later than the 1964 season.  When he finally left Professional Football in 1976, he was the oldest man ever to play the game, and the last original American Football League player to retire!

          He was quoted by Jack Horrigan as saying "The one thing I remember most takes me back to 1960, the first year of the AFL and the first championship game in Houston--because that was the first championship team I had ever played with, either in the pros or in college.  It was the first team I was with that went all the way, and it will stay in my mind always.  I'll remember it more than playing in the Super Bowl, and get more kick out of it than any other single game I ever played in."

          
In Blanda ~ Alive and Kicking, his biography by Wells Twombly, Blanda says: "I became pro-AFL right from the start.  I still am.  Even when the Raiders became an NFL team officially in 1970 with the completion of the merger, I was an AFL man in my heart.  I always will be loyal.  That first damn year, the Houston Oilers OR the Los Angeles Chargers could have beaten--repeat, beaten--the NFL champion in a Super Bowl, despite what the detractors were saying."

          George, you may not be 'alive and kicking' on the gridiron, but you're still out there, in the minds and memories of the fans of the American Football League.  Rest easy.

 
 

The following article was written in 1976 by Buffalo Courier-Express columnist Phil Ranallo, on Blanda's retirement.

 

 

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Last revision: 30 April 2012 ~ Angelo F. Coniglio, nospam.RemembertheAFL@aol.com
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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