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Blanda, George Frederick

BLANDA, George Frederick

(b. 17 September 1927 in Youngwood, Pennsylvania), quarterback elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981 who is best remembered for his heroic performance during the 1970 and 1971 seasons.

Blanda was one of eleven children born to Michael and Mary Blanda, who were of Czech ancestry. Michael Blanda was a Pennsylvania coal miner who labored long hours underground so that his children would have the opportunity to pursue an education. His son George proved to be an outstanding athlete at Youngwood High School, earning varsity letters in football, basketball, and track and field.

Following high school graduation in 1945, Blanda entered the University of Kentucky on a scholarship. At Kentucky, Blanda played for the legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant. Coach Bryant was a stern but admired taskmaster. Blanda said, "I owe my longevity in the game to him and his coaching philosophy. Hard work equals success." After playing as a reserve quarterback during his sophomore and junior years, Blanda started during his senior year, leading the Kentucky Wildcats to eight victories in eleven games. During his tenure at Kentucky, Blanda met Betty Harris, and the two were married in 1949. The marriage produced two children.

Graduating in 1949 with a degree in education, Blanda was drafted by the Chicago Bears of the National Football League (NFL). Unfortunately for Blanda, Chicago already had two outstanding quarterbacks—Sid Luckman and Johnny Lujack. Blanda received little playing time and had an acrimonious relationship with George Halas, owner and coach of the Bears. In his early years with the Bears, Blanda saw action mostly as a field-goal kicker and kickoff specialist.

In 1950 Blanda was traded to the Baltimore Colts but was released and rejoined the Bears later that season. Finally, in 1953, Blanda won the starting quarterback job for Chicago, leading the NFL in passes attempted (362) and completed (169), yet the team compiled a disappointing annual record of three wins, eight losses, and one tie. Blanda again became a reserve quarterback, playing behind Zeke Bratkowski and Ed Brown.

Following the 1958 season, Blanda retired from football, frustrated over lack of playing time and the fact that Halas would not deal him to another team. In ten seasons with the Bears, Blanda played in 115 games, passed for forty-eight touchdowns and 5,936 yards, kicked eighty-eight field goals (scoring 247 out of a possible 250 extra points), and ran for five touchdowns.

However, Blanda still wanted to play football, and the emergence of a new professional league, the American Football League (AFL), in 1960 provided him with the opportunity. That year, Blanda signed with owner Bud Adams of the Houston Oilers for approximately $20,000. The former reserve made the most of his chance to be a starting professional quarterback. In his first three years with Houston, Blanda led the Oilers to three division titles and two league championships. He led the AFL in passing yardage and touchdown passes in 1961. From 1963 to 1965 Blanda was the league's dominant quarterback, completing 672 out of 1,370 passes. He was selected for the AFL All-Star game for the three seasons between 1961 and 1963.

But by the mid-1960s the Oilers were in decline, and late in the 1966 season Blanda was replaced by Don Trull. In 1967 he was traded to the Oakland Raiders, where he served as the team's place kicker and backup quarterback for starter Daryl Lamonica. Blanda was content with his role and contributed to the team's 1967 AFL championship. In 1968 and 1969 Oakland won Western Division titles but was defeated in the AFL championship game.

In 1970 the AFL and NFL merged, and the AFL became the American Football Conference (AFC) of the NFL. Professional football emerged as the number one televised sport in America, and Blanda's exploits during the 1970 season made the forty-three-year-old athlete an American hero. Blanda's series of "miracle finishes" began on 25 October, when he replaced Lamonica and threw three touchdown passes, leading Oakland to a victory over Pittsburgh. A week later, Blanda kicked a forty-eight-yard field goal with three seconds remaining to tie the Kansas City Chiefs. In November, the heroics continued; during the last ninety seconds of a game against the Cleveland Browns, Blanda tossed a touchdown pass and kicked a field goal for an Oakland victory. The next Sunday, Blanda completed a touchdown pass with two and a half minutes remaining to defeat the Denver Broncos. On 22 November, Blanda kicked a field goal with seven seconds left in the game to give the Raiders a win over the San Diego Chargers. Blanda's series of fantastic finishes led Oakland into the playoffs, where they were defeated by the Baltimore Colts. Blanda's 1970 exploits were recognized by the United Press International and by Sporting News, which voted him AFC Player of the Year. The Associated Press named Blanda Male Athlete of the Year.

On 31 October 1971 Blanda surpassed Lou Groza's career point record of 1,609. In the remaining fifty seconds of that record-setting game, Blanda again relieved Lamonica, throwing a touchdown pass and kicking a field goal as the Raiders tied the Chiefs. However, Kansas City edged out Oakland for the 1971 Western Division title.

Blanda remained with Oakland through the 1975 season, although his playing time was limited, with most of his action as a place kicker. At age forty-eight, Blanda retired. He finished his career with 2,002 points scored and 340 games played. As a quarterback, Bland attempted 4,007 passes, completing 1,911, for 26,920 yards and 236 touch-downs. He also kicked 335 field goals and scored 942 extra points. Blanda was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981.

After retirement Blanda worked as an executive with the Railway Express Agency in Chicago and enjoys playing golf and going to the race track. Blanda had a distinguished football career with three teams, but his miracle finishes of the 1970 and 1971 seasons captured the nation's imagination.

An authorized biography of Blanda is Wells Twombly, Blanda: Alive and Kicking: The Exclusive Authorized Biography (1972). An account of Blanda's role in the early years of the American Football League may be found in Harold Rosenthal, ed., AFL Official History, 1960–1969 (1970). Journalistic profiles of Blanda include "George Blanda Is Alive and Kicking," Time (23 Nov. 1970); and Tom Maule, "Let George Do It and He Does," Sports Illustrated (23 Nov. 1970). For Blanda's perspective on his celebrated finishes in the 1970 and 1971 seasons, see George Blanda with Jim Olsen, "Decade of Revenge," Sports Illustrated (19 July 1971); "I Keep Getting My Kicks," Sports Illustrated (26 July 1971); and "That Impossible Season," Sports Illustrated (2 Aug. 1971).

Ron Briley

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