George Blanda, 83; football star excelled under pressure as passer and kicker

George Blanda ties his kicking shoe during his remarkable 1970 season with the Raiders.
George Blanda ties his kicking shoe during his remarkable 1970 season with the Raiders. (Universal Press International)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 11:29 PM

George Blanda, 83, an ageless wonder of the gridiron who played longer than anyone else in professional football history and was known for leading his teams to last-minute victories with his clutch passing and place kicking, died Sept. 27. The place and cause of death were not disclosed by his final team, the Oakland Raiders.

Mr. Blanda began his Hall of Fame career in the National Football League during the era of leather helmets without face masks. He spent 26 years in pro football and retired when he was 48 - records no one has matched. He remains the only player to have appeared in four decades, from the 1940s to the 1970s.

After 10 years with the Chicago Bears, Mr. Blanda joined the newly formed American Football League in 1960 and set many passing records as he led the Houston Oilers to the AFL's first two championships.

Released by the Oilers when he was 39, Mr. Blanda was signed by Oakland for the standard waiver fee of $100. He was nine years older than his last coach, John Madden, and two years older than the team owner, Al Davis. Nonetheless, Mr. Blanda played nine more seasons as a kicker and backup quarterback, building a reputation as one of football's greatest players under pressure.

In 1970, when he was 43, the grizzled, gray-haired Mr. Blanda came off the bench in five consecutive games and responded with last-second heroics that captivated the nation.

"He was the best competitor and clutchest player that I ever coached," Madden told the Associated Press. "It got to the point where when he'd come in, the whole team would go, 'Her comes George. We're going to do it now.' "

Mr. Blanda first showed his flair for high-pressure heroics Oct. 25, 1970, when he entered a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, trailing 7-0. On his first play, he thew a touchdown pass. He went on to throw for three more touchdowns and to kick a field goal as the Raiders won, 31-14.

A week later, on the next-to-last play of the game, Mr. Blanda kicked a 48-yard field goal to tie the Kansas City Chiefs, 17-17.

The next week, after the Raiders' regular quarterback, Daryle Lamonica, was injured, Mr. Blanda engineered a comeback against the Cleveland Browns. He threw a touchdown in the final minute and a half, then with only three seconds left in the game, booted a 52-yard field goal for a 23-20 victory.

On Nov. 15, Mr. Blanda threw a late 20-yard touchdown pass to Fred Biletnikoff to beat Denver, 24-19.

"It was a beautifully thrown ball," Tex Maule wrote in a Sports Illustrated cover story on Mr. Blanda, "a smart call and the fourth time in the last four weeks that a Blanda miracle has saved the Raiders."

One week later, Mr. Blanda kicked a 16-yard field goal in the waning seconds for a 20-17 win over the the San Diego Chargers.

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