He looks like Ichabod Crane stalking the Washington Redskins' training field in his Bermuda shorts, his black socks pulled high above thin, white ankles. He is quiet, so much a part of the background that most football fans have never heard of him. But Joe Blair is the voice of the people on the Redskins payroll, charged with the care and feeding of the media and the public. And in football-crazy Washington, he's the most important public relations man except for the White House's Jody Powell.
But just try convincing Blair to talk about himself; at 54 he's as shy as a 13-year-old girl who's been asked to dance for the first time.
"No," he says, "you don't want to talk with me . . . I'm the guy who gets other people's names in the paper."
Exactly. For 28 years this son of a pittsburgh railroad engineer has publicized athletes, spending over a decade at the University of Maryland until 1962 when George Preston Marshall hired him to work with the Redskins. He resigned in 1975, George Allen's heavy-handedness too much even for the shy, bow-tied PR man sportswriters fondly referred to as "affable, dapper Joe Blair."
"George's treatment of the press was a major factor for my leaving," Blair will admit today, several months after he was rehired by Edward Bennett Williams. "It used to get me that Allen would do things with reporters that were against my principles. It would turn me inside-out; it got to be difficult to come into the office."
One Washington sports reporter recalls that Blair would sometimes appear to be ill at the office; later he learned that upon his arrival, Allen told Blair that "no one gets sick during season," so Blair showed up for work even when ill.
Allen often considered the press the enemy, a distraction that his players could do without. He would schedule an early afternoon interview with a reporter and appear six or seven hours late, a habit that caused Blair anguish.
Under Pardee, Blair is relieved that the rules have been changed. During the summer weeks of training camp in Carlisle, Pa., the public was permitted to watch practice from the Dickinson College field stands. Blair no longer had to chastise reporters who strayed from the track that encircled the football field --Allen forbade them to set foot elsewhere. Blair scheduled visits from civic, business and youth groups thrilled to visit the summer camp of those fall heroes of RFK Stadium; to Allen, that kind of public relations was anathema.
Bachelor Blair ("I married this job") also devotes time to routine requests. He made sure John Riggins' father, recovering from open heart surgery, had tickets for the Vikings exhibition game. Everyday, even during the off-season, Blair calls the local media to see if he can be of service. He plays ringmaster to media requests for interviews, tickets and passes.
Blair still works to erase vestiges of distrust of the press on the part of players schooled at the George Allen university of press relations.
"Our fans deserve it," says Blair. "We owe it to them to let them hear and see these guys because the fans make it all possible by buying tickets . . . The day may come when we may need to sell tickets (there's a 10-year wait for season tickets) so I try to help now. I act as if we need to sell 25,000 tickets each week."