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George Blanda dies at 83; football career spanned four decades

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George Blanda, the Hall of Fame quarterback and kickerwho played a record 26 seasons of professional football and once almost single-handedly won five consecutive games for the Oakland Raiders, has died. He was 83.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame said Blanda died Monday after a brief illness, and the Raiders issued a statement calling him "a brave Raider and a close personal friend of Raiders owner Al Davis."

Blanda, whose career dated to an era when players routinely manned two positions, scored a then-record 2,002 points. He scored those by throwing for 236 touchdowns and running for nine, as well as kicking 335 field goals and 943 extra points. He retired before the 1976 season, a month shy of his 49th birthday, having spent 10 seasons with the Chicago Bears, part of one with the Baltimore Colts, seven with the Houston Oilers and his last nine with the Raiders.

"If you put him in a group of most-competitive, biggest-clutch players, I think he'd have to be the guy who would win it all," his Raiders coach, John Madden, said in a phone interview Monday. "He was the most competitive guy that I ever knew."

Never was that more evident than during a five-game stretch in 1970 when the 43-year-old Blanda, his chiseled jaw framed by salt-and-pepper sideburns, led the Raiders to four victories and one tie with late touchdown throws or field goals.

"It got to the point where when he'd come in [the game], the whole team would go, 'Here comes George. We're going to do it now,'" Madden said. "Then pretty soon all the fans started believing, and they'd all go nuts. And then the topper is when the opponents knew it. It was like, 'Oh no, here he comes.'"

That remarkable stretch began Oct. 25, 1970, when Blanda replaced an injured Daryle Lamonica and threw three touchdown passes in a 31-14 victory over Pittsburgh.

In the four games that followed, he:

Kicked a 48-yard field goal in the final seconds to forge a 17-17 tie at Kansas City.

Threw a tying touchdown pass with one minute, 34 seconds remaining, then kicked the game-winning 52-yard field goal in the final seconds of a 23-20 victory over Cleveland.

Threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Fred Biletnikoff in a 24-19 victory over Denver.

Kicked a 16-yard field goal in the final seconds for a 20-17 victory over San Diego.

Said Davis in an interview with NFL Films: "Whenever we were in trouble, John just went to the bullpen, waved his hand, and George came in and started throwing those miraculous touchdown passes and kicking those miraculous field goals."

In looking at that incredible streak, NFL Films called Blanda "football's King Tut exhibit," noting that even though people initially thought the quarterback was too old to be a player, "he was just the right age to become a legend."

Blanda was born Sept. 17, 1927, in Youngwood, Pa., one of 11 children of a coal miner and his homemaker wife.

When Blanda entered the NFL as a 12th-round draft pick out of the University of Kentucky in 1949, he showed even more versatility by playing linebacker for George Halas' Bears. That was out of necessity, considering he was the third quarterback behind Johnny Lujack and future Hall of Famer Sid Luckman.

Blanda won the starting quarterback job in 1953 but lost it the next season because of injury. His playing time dwindled after that, and he retired in 1959 when it became clear that the Bears wanted him as a full-time kicker.

But he didn't sit around long. In 1960, he joined the Oilers of the new American Football League, and wound up playing a total of 16 more seasons in Houston and Oakland before calling it quits after the 1975 season. Among his many NFL records, he's in the books as the only player whose career spanned four decades.

Blanda made an immediate splash in the upstart AFL, earning player-of-the-year honors in 1961 after throwing for 3,330 yards and setting a pro football record with 36 touchdown passes. That stood until 1986, when it was broken by Miami's Dan Marino.

Also in 1961, Blanda tied a pro football record with seven touchdown passes in a game, a mark he now shares with Joe Kapp, Y.A. Tittle, Adrian Burk and Luckman.

"What people don't know is when we look at the film, Blanda probably could have topped that number," said Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films. "They were routing the [New York] Titans, and Blanda came out of the game early in the second half. He had seven touchdown passes midway through the third quarter when they took him out."

Sabol remembers going to Blanda's home and interviewing the recently retired quarterback. When they were finished, Blanda proudly showed him a homemade Christmas card drawn by his wife, who had been an art major in college.

It was a cartoon of Blanda standing with Santa, who told him, "You're the only little boy I gave a uniform to that's still using it."

Blanda, who split time between homes in Chicago and La Quinta, is survived by his wife, Betty, and two children.

Services are pending.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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