George Blanda, who played professional football in five different decades and was voted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, passed away early Monday morning after a brief illness. He was 83.
Blanda's NFL career began when the Cleveland Browns were still in the All-America Football Conference, and ended the year before the 0-14 Tampa Bay Buccaneers joined the NFL. In those 26 years, he set a since-broken record for total career points, became the American Football League's first marquee quarterback, and provided a rare bastion of stability in the Oakland Raiders' teams of the 1960s and 1970s that featured head coach John Madden and a roster full of rejects, castoffs, and socially incorrect individuals. He didn't retire until he was a month shy of his 49th birthday, playing longer than anyone else in pro football history.
Blanda's career stretched from 1949 through 1975 -- he played in an unbelievable 340 games and started 109 as a quarterback. Later in his career, he became known as the best clutch kicker in the game, when he won five straight games in the 1970 season for Oakland with touchdown passes and last-second field goals. He had been released by the Raiders at the beginning of the season, but in his traditional fashion, he persevered, and loved the game too much to stop. His first retirement came in 1958, when George Halas of the Chicago Bears wanted to use him as just a kicker. Blanda jumped to the American Football League, and had the most passing attempts, completions and touchdowns in pro football for the Houston Oilers every year from 1963 to 1965.
Houston released him after the 1967 season, and the Raiders picked him up as a backup to Daryle Lamonica. Blanda came through with key kicks that helped the team to Super Bowl II, and helped the young Ken Stabler as "The Snake" came up the ranks and became the Raiders' starting quarterback. Both Blanda and Stabler played for coach Paul "Bear" Bryant in college -- Blanda starting in 1947 for Kentucky (when Stabler was 2 years old), and Stabler at Alabama from 1964 through 1967.
For Madden, Blanda was an elder statesman who was even older than the coach. But Blanda never pulled rank -- he was more interested in helping players who asked to benefit from Blanda's veteran experience.
"When I would come over to the sideline, George would critique my performance," linebacker Phil Villapiano recalled in 2007. "He would tell me about the different patterns the offense was running, and he noticed a lot of things that I couldn't see on the field. He knew more about the linebacker position than I did ... George was never gentle. There were three people on the Raiders whom you were scared of because you knew if you made a mistake they were really going to get on you -- Madden, Jim Otto and George Blanda."
"All of us at the Pro Football Hall of Fame are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of a great friend and a truly iconic figure in pro football history," Pro Football president/executive director Steve Perry said in a statement. "A seemingly ageless wonder, George inspired legions of fans with his clutch performances as a quarterback and place kicker. He will be truly missed. Our heartfelt sympathies go out to his wife Betty and the entire Blanda family."
Blanda made more history than most people know -- according to the San Francisco Chronicle, he was the first player ever taken in a fantasy football draft when the game was invented in 1962.