Tom Brady, the 45-year-old Tampa Bay quarterback who is often said to be ageless, has smashed nearly every NFL record that he can – one notable exception is held by an ageless predecessor, a grizzled quarterback and kicker who finally stopped playing because his team cut him.
George Frederick Blanda was of Slovak heritage, and his dad was a Pittsburgh coal miner. He played his final NFL game on 4 January 1976, at the age of 48 years, 109 days, a record that still stands. Blanda intended to keep playing, but he was not in the Oakland Raiders’ plans.
“After 26 years in this business, I guess I can come to grips with the facts of life. I just wish they’d said something,” Blanda grumbled to reporters after the Raiders let him go.
Brady has been compared with Blanda lately because the seven-time Super Bowl champion has all but run out of things to accomplish. The exception is the NFL’s longevity record – something in which Blanda, who died at 83 in 2010, apparently took a lot of pride.
“He wasn’t a bad guy. He just didn’t suffer fools,” says Frank Cooney, a veteran sports writer who covered Blanda and the Raiders for the San Francisco Examiner.
Cooney was one of the reporters to whom Blanda gave an interview after he was cut. There were conditions: the reporters had to help him load his car first. There would be no news conference, no farewell tour. Most of Blanda’s answers were only two or three words, anyway.
“He had his more endearing moments – but not often,” Cooney says.
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Ron Borges, then a 23-year-old in his first season on the Raiders beat for the Sacramento Union, now says, “We were 25 years and a worldview apart, but I had a lot of respect for his toughness and the fact that there was no situation in a football game that flustered him. If he knew what pressure was, he never let on. He was a tough guy who could be irascible at times, but he was also clutch, honest and straightforward.”
Brady announced in February that he was retiring, only to take it back 40 days later. That was nothing compared with Blanda, who retired from football for the first time 17 years before the Raiders pushed him out of the NFL for good.
The Chicago Bears, his first NFL team, had told him he was too old in 1958, when he was still in his early 30s. So the Houston Oilers of the fledgling AFL signed Blanda in 1960 after a one-year retirement, and he led them to two AFL titles. But they released him in 1967. Too old, again.
The Raiders signed him, and he played through the 1969 season – but was released again during the 1970 exhibition season. Too old, again! The Raiders later re-signed him for the 1970 regular season mainly to be their kicker, but Blanda then became an American legend.
“At a time of his life when he should be sitting in the stands with a thermos of hot chicken soup, he is sparking the Oakland Raiders to some unbelievable victories,” the late humor columnist Erma Bombeck wrote.
Brady has extended his career through meticulous diet and exercise, so he looks darn good for 45. With matted, graying hair and thick sideburns, Blanda looked at that age as if he’d used his face for place-kicking practice with his square-toed shoe.
“He was 48, but in my mind’s eye, he was 70,” Cooney says.
But he cut a romantic figure. Blanda would become an ideal national spokesman for Grecian Formula, the men’s hair-coloring product. “Someone you know may be using Grecian Formula, and you might not even know it,” he’d say in the TV commercials.
Brady has been in the national spotlight since he stepped in for the injured Drew Bledsoe early in his second pro season and won the first of his seven Super Bowls a few months later. Blanda, on the other hand, did not emerge as an American pop-culture figure until he was 43.
He’d had a very good 17 years for the Bears and Oilers – he was the 1961 AFL MVP – but he emerged as a “man for the middle ages,” as Dave Distel of the Los Angeles Times put it, a month into the 1970 season, after starter Daryle Lamonica was sidelined with back spasms in a game against Pittsburgh.
Coach John Madden had Blanda on the team basically to kick, so he’d thrown just 11 touchdown passes in his first three seasons in Oakland. But in the Raiders’ 31-14 victory on 25 October, he threw three touchdown passes, adding two extra points and three field goals.
Then it got crazy. Lamonica returned at quarterback a week later, but Blanda kicked two extra points, adding a 48-yard field goal that barely cleared the outstretched hand of 6ft 10in Kansas City tight end Morris Stroud in the final seconds to tie the rival Chiefs, 17-17.
Lamonica jammed his shoulder in the fourth quarter a week later against the Cleveland Browns, so Blanda drove the Raiders 69 yards to tie the game with 1 minutes 34 seconds left, then kicked a 52-yard field goal with three seconds left for a 23-20 victory.
“Let George do it! That’s what our guys now think,” proclaimed Ben Davidson, the Raiders’ mammoth defensive end.
The next week at Denver, Blanda replaced Lamonica late in the game and drove the Raiders 80 yards for a winning touchdown. Lamonica returned again and led the Raiders to a 20-17 victory over the San Diego Chargers, but Blanda, who’d missed two field goals earlier, kicked a goal with eight seconds left to win the game. “Blanda for Mayor” buttons were handed to fans after the game.
Blanda threw only 55 passes that season, and he and the Raiders lost the AFC title game to Baltimore, but he won the Bert Bell Award, chosen by the Maxwell Football Club, as the NFL’s most valuable player, and was named as the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year.
“Why, this George Blanda is as good as his father, who used to play for Houston,” Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt said, tongue in cheek, playfully comparing the same quarterback at two stages of his career.
Blanda would last five more seasons, almost exclusively as a kicker, though he did complete a pass against the Chiefs in the final regular-season game in 1975. He kicked an extra point and a field goal in the AFC title game, but the Raiders lost to Pittsburgh, 16-10.
That would be his last game, though he was certainly not planning it that way. The Raiders selected a kicker, Fred Steinfort of Boston College, in the 1976 draft, and Blanda figured he was as an insurance policy, in case the rookie bombed.
When he was cut, Blanda told reporters, “This makes the third time a team has declared me too old to play, only this time, they might be right.”
Blanda mused: Who else would want a 48-year-old kicker with a $90,000 contract? No one, it turned out.
Borges says, “Madden knew the players had complete confidence in Blanda’s ability to deliver, so if he outshined the Raiders’ new young kicker the pressure would be on to keep him. He’d proven himself in the clutch an incredible amount of times in the nine years he was with the Raiders. Who was this kid taking his job?”
The Raiders won the Super Bowl that season, but Steinfort was hurt in mid-season and was replaced by Errol Mann. Steinfort played only one season in Oakland. The Raiders invited Blanda to the AFC title game, but it was Christmastime, and he wanted to be with his family.
Blanda set seven career NFL records, including most points, 2,002. (Adam Vinatieri now holds the record with 2,673 points.) Blanda was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981, in his first year of eligibility.
Brady still has three years to go before he catches Blanda. Brady makes it sound as if he is taking things one year at a time, but maybe he will do the right thing and decide to bow out before the 109th day of his 49th year – just so another ironman’s standard can endure.