Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Grand Old Blanda Makes Final Pass

I collected primarily baseball cards as an adolescent. They were, in some respect, my closest friends during those unsure and impressionable years. But a pack of football cards regularly found its way into my shoeboxes. Along with my bubble gum–scented diamond heroes, I equally cherished gridiron icons such as Bob Griese, my pitiful pre-Vermeil Eagles, and, heretically for a Philadelphia-area boy, my favorite player, Roger Staubach—most of them holding ridiculous poses for the lazy and unimaginative photographer. But one player in my football-card collection filled me with wonder: George Blanda. He sat in profile, head somberly in hands, a river delta of creases flanking his eye, and, most curiously, more silver in his hair than on his vaunted Oakland Raiders jersey. How could a man that old still be playing professional football? I had probably seen him kick field goals or extra points during a televised playoff game, but his helmet obscured that aged coif, so Blanda never achieved memorability on screen as he did from my football card.

In those days before the Internet, and even easily accessible sports encyclopedias, I gleaned virtually all of my sports knowledge from the reverse side of trading cards, where the statistics were listed and proved each player’s greatness or mediocrity. George Blanda’s fascinated me. His statistics went all the way back to 1949! How was that possible? Wasn’t that, like, right around World War II? I’d never seen so many rows on the back of a trading card. There was no room for the player’s standard capsule description. So many rows, in fact, that Topps didn’t even have space for his biographical information. This Blanda had no equal—not even the Kansas City Royals Lindy McDaniel, whose reduced-sized print went all the way back to a medieval 1955. But the Forties! Ancient Blanda surely must have played against Red Grange, the only black-and-white football legend of whom I was aware.

But wait—the front of Blanda’s card surreally denoted that he was not only Oakland’s kicker, but its quarterback as well! I knew he wasn’t the Raiders’ starter, because I counted my fellow southpaw, Ken Stabler, among my favorite players, but this silver-haired geezer played quarterback and kicked? Blanda was some kind of superman, even if I couldn’t ascertain his passing statistics from the back of his card, which only displayed his ungodly kicking totals. In actuality, not a superman—Blanda had merely been “elected King of the World” by Raiders radio voice, Bill King, a few seasons earlier, after a remarkable five-week run of second-string heroics achieved with both arm and leg. Several years elapsed before I realized that the multi-positional Blanda was the last of a dying breed—even spending part of his early career as a linebacker. It took a few more years until I learned the history of the AFL and that Blanda had led the Houston Oilers to its first two championships in the upstart league.

Despite his success in the AFL and his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Blanda never won a Super Bowl, set the all-time record for interceptions thrown, and was quickly being pushed down prestigious career lists by beneficiaries of an increasingly pass-oriented NFL. Yet, for me, the silver-haired man with his head in his hands and stats that almost ran off the bottom of his football card retains a powerful aura as a player of unique toughness and resiliency.

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