In this edition of Taking a Look in the Bears History Book, we're going to look at a former Bear who, while he was only a starter with us for one season, went on to play 26 seasons (the most in the sport's history) of professional football: George "The Grand Old Man" Blanda.
It's going to be a long ride, so sit back, buckle up, and read on! :]
Follow me after the jump where we will begin with a little background information about this fascinating man:
George Frederick Blanda was born in 1927 to a Pittsburgh area coal miner. He had 6 brothers, all of whom were outstanding high school athletes, and to whom he credited his competitive nature. He was even quoted insisting that, in some quarters, he is still considered the "fourth best kicker and the third best quarterback in the Blanda family."
Blanda was one of only 3 boys in his family to go to college. He went to University of Kentucky where he was a quarterback and kicker. Bear Bryant arrived as head coach during Blanda's sophomore year.
Recalling the time he met Bryant, Blanda said: "I thought this must be what God looks like."
He was the starting quarterback his last two seasons at Kentucky. During these seasons, he compiled 120 completions in 242 passes (49.6 percentage), 1,451 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions.
Although Chicago had 3 well-known quarterbacks already on their roster - Sid Luckman, Johnny Lujack, and Bobby Lane - and that it was said that Blanda would never succeed in professional football, "Papa Bear" Halas signed Blanda as a 12th-round pick for a $6000 contract and a $600 bonus in 1949.
"What could I do?" George remembers. "That's an awful lot of money for a 21-year-old kid who'd never had anything in his life."
Blanda primarily played quarterback, as well as placekicker. He also played a little defense at the linebacker position. In his first preseason game, he found great success. The score was 0-0 when he came in during the third-quarter. He proceeded to throw a 40-yd touchdown strike to George McAfee on the first play! He continued to have a seven for seven day along with 2 more scoring passes to win the game 34-0.
However, Blanda never rose up in the ranks like his preseason game would have predicted. Finally, in 1953, 4 years after he signed with the Bears, Blanda became the top signal caller for the team, but injured his shoulder the following year, ending his first string status. For the next 4 years, he was used mostly in a kicking capacity.
Blanda's relationship with Halas was usually quite a rocky one. Take this quote for example:
Later commenting on his testy relationship with Halas, Blanda noted, "he was too cheap to even buy me a kicking shoe." Blanda later reflected that by the 1950s the pro game had moved beyond Halas, who seemed to lack the interest he had earlier.
In 1959, Blanda retired. He balked at the idea of being a kicker only, which is what Chicago asked of him. He retired after 10 years of pro experience, at 31-years-old.
However, Blanda was not finished yet. In 1960, Blanda was signed by the Houston Oilers as a quarterback and kicker. Here is his time with Houston in a nutshell:
He went on to lead the Oilers to the first two league titles in AFL history, and he won AFL Player of the Year honors in 1961. Blanda once passed for 7 TDs in one game, and 36 in a season, 1961. Thirteen times he threw four or more touchdown passes in a game, and once he unleashed 68 passes, for Houston against Buffalo on Nov. 1, 1964. For three straight years, 1963 through 1965, he led the league in passing attempts and completions, and was in the top ten for attempts, completions, yards and touchdowns for seven straight years. He was a four-time member of the American Football League All-Star team.
In 1967, Blanda left the Oilers, but was picked up by the Oakland Raiders, who felt he would make a fine backup passer and dependable kicker.
Some facts about his time in Oakland:
During that first season, his kicking skills helped him lead the AFL in scoring with 116 points. In two instances, his leg helped play a role in Raider victories: a trio of field goals helped upset the defending league champion Kansas City Chiefs on October 1; in the closing weeks of the regular season, Blanda booted four field goals behind a hostile Houston crowd in a 19-7 victory over his former team, the Oilers, helping gain a measure of revenge.
In a game against San Diego, George made the winning field goal with seven seconds left to play (making the score 20-17). The fact that he was 43 years old at the time made the feat an "event for the ages." Humorist Erma Bombeck wrote:
After George beat Cleveland, my husband announced he was going to jog all the way to the garbage can in the morning.
With the Raiders, Blanda went to Super Bowl II, but the next two seasons the team lost the final two AFL Championship games in the 10-year league history.
After Blanda's 10 years with the Bears, seven years with the Oilers, and 9 years with the Raiders, he retired with a just a month left before his 49th birthday, before the 1976 season.
After retiring, Blanda has become a member of the American Football Hall of Fame, the University of Kentucky Hall of Fame, along with many other accomplishments (including becoming the AFL's All Team Placekicker of All-Time). He has also remained a strong AFL supporter, and has 11 children with his wife, Betty Harris.
One more fun fact about Blanda:
In an episode of the TV series Happy Days, set in the 1950s, Richie Cunningham (played by Ron Howard) and Ralph Malph (Donny Most) watch a televised game in which Blanda and the Bears struggle. Ralph says that Blanda is finished in football. Richie says that Blanda has a few more years left. The joke was that Blanda, 20 years later at the time of the show's filming, was still playing.
Now, the records held by Blanda, and why they call him, "The Grand Old Man":
Blanda finished his 26 Professional Football seasons having completed 1,911 of 4,007 pass attempts for 26,920 yards and 236 touchdowns. Blanda also held the NFL record for most interceptions thrown with 277, until Brett Favre broke it on October 14, 2007. He rushed for 344 yards and 9 touchdowns on the ground, kicked 335 of 641 field goals, and 943 of 959 extra points, giving him 2,002 total points. Additional stats include 1 interception, 2 kickoff returns for 19 yards, 22 punts for 809 yards, and 23 fumble recoveries.
Here are the current records (I could find) held by George Blanda:
-Most passing touchdowns in a game: 7 (Tied with 4 others) November 19, 1961 vs. New York Titans
-Most seasons played: 26 (1949-58, 1960-75)
-Most seasons scoring a point: 26
-One of two players to play in 4 different decades: (40s, 50s, 60s, 70s) - Jeff Feagles being the other
-Most PATs made (943) and attempted (959)
-Most interceptions thrown, single season: 42 (1962)
-Held record of most pass attempts in a single game: 68 (37 completions vs. New York Titans in 1961) until 1994 when Drew Bledsoe had 70
-Oldest person to play in an NFL game: 48 years, 109 days
-First player ever to score over 2,000 points
-Oldest quarterback to start a title game
-Third fewest receiving yards in a career: -16
-Most total points accounted for (including TD passes) in a career: 3,418 (which is not an official stat)
I found George Blanda fascinating. We all though Brett Favre played too long, but look at all that Blanda did in his time! Even though he played a lot more positions, do you think Favre will last as long? (I hope not!)
Side Note: I included many of my sources within the article (as per usual) but if you want more information or to see some of the other references I double-checked with, etc. just let me know and I can hook ya up!
Any other players you'd like to see on Taking A Look in the Bears History Book? Send me an email and let me know!