George Blanda, a quarterback and place-kicker who played professional football longer than anyone else and who retired having scored more points than anyone else, died Monday. He was 83.
The Oakland Raiders announced his death but provided no details. Blanda finished his career with the Raiders, playing for them from 1967 until his retirement, at 48, just before the 1976 season.
Elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981, Blanda played for 26 seasons and was one of only two men to have played in four separate decades. (Jeff Feagles, a recently retired punter, is the other.) Blanda played in the National Football League, the American Football League and, after the leagues merged in 1970, the unified N.F.L.
He began his career in 1949 with the Chicago Bears, playing for George Halas, the legendary coach and team owner who helped shape pro football in its early years.
He finished playing for Al Davis, the Raiders’ legendary owner (and one-time coach) who helped shape the contemporary professional game.
Blanda was a reliable kicker with a strong enough leg to have blasted a 55-yard field goal in 1961 and, nine years later, a 52-yarder. And he was a guileful, gutsy quarterback, a pocket passer who was never known for his arm strength or accuracy, his agility or his foot speed but who stood up to rushing linemen, saw the whole field and often delivered his best performances when the most was at stake.
“Blanda had a God-given killer instinct to make it happen when everything was on the line,” Davis said to The Sporting News in 1989.
“I really believe that George Blanda is the greatest clutch player I have ever seen in the history of pro football.”
Davis had a firsthand look at Blanda’s most famous stretch of games. On Sunday, Oct. 25, 1970, Blanda stepped in for the Raiders’ injured starting quarterback, Daryle Lamonica, and threw for three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to beat Pittsburgh.
The next Sunday, against the Kansas City Chiefs, he kicked a 48-yard field goal, salvaging a tie with eight seconds left in the game. The week after that, against the Cleveland Browns, Blanda entered the game with a little more than four minutes to play and the Raiders down by a touchdown. He threw a touchdown pass, kicked the extra point, drove the team into position for the winning field goal and kicked it — that 52-yarder — with three seconds on the clock.
The next Sunday, he beat Denver with a late touchdown pass; the Sunday after that, he beat San Diego with a last-minute field goal. Five straight weeks he saved the game; he was 43 at the time.
“He never got older,” The Sporting News once wrote of Blanda. “He just got better. He was the epitome of the grizzled veteran, the symbol of everlasting youth.”
George Frederick Blanda was born on Sept. 17, 1927, in Youngwood, in western Pennsylvania, an area that has produced more than its share of Hall of Fame quarterbacks, including John Unitas, Joe Namath and Joe Montana. His father was a coal miner.
Blanda played college ball at the University of Kentucky, where his coach was Bear Bryant, who went on to win six national championships at the University of Alabama. In 1949, Blanda was drafted by Halas’s Bears, who already had celebrated quarterbacks in Sid Luckman and Johnny Lujack.
Just before the 1950 season, the Bears traded Blanda to the Baltimore Colts, but the day after the Colts’ first-ever game, a 42-0 loss, he was sent back to the Bears.
Halas never warmed up to Blanda as a quarterback, and Blanda spent the first decade of his career mostly as a kicker. He started as a quarterback for one season, 1953, but lost the job because of an injury.
In any case, he and Halas never got along. “He was too cheap to even buy me a kicking shoe,” Blanda once said.
An incident from Blanda’s bench-warming days in Chicago, recalled by The Houston Chronicle in 2003, sums up Halas’s attitude toward Blanda: “Once, the Bears were getting crushed in the second half and the crowd started to chant, ‘We want Blanda. We want Blanda.’ Halas looked down the bench and barked, ‘Blanda.’ George jumped to his feet and ran over to his coach, buckling his helmet. Halas jerked his thumb toward the stands and said, ‘Get up there. They’re calling for you.’ ”
Before the 1959 season, tired of only kicking, Blanda retired. A year later, however, the American Football League was born, and he became the starting quarterback for the Houston Oilers, leading them to the league’s first two championships.
In one game, he threw seven touchdown passes, a feat only four other professional quarterbacks have equaled. He was voted the A.F.L player of the year in 1961.
His survivors include his wife, Betty. Neither the Raiders nor the N.F.L. could provide information about other survivors.
Blanda’s career record showed 1,911 completions out of 4,007 passes for 26,920 yards, 236 touchdowns and 277 interceptions (including 42 in 1962, a record).
He kicked 335 field goals and more extra points (943) than anyone else in football history. He rushed for nine touchdowns during his career, which gave him a total of 2,002 points, a record at the time.
Blanda was judged to be too old for pro ball after the 1966 season, when the Oilers wanted him to retire. Instead he went to the Raiders. He had only nine more seasons in him.