George Blanda, thought to be at the end of the line when he came to the Raiders in 1967, only to become a national symbol for longevity in professional football, died Monday. He was 83.
Blanda played 26 years in the National Football League and American Football League, his career largely under the radar until he went from grizzled veteran to unlikely celebrity at age 43 as a place-kicker and quarterback for the Raiders.
While there were no details about the circumstances of Blanda's death, the Raiders released a statement that said, "We are deeply saddened by the passing of the great George Blanda. George was a brave Raider and a close friend of Raiders owner Al Davis ... the miracle of George Blanda in 1970 will live for eternity in the history of the Raiders, as well as all of professional football."
Blanda, who had homes in the Chicago area and Palm Springs, is survived by his wife, Betty, to whom he was married for 60 years. Blanda attended the Raiders-Bears preseason game in Chicago on Aug. 21.
"The team and I and the coaches would like to send our hearts, thoughts and our prayers to the George Blanda family," Raiders coach Tom Cable said. "Obviously that's a tremendous loss for the entire Raider family. I got a chance to meet him in Chicago for the first time. For me, to meet one of your heroes up close was a pretty special deal."
Blanda played for the Raiders from 1967-75 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981, with Davis giving the presentation speech.
"George Blanda will always be remembered as a legend of our game," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "George's multitalented flair for the dramatic highlighted the excitement of pro football during an important period of growth for our sport."
Blanda passed for 26,920 yards and 236 touchdowns and was the first player to score 2,000 points. He played with the Chicago Bears and briefly with the Baltimore Colts in the NFL before joining the AFL in its inaugural season in 1960 with the Houston Oilers.
In a Bay Area News Group interview last month, Blanda recounted how he became a Raider.
"When I was 40 and cut by the Oilers, nobody had an interest in me except Al, so he brought me over," Blanda said. "I'm sure he was only going to give me a year. Then we went from a mediocre team in '66 to 13-1 in '67 and it kind of mushroomed from there. We got to be a pretty good football team. I was just lucky to be part of it."
Blanda remained close with Davis and attended a number of Raiders games through the years. He was friendly with veteran kickers Shane Lechler and Sebastian Janikowski.
"He was like a father figure to me," Janikowski said. "He was a great kicker and a legend."
Blanda led the Raiders to four victories and a tie in a five-game stretch in 1970 as both quarterback and kicker, games that thrust him into the spotlight. The Raiders radio announcer, the late Bill King, was so excited after Blanda's 52-yard field goal beat the Cleveland Browns he said, "George Blanda has just been elected King of the World!"
In "Blanda, Alive and Kicking," an authorized biography by the late Wells Twombly, Blanda estimated he had exactly two national stories written about him during his first 21 years in pro football.
By the end of the 1970 season, Blanda was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Time and Newsweek. He also appeared in a commercial for Brut cologne, an out-of-character experience for a no-nonsense type who often battled with reporters and didn't aspire to be famous.
He explained his coolness under fire in "Blanda, Alive and Kicking" this way: "I don't get nervous about anything in football anymore. I've done everything. I kicked field goals. I missed field goals. I've thrown touchdown passes that won games. I've had passes intercepted that lost games. What is there left to get excited over? That's why I'm so calm."
Born George Fredrick Blanda on Sept. 17, 1927, in Youngwood, Pa., the son of a Pittsburgh-area coal miner, Blanda, attended Youngwood High (playing basketball and football) and played at the University of Kentucky under Paul "Bear" Bryant.
Selected by the Chicago Bears in the 12th round of the 1949 NFL draft, Blanda signed for $600. Used mostly as a backup quarterback and place-kicker, Blanda also played linebacker.
He didn't start for the Bears until 1953, as he was injured and languished on the bench. He feuded with coach George Halas before the AFL offered an opportunity to play in 1960. He was one of the AFL's most prolific quarterbacks through 1966, winning two championships before winding up in Oakland.
Blanda said last month that when he arrived in Oakland, he was competing to be the place-kicker against Mike Eischeid and as the backup quarterback against Cotton Davidson behind starter Daryle Lamonica.
"I wanted to play football like all the guys," Blanda said. "I just went in there to help the team win. The nice thing about it is as you're older, you get to be with the young people, they keep you young."
Staff writers Jeff Faraudo and Steve Corkran contributed to this story.