If Al Davis supplied the canvas and paint for the creation of Oakland Raiders mystique, George Blanda may have been the first man to grab a brush and get to work.
Of course he was. As the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner, Blanda grew up during the Great Depression and therefore understood the value of labor. He embraced its symbolism, allowed it to shape his persona. He was unfailingly blunt and opinionated -- and as tireless as he was ageless.
What made Blanda the athlete unique, though, was his utter defiance of age. He greeted his 40th birthday with a nod and a grunt, shook the cold hand of Father Time and told him where to go.
Old Man Time seemed to honor the request, as some of Blanda's best work as a quarterback and kicker came after he turned 40. He played his last NFL game at 48 and retired a month before he turned 49.
Blanda, who died Monday at 83, is most famous as the original Raiders Miracle Man, crafting late-game heroics when future stars such as Kenny Stabler, Dave Casper and Clarence Davis were learning how to spell "comeback." All it took was five consecutive unforgettable games by the man with the Mount Rushmore visage and sideburns as dense as whisk brooms.
With the Raiders contending for an AFC title in 1970, Blanda set sail on an incredible voyage, from Oct. 25 through Nov. 22, which made him a local legend and a national hero.
He came off the bench to throw three touchdown passes in a comeback
The journey continued for two more weeks, with Blanda throwing a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to vanquish the Broncos in Denver and kicking another late field goal to polish off San Diego.
It was among the most remarkable streaks in sports history, enough to convince voters to give the NFL Player of the Year award to Blanda and for Davis to later say Blanda was the "greatest clutch player the game of pro football has ever known."
Though the Raiders already were established winners -- 1970 was their fourth straight trip to the playoffs -- it was Blanda's amazing run that stamped them as legendary.
What's more remarkable is that Blanda performed these feats at an age (43) when most football players had traded their uniforms and equipment for a coach's whistle or a couch.
Blanda played for another five seasons before concluding a career that spanned two leagues (AFL and NFL) and four decades (the 1940s, '50s, '60s and '70s). He began his career as a backup quarterback to Sid Luckman, ended as a backup to Stabler and remains the oldest man to suit up in the NFL.
In between, Blanda made a name for himself as one of the toughest men, ever. Over the course of his 26-year career, Blanda played four positions: quarterback, kicker, linebacker and safety.
"I hate when people lump me in with kickers that last a long time," he told ESPN a few years ago. "I have respect for guys like Morten Andersen, but I was a football player -- not just a kicker."
That was Blanda, unfiltered candor. During a phone conversation a few years back, I sought his opinion of today's game. He said he loved it but didn't always understand the coaching.
"Take this 'prevent defense' stuff," he began. "Why? All it does is get you beat. I see it happen all the time. I don't understand why coaches keep doing it.
"I was a quarterback, and I know what I hated. I hated to see pressure. All quarterbacks hate pressure. Give a guy all day to throw, and he'll find somebody, no matter how many guys are dropping back into coverage. I say come after a guy and make him beat you."
Blanda might have made a fine coach -- if only he didn't know precisely what he liked, exactly what he believed and was a bit more willing to suffer the foolishness of his superiors. He was crusty and proud of it. While many athletes are throwbacks to the old school, Blanda was its superintendent.
He earned several nicknames, including that of the Ageless Wonder, but no title was more fitting than that which was bestowed upon him by the late, great announcer Bill King.
"George Blanda," King said after the winning field goal against Cleveland, "has been elected King of the World."
Contact Monte Poole at firstname.lastname@example.org.