For a couple of plays last Sunday, it looked like the old sorcerer had lost his touch. He had been called upon to perform what in recent weeks had become a familiar miracle: saving the Oakland Raiders from certain defeat in the final seconds. The Raiders had just fallen behind the Broncos 19-17 with four minutes and a second to play and after the Denver kickoff they had the ball on their 20-yard line. Daryle Lamonica had been the quarterback for Oakland all afternoon, but in circumstances so dire, and with Lamonica having apparently reinjured his shoulder, Raider Coach John Madden knew what he had to do. He sent in George Blanda, 43 years old, 21 years in pro football and imperturbable.
Blanda nearly threw an interception on his first pass, a screen to Hewritt Dixon for a two-yard loss, but it didn't faze him. He knelt on his left knee, spit in the palm of his right hand, rubbed his hands together and called a long pass, which he missed grievously. It was now third and 12, and the Broncos were looking for a medium-range pass that would get the first down. In the huddle Blanda called the signal, demonstrating patterns with his hands, and spit on his palm again. He was under strong pressure when he dropped back, but he ignored the rush and threw a hard, flat pass down the middle to Rod Sherman, a wide receiver who had sifted just behind the medium coverage. The pass found a crack between three defenders for a 27-yard gain and the first down. The Broncos tried to pressure Blanda again on the next play and Dixon, who was blocking, was knocked into Blanda, making him lose his balance. As Blanda was falling he snapped a pass downfield to Warren Wells. (After the game Blanda was asked why he didn't drop back a few extra yards to avoid the rush. "I'm too old to go back that far," he said.) The play was good for 35 yards to the Denver 20 and virtually insured a Raider victory. Blanda kicks field goals, too, and he seldom misses inside the 30.
A conservative man might have called three running plays and then taken the field goal, but Blanda is not a conservative man. He called another long pass and threw the ball out of bounds when his receiver was covered. Oakland was offside, Denver declined and it was second and 10 from the Denver 20. Blanda called almost the same long pass to Fred Biletnikoff, this time lifting the ball in a high, lazy arc, and it dropped into Biletnikoff's hands on the goal line for the touchdown that completed the day's magic. It was a beautifully thrown ball, a smart call and the fourth time in the last four weeks that a Blanda miracle has saved the Raiders.
Dave Grayson, the Raiders' veteran All-Pro safety, spends a lot of time defending against Blanda's throws in practice. Late this summer, when Blanda was put on waivers by the Raiders in a ploy to avoid losing a younger player, some experts speculated that he had lost his arm. "He's throwing better than he has in the last three years," says Grayson. "Some quarterbacks you can anticipate. They throw the ball about the same way every time, and once it's in the air you can make your move. But not George. You can't read him. One time he'll drill it, the next time he'll loft it a little, then he'll float it. He's tough." In the locker room following the game Blanda, naked, puffing on a cigarette, claimed he doesn't even bother to read defenses. "If I watched them," he said, "I couldn't see my receiver."
Blanda threw six passes in this game, completed four for 80 yards and a touchdown, and kicked a 32-yard field goal and three extra points. He shocked a crowd of 50,959, a Denver record, but he has made a habit of shocking Raider adversaries this year.
Certainly the Raiders would not be leading the Western Division of the American Football Conference without the extraordinary heroics of their elderly hero. On Oct. 25, after Lamonica was hurt, Blanda came in against the Pittsburgh Steelers late in the first period with the Raiders leading 7-0. On his first play, from the Steeler 29, he threw a touchdown pass to rookie Ray Chester but the play was nullified on account of holding and the Steelers scored to make it 7-7. Then Blanda went to work in the face of a fierce blitz Pittsburgh mounted in an attempt to cow him. He passed 44 yards to Warren Wells for one touchdown, kicked a 27-yard field goal set up by his passes and passed 19 yards to Chester for another touchdown, giving the Raiders a 24-7 half-time lead. In the second half he added a 40-yard touchdown pass to Chester and Oakland won the game 31-14.
"I guess the Steelers didn't realize we like people to blitz us," Blanda said last week. "When they blitz, they have to use single coverage on our receivers and nobody can do that. I got two touchdowns against the blitz and then they quit it."
Although the blitz opens the receivers, it also means that Blanda usually gets splattered a split second after releasing the ball. Fortunately, he is a very durable man. "I've only been hurt once in 21 seasons," he said. "That was in 1954 when I was trying to run, which no quarterback ought to do except in desperation. It was against Cleveland and Don Colo and Len Ford sandwiched me and I got a complete separation in my right shoulder and missed the last four games of the season."
On Nov. 1, in a game with Kansas City for the division lead, Blanda kicked a 48-yard field goal on the next to the last play of the game to get Oakland a 17-17 tie. Said Blanda, "When I make talks at booster clubs and places, I guess the question most people ask all the time is what do I think about when I line up for a kick like that. They want to know if I feel the pressure, but I never think about that. I concentrate on looking at the spot where the ball will be put and watching the spotter's hands. When he starts to reach out for the ball I take a short step with my right foot, stride with my left and kick. If it's a long kick, like the one against Kansas City, I take a little longer step with my right foot."
On Nov. 8, with the Raiders trailing the Cleveland Browns 17-13 and a little over 11 minutes left in the game, Lamonica was again hurt and Blanda again took over. A Cleveland field goal made it 20-13, but with 1:32 to go Blanda passed to Wells for a 14-yard touchdown. Then, with three seconds remaining, he took a rather longer than usual step with his right foot and kicked a 52-yard field goal to win the game 23-20. That soaring kick made Blanda the first citizen of Oakland, the darling of Jack London Square and the target of innumerable well-wishers and autograph hounds.
Blanda, who looks like a combination of an old Don Meredith and a young John Wayne, is finally enjoying the acclaim that has come to him so late in his career. At 43, he is the oldest active quarterback in pro football history. When he played in his first game for the Chicago Bears back in 1949 Sid Luck-man was still on the club and Norman Van Brocklin, now the coach of the Atlanta Falcons, was a rookie quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams, chafing on the sidelines while Bob Waterfield led the team. Lamonica was in the third grade.
As a Bear rookie, Blanda played linebacker, kicked field goals and was third-string quarterback behind Luckman and Johnny Lujack. He stayed with Chicago for 10 years—once kicking 156 extra points in a row and winning and losing the starting quarterback's job a couple of times—before joining Houston in 1960, the AFL's inaugural year. During his seven seasons with the Oilers he established 19 career, season and game records, including a season record of 36 touchdown passes (1961) and most passes attempted and completed in a game (68 and 37 in 1964).
Despite his age, Blanda feels no more aches and pains on the Monday after a tough game than he did when he was with the Bears. However, he makes a few small concessions to his years. Every Monday morning, for example, he goes to the Executive House in Oakland for a steam bath and a rubdown. Although he claims he isn't superstitious, this is the first act in an unvarying week-long ritual that Blanda has followed all season. "It's not superstition as much as that I just like to have a set routine and do everything the same way, the way I like to," he says. "And there's no use changing the routine if it's working, is there?"
Last Monday, after his steam bath, Blanda drove to Sacramento, where he talked at a. booster club dinner, stayed overnight, then returned to Oakland in time for Tuesday morning practice. The Raiders watched movies of the Cleveland game and a film of the Denver-San Diego game on Nov. 8. The workout was an easy one, but Lamonica, who had suffered a severe shoulder bruise against the Browns, couldn't throw. For the last three weeks Blanda had split time almost evenly with Lamonica in practice; now he shared it with Kenny Stabler, the third quarterback. "If we're behind and Daryle gets hurt, I usually go in," he said. "If we're well ahead, Kenny does." When George Blanda began playing pro football, Kenny Stabler was three years old.
On Wednesday the Raiders had a long workout, concentrating on defense; Thursday's workout was mostly offense. On Wednesday, as part of his ritual, Blanda had another steam bath and rub-down at the Executive House. That night he ate alone at Francesco's in Oakland, yet another part of his pregame routine, then went to a quarterback meeting to get the game plan for Denver.
Thursday night he ate at The Grotto, a Fish restaurant in Jack London Square, which is Oakland's answer to San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. He was with his wife and a friend and he sat at the same table by a window overlooking the water, in the same seat that he sits in every Thursday and Friday night.
He ordered turbot and a salad ("I've got to watch what I eat," he said. "Seems like if I even look hard at food I gain weight") and he was interrupted half a dozen times by friends and autograph-seekers, but Blanda is a friendly man and he signed menus uncomplainingly. At the next table a large party from San Francisco had finished dinner and was lingering. A young man in the party, emboldened by after-dinner drinks, leaned over and tapped Blanda on the shoulder.
"I'm from San Francisco," he said, "and I think John Brodie and the 49ers can take you."
Blanda looked at him and laughed. "John who?" he said.
Later, as Blanda was having coffee, two Raider linemen, Harry Schuh and Tom Keating, joined him. Blanda had been talking about the vicissitudes of life under the blitz and he said, "I don't believe in getting mad if a guy misses a block and I get hit. I don't yell at the players. Everybody gets beat sometime."
"Hey," said Keating, a defensive tackle, "I remember you hollering."
"When was that?" Blanda said.
"When you were playing for the Oilers," Keating said with relish. "I got to you once and sacked you, and you got up and I thought you were going to hit me with the ball until I saw Bob Talamini ducking."
"Yeah," said Blanda. "Now I remember. But I wasn't mad at him for missing the block on you. I had a receiver open, and if I'd had another second we'd have had six."
The next day, driving to Bay Meadows—a Friday afternoon ritual—Blanda said, "I guess some people wouldn't go to the track on Friday the 13th, but I'm not superstitious about things like that. I've gone every Friday this season, and I've been pretty fortunate. I haven't had a losing day yet."
Blanda grew interested in horse racing when he was a quarterback for Bear Bryant at the University of Kentucky, and he is a serious bettor, studying the Daily Racing Form carefully before making a bet. But on this Friday the 13th George Blanda ran out of luck. He won only one race and the horse he bet on was named Rosie George, whom Blanda insisted he picked solely by superior handicapping. At any rate, Rosie George loped home 2¼ lengths ahead of a rather scruffy field: he paid only $4.80, probably having been bet down by Raider fans.
On the way back to Oakland, Blanda was philosophical about his losses. "All the long shots came in today," he said. "When that happens I'm dead. This was the day for the little old ladies who stick a pin in their program." He lit a super-king-size cigarette, keeping his eyes on the road. "Not that I like to lose," he went on. "Anything I do, I want to win. I had six brothers and four sisters and I competed with my brothers every day when I was a kid. If you lost in my family, they kidded the pants off you until you won again."
Blanda is a competitor in whatever he does. He is a daring poker player, with a knack for successful bluffing. "When I run a bluff on a guy and chase him," he says, "I make a point of showing him my cards so he'll know it. Doesn't hurt to get him a little mad and coming after you, and the next time I may not be bluffing." He also plays golf to a six handicap, handles a pool cue with skill and is a formidable gin rummy and cribbage player, one of his favorite partners being Leslie, his 14-year-old daughter. "After dinner on Thursdays, I usually play cribbage with her," he says. "She beats me a lot, too."
Friday night he took his wife and Leslie back to The Grotto to observe still another one of his rituals. They sat at their table by the water and Leslie had a hamburger steak because that is what she ordered the first time they ate there. Fortunately, Leslie likes hamburger steaks.
The Raiders flew to Denver early Saturday afternoon and arrived to find a powdering of snow on the ground, which didn't surprise them. Oakland has never played in Denver without there being snow on the ground, even in September. The team ate together at the Continental Denver, a motel near Mile High Stadium. Then Blanda retired to his room, where he played cribbage with Mike Eischeid, the Oakland punter, who is his roomie. When the Raiders are in Oakland, they still spend the night before games at a motel and Blanda and Eischeid play cribbage, then get up at 8 a.m. and play until the stroke of 9, when they go to breakfast.
"In Oakland I drive to the stadium exactly the same way before every game," Blanda says. "At 11:30 I get a cup of coffee in the dressing room, then I go out and sit by myself in the stands for a few minutes. Each Sunday the same two guys, friends of mine, come by and we talk for a little. Then I go back in and dress. Of course, it's different on the road."
During the off season Blanda lives in a suburb of Chicago, where he is an executive for Railway Express; the president of the company is a close friend of his. He makes a handsome salary outside of football and he doesn't play the game for money alone. "I didn't have much fun the 10 years I played with the Bears," he said before the Denver game. "But I'm enjoying it out here. I guess I'm lucky."
He should be. He works at it.