This Old Lion Got His Kicks Lui Passaglia, the CFL's George Blanda, will hang up his tee after 25 seasons

October 08, 2000

Although he's never met George Blanda, Lui Passaglia speaks of the
NFL legend casually, almost as if he were a friend Passaglia
bumped into the other day on a Pringles run. "George is the
best," says Passaglia. "One of a kind."

It's as if they chat from time to time, talking about the plight
of aging kickers, wondering how the current punk pretty boys
would've fared in the tough ol' days. Passaglia thinks of Blanda,
and he thinks of kinship. He thinks of himself. "We have a lot in
common," Passaglia says. "But George was a quarterback for a long
time. That's incredible. Me? I'm just a kicker."

He's 46 years old, in his 25th consecutive season with the BC
Lions of the Canadian Football League, averaging 38.4 yards per
punt, kicking field goals with stunning accuracy (27 of 29 in 13
games this season) and breaking records that were never supposed
to be broken. Passaglia is the alltime professional football
leader in games (403), field goals (862), points (3,928) and
punting yards (132,747). Oddly, however, on the brink of forming
an eternal bond with Blanda, Passaglia has turned away. Were he
to participate in the 2001 season for BC--an opportunity that
Lions general manager Adam Rita says he has been
offered--Passaglia would tie his idol's record for consecutive
seasons played, the ultimate iron-man mark. Instead, he has
announced his retirement.

"George's record called me for a long time," says Passaglia, who
will finish the season with the Lions, "but Father Time is
calling, too, and his call's a little louder."

Reality hit Passaglia last year when, while standing on the BC
sidelines, his back ached. Not from a tough hit. Not from an
awkward punt. "You know you're getting old when you're in pain
just from standing too long," he says. "You're a football
player--that's not supposed to happen. I could probably play one
more season, but I'd be stretching it. I respect this game too
much to mock it like that."

Unlike Blanda, who played with four teams from 1949 to '75,
Passaglia has played all of his games for the Lions. In fact, he
still wears the same shoulder pads--held together by tape and
string and unidentifiable goo--that he was issued in 1977. "The
league should retire his number," says Rita. "Can anyone imagine
the CFL without Lui Passaglia?"

Born in 1954 (the year of the Lions' debut season), he is the son
of Loris and Natalina Passaglia, Italian immigrants who lived in
a small house on Triumph Street, six blocks from Empire Stadium,
the original home of the Lions. As a boy, Lui would lean out his
bedroom window and hear the roar of the crowd. When he was eight,
his father took him to his first Lions game. "My dad knew nothing
about football," recalls Lui. "He wouldn't buy a ticket for me,
because he was trying to save a buck. He told the usher, 'Hey,
you're not gonna charge me for my son. He'll just sit on my
lap.'" Passaglia has forgotten the players, the opposition and
the score of that game, but he does recall the noise. "Loud," he
says. "Full of energy and excitement. I loved it."

Five years later, against the wishes of his nervous mother, Lui
signed up for the eighth-grade football team. He had quick feet
and a strong arm, which two years later would earn him the
starting quarterback job at Notre Dame High. Before one
eighth-grade game, a coach had asked for a volunteer to kick off
and punt. "I raised my hand, went out and kicked," Passaglia
says. "I never kicked a field goal until college."

That was at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University, where Passaglia
was one of the school's top receivers. In 1976, BC drafted him in
the first round as a receiver/quarterback who might kick on the
side. In his first regular-season pro game, a 32-6 loss to
Saskatchewan at Empire Stadium, he caught a 10-yard touchdown
pass from quarterback John Sciarra. "As soon as I caught it, I
thought, What more do I have to do to show that I'm a receiver,
not a kicker?" Passaglia says. "Clearly, I was ready to catch a
ton of passes." It was the last catch of his career.

Passaglia has never had a kicking coach. He is, says BC coach
Steve Buratto, "a guy you just leave alone. Lui is the ultimate
kicker. He knows it all."

As a rookie, Passaglia beat out five other kickers--including
future Detroit Lions All-Pro Eddie Murray--for the job, then hit
only 28 of 49 field goals while averaging 41.4 yards per punt. "I
remember my first exhibition game," he says. "The coach says,
'Oh, by the way, you're gonna do field goals, kickoffs and punt.
Go get 'em!'"

Through the years, Passaglia has experienced highs and lows and
all possible in-betweens. Many times, a new BC coach has brought
in a young thoroughbred to challenge Passaglia for either his
punting or kicking job, only to have the old horse retain both
gigs. The greatest moment of his career came in 1994, when
Passaglia kicked the game-winning 38-yard field goal against
Baltimore for the Grey Cup championship. It was the first time a
U.S. team had faced a Canadian team for the CFL title. The team
from Baltimore (now the Montreal Alouettes) had all American
players. "We were a mixed bag of Canadians and Americans," says
Passaglia. "We were huge underdogs--a 9-9 team with no business
being there. The people of Canada wanted it so badly."

Passaglia, running his right hand through his hair--there are gray
specks along the sideburns--says this with a certain oomph. Above
all, he is a Canadian. When he announced his retirement on Sept.
11, he did so with the good of the game in mind. Although the 5-8
Lions are in the heat of a playoff chase (six of the CFL's eight
teams make the postseason), attendance at 40,800-seat BC Place,
the stadium the Lions moved to in 1983, is averaging only 22,044
per game. On the streets of Vancouver it's easier to find
youngsters in St. Louis Rams or Seattle Seahawks shirts than in
BC Lions garb. "I was thinking that, maybe, if I announce my
retirement during the season, some more people would come out,"
Passaglia says. "I'd like to see more people interested in a
great game."

Since his rookie year, Passaglia--like many players in a league in
which the average salary in 1999 was $43,700--has regularly held
other jobs during both the season and the off-season. He's worked
as a teacher, in his family's contracting business and for an
insurance firm handling partner relations and event marketing.
It's not uncommon to see Passaglia, who is married and has four
children aged 20 to 14, casually strolling through downtown. He
is, after all, a man of the people. A man of Vancouver.
"Hopefully," he says, "they'll still remember me when I'm done."

The greatest of Canadian kickers smiles, knowing the truth of it
all. Over the past 26 years there have been hundreds of BC Lions.
There has only been one Lui Passaglia.

COLOR PHOTO: RICH FRISHMAN The 46-year-old Passaglia still wears the shoulder pads that he was issued in 1977.

"George's record called me for a long time, but Father Time is
calling, too."