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I KEEP GETTING MY KICKS
George Blanda
July 19, 1971
The world's oldest quarterback was the dramatic hero of the 1970 pro season and the idol of the aging. In this first of a three-part series he tells of his competitive youth, his rise to oblivion (i.e., quarterbacking the Chicago Bears) and his premature retirement 13 years ago—a mistake he will never willingly repeat
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July 19, 1971

I Keep Getting My Kicks

The world's oldest quarterback was the dramatic hero of the 1970 pro season and the idol of the aging. In this first of a three-part series he tells of his competitive youth, his rise to oblivion (i.e., quarterbacking the Chicago Bears) and his premature retirement 13 years ago—a mistake he will never willingly repeat

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I tell you all this for a reason. That coal country of western Pennsylvania has produced more fine athletes per square mile than any other part of the United States, and I think you can begin to see why. In the coal country nobody has a whole lot, right? So they learn the pleasures of competing, and they raise competition to a fine art, and that's what produces great athletes. Did you think it was an accident that Stan Musial came from Donora, 20 miles from Youngwood, or that Arnie Palmer came from Latrobe, nine miles down the road? The list is endless. Look at the quarterbacks alone. John Unitas came from Pittsburgh, 30 miles west of Youngwood. Johnny Lujack came from Connellsville, 10 miles away, Babe Parilli from nearby Rochester, Pa., Terry Hanratty from Butler. And there's that kid from Beaver Falls who pricked the NFL's big bag of gas and made them like it.

Naturally, when competition is so heavily stressed, organized sport is a big deal. I played everything. I was all-county in basketball and all-county in football. Youngwood High School was very small, and I was the track team. I was self-instructed—we had no track coach—and I specialized in the field events. I used to carry the javelin along the ground, and I'd get a terrible whiplash across my back as I'd throw it, because I had no form at all, just power. I taught myself to throw the discus and put the shot, too, and by the time I was a senior I was going to interscholastic track meets as Youngwood's sole representative. I could usually figure on picking up firsts in the discus, shot and javelin. They'd introduce the Youngwood track team, and I'd come running out in my overalls, T shirt and high-top sneakers and start throwing.

I guess I was pretty well scouted by the college football coaches. I scored 15 touchdowns as a halfback and I did all the kicking and punting. It was nothing for me in those days to kick a ball 70 or 80 yards. Heck, kicking was a family tradition. We practiced it by the hour.

I wound up at Kentucky under the whirlwind coach of them all, Mr. Paul (Bear) Bryant, and what an influence he was! Playing for Paul Bryant is like going to war; you may come out intact, but you'll never forget the experience. I have never worked as hard in my life.

Somehow Bear tagged me at first as a blocking quarterback in the old Notre Dame box formation, and this really frosted me. I was a kicker, a punter, a passer and a runner, and I'd be damned if I was going to rumble around the back-field like a truck, blocking for other people. So I played bad, and Bear temporarily demoted me to linebacker on the B team. I went crazy. The first time we scrimmaged the varsity I must have made 10 straight tackles, and I tried to kill everybody I tackled. It got so bad that one of the varsity halfbacks cursed me and kicked me in the face after I'd made an especially vicious tackle. I didn't care. It was competition.

The Bear taught me discipline, respect, dedication. We were so tired after football practice that we could hardly lift our feet, and we still had to run to the locker room, because when you played for Bear, you ran every place. If he caught you walking, he'd tell you to turn in your uniform. Thank you, Bear, for that miserable, instructive background. I think it might have something to do with the fact that I'm still playing today.

After four successful seasons on the Kentucky varsity, I was drafted 12th by the Chicago Bears, which meant I had the privilege of meeting a man who was just as hard-nosed as Bear Bryant but nowhere near as helpful. I refer to George Halas, "Papa Bear," the man who practically invented pro football. You might as well know at the outset: I don't like George Halas. I don't get along with him. But I'll always respect him. He fought and kicked and screamed and hollered to make pro football and the Chicago Bears successful enterprises. He kept the game above water during the 1930s almost by the sheer force of his own will. He's been very faithful to those who've been faithful to him, helping ex-Bears when they're down and out, helping them get jobs, lending them money. So I've got to respect certain things about George Halas. But I don't have to like him. He took away my best 10 years in pro football, and all he gave me in return was a dead sparrow and a piece of string. He thinks that the game is won or lost by the masterminds (like himself) who pull the strings on the sidelines. Never mind the players; they're just the pieces that the great chess master moves around in his infinite wisdom. Halas has won two league championships in the last 25 years, and personally I don't think he'll ever win another one till he either retires or disabuses himself of his chess-master approach and learns how to teach simple, fundamental football, how to motivate men.

I signed my first contract with the Chicago Bears in 1949. If you've forgotten how long ago 1949 was, let me refresh your memory. Sid Luckman, the hero of the Bears' storied 73-0 win over the Washington Redskins in 1941, was still the Bears' No. 1 quarterback. George McAfee was on the team, and so were Bulldog Turner and Ken Kavanaugh. Norm Van Brocklin was a rookie quarterback with the Los Angeles Rams, and Daryle Lamonica, our Oakland quarterback, was throwing spitballs at girls in the third grade. John Unitas was attending St. Justin High School in Pittsburgh. Vince Lombardi was offensive backfield coach at West Point. Milton Berle was the big hit on television, Death of a Salesman was the big hit on Broadway and Harry Truman was the big hit in the White House. Joe Louis had recently retired as the world's heavyweight champion, and the Brooklyn Dodgers were in Brooklyn.

Now that we've established once again what an old crock I am, let's proceed to the Chicago Bears' front office on West Madison Street and view the scene as young George Blanda, naive and innocent, arrives to discuss his first contract with the old master, George Halas. I had received an offer from the Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Conference and, to tell the truth, I leaned toward the Dons. The Bears had three quarterbacks: Luckman, Johnny Lujack and Bobby Layne. How was I supposed to compete with that trio? But I decided to hear Mr. Halas' offer.

"Confidentially," he told me, "you have a good chance of making this club. We're getting rid of Bobby Layne to make room for you." How much higher a compliment can you pay a man? It wasn't for several years that I realized that Halas made a habit of trading away great quarterbacks. In his view of things, quarterbacks were just the instruments of his own genius; all they had to do was what he told them, so it didn't much matter how good they were.

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